Books and Authors
The Rationalist and the Romantic
On Arundhati Roy's The Doctor and the Saint, her introduction to a new, annotated edition of Dr. BR Ambedkar's 1936 classic, "Annihilation of Caste".
A Harvest of Savagery and Hope
A review of "Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition" by Mohinder Singh Sarna (1923-2001), translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna.
The Terrain of Indignities
A review of Ajay Navaria's Unclaimed Terrain, a book of short stories translated from Hindi, and a conversation with the author.
Revisiting the Idea of India
A review of The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson, focusing on Indian nationalism from the colonial era to the present.
Part 1: Gandhi, early Indian nationalism
Part 2: Nehru, Partition, the nation-state
The Revenge of the East?
A review of Pankaj Mishra's "From the Ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia."
Joothan: A Dalit's Life
A review of Omprakash Valmiki's Joothan, a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ in rural Uttar Pradesh, India.
Shantaram: A Review
The story's narrator is not a peaceful man and the book is loaded with enough violence ... Shantaram is the story of a violent man's search for the man of peace within himself.
His travelogues on India brim with curiosity, insight, and humanity. Perhaps he found too little to praise, but much of what he wrote has a ring of truth. If there is loathing, there is also love.
The Reach of Reason
A review of Amartya Sen's "The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity".
The great Persian scholar al-Beruni (973-1048) traveled in India for thirteen years and wrote insightfully about Indian thought and society.
The Bold and the Beautiful
Teeming with character and incident, the Aeneid is a Latin epic poem of high craft and seductive energy.
The Wonder That Was India
A review of Pankaj Mishra's "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World".
This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen
Tadeusz Borowski was 21 years old when he was deported to the cluster of concentration camps in southern Poland, collectively known as Auschwitz, in 1943.
Art, Music, and Cinema
James A. FitzPatrick's India
Best known for his 200+ short travel documentaries from 1929-55, including many on India, what should we make of FitzPatrick and his films today?
Endhiran: A Review
Endhiran (The Robot) is India's biggest blockbuster foray into science fiction, starring Superstar Rajinikanth.
Avatar: A Review
Outlandishly expensive, visually stunning, and politically loaded, Cameron took every risk with this film. And what did he give us? A heroic fantasy of White Guilt. The story of Pocahontas, re-imagined.
Slumdog Millionaire: A Review
The film has obvious and broad appeal as the quintessential underdog story [but] the movie on the whole was just downright silly.
Peter Brook's Mahabharata: A Review
I've seen Peter Brook's Mahabharata thrice in fifteen years. Each time my admiration for it has grown. I consider it one of the greatest dramatic productions of all time.
On Photography: Truth, Lies, and Photos
Many urban middleclass Indians I know are peeved by what they see as a staple of photography on India: squalor, poverty, lepers, fakirs, the deformed.
Jack the Dripper
Does art lie entirely in the eye of the beholder, or should it have minimal standards? Who decides what is art and what is only a visually appealing painting, photograph, or sculpture?
Percy Julian, Chemist Extraordinaire
Percy Lavon Julian, born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, the grandson of slaves, was one of the most accomplished chemists of the 20th century.
Omar Khayyam of Persia
Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) achieved great fame as a master of philosophy, history, jurisprudence, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics.
The Station of Light
The life and times of Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240 CE), a Sufi master of the medieval age.
Reporting from Home
I'm a non-resident Indian (NRI). I recently thought of recording my view of the pros and cons of living in India after 15 years in the West.
Advice to a Young Artist
The idea for writing this came to me from an
interview in which an author was reverentially asked, ‘Sir, what would be
your advice to a young artist?’ The question stayed with me. How would
I answer it?
History and Culture
On Ambedkar's place in the Indian imagination, and why he hasn't received his due from upper-caste Indians.
Of Meenas, Migrants, and Medicine
Two days with AMRIT Health Services, a not-for-profit initiative, in villages inhabited by Meena tribals in south Rajasthan.
On Eating Animals
Raised unnaturally and inhumanely, over a million birds and mammals are violently killed in the U.S. every hour, yet the idea persists that Americans love animals.
Indians Abroad: A Story from Trinidad
A brief history of the Indian diaspora in Trinidad—today over half-a-million strong—from the colonial era to the present.
Decolonizing My Mind
On the politics surrounding the arrival and the spread of English in the colonies and the peculiar world of the Indian writer in English.
War and the American Republic
With the end of combat operations in Iraq, a fresh look under the hood of American jingoism.
On Caste Privilege
Much has been written about the unearned privilege of race and gender. What does the privilege of caste look like in Indian society? How and why has caste been politicized?
The Minangkabau: Mixing Islam and Matriarchy
This matriarchal society of Muslims in Indonesia reminds us that religion and culture are never cut from whole cloth.
The Dance of Indian Democracy
Why did democracy take root in India against all odds? What are its distinguishing features? Six decades later, how close is it to Ambedkar's inspiring vision of democracy?
The Blight of Hindustan
The Indian caste system continues to mystify outsiders. Here is a brisk overview of its origins, spread, and some historical attitudes and debates.
The Other Swastika
Can the symbol ever be redeemed in the eyes of the West? What might be lost and what could be gained in the possibility of doing so?
In Light of Nalanda
What was ancient Nalanda University like? Here is a portrait based on the accounts of Chinese scholars of 7th century CE and a recent personal visit.
Asian Food for Thought
India and China offer a striking illustration of the vast range and malleability of the human palate, and the power of ideas in shaping it.
Marco Polo's India
Returning home from China in 1292 CE, Marco Polo spent a few months in India ... his famous book, The Travels, contains a rich social portrait of India that still resonates with us today.
The Eichmann Within
Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem documents the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi nabbed by the Israeli secret police in Argentina and brought to Jerusalem, where he was tried and executed.
What Confucius Said
No person has left a deeper mark on Chinese culture than Confucius, who lived 2500 years ago in an age of social turmoil.
Bindra, the Silent Killer
I can't remember the last time India's Olympic record bothered me. I suspect this is because Olympic medals do not correlate with values I admire in a society.
Homosexuality in India
"We don't have any," is the classic Indian response to homosexuality in India. Curiously, Indians say this even when they know of and tolerate homosexual acts in their communities.
Few topics in ancient history are as disputed today as the origins of the Indo-Aryans in ancient India.
Surrounded by moat and high walls, the fabled Forbidden City earned its name by being closed to everyone outside the Chinese royal family and their eunuchs and maidservants.
Diversity is a formidable bulwark against political and religious fundamentalism. It challenges, inspires, and helps create more vibrant art, music, and literature.
Land of the Free
Which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world? The U.S., where the prison population has more than quadrupled in the last quarter century.
On History and Historians
'To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born,' Cicero declared, 'is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?'
On Herodotus' Histories
What in his outlook and judgment is still noteworthy
nearly 2,500 years later? ... In other words, how
should we evaluate Herodotus as a historian?
There is a village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the people believe Prince Philip of England is a god. Though it might sound preposterous, it's actually not a joke.
The monks and proprietors of Famen Temple in China's northwestern Shaanxi Province, about an hour's drive outside of Xi'an, believe the Buddha has given them the finger. Or four.
Science, Religion, Philosophy
The Inner Lives of Animals
Do non-human animals live entirely in the moment? Given the spate of behavioral studies, what can we justifiably say about the inner lives of animals?
The Bhagavad Gita Revisited
Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. Part 1 is on the Gita’s historical and literary context. Part 2 is the textual critique.
Part 1 (The Appetizer)
Part 2 (The Main Course)
Addendum (The Dessert)
What Do We Deserve?
Of particular relevance to market-based societies is the question, ‘What do we deserve?’ For our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements can we fairly claim?
On the Void of Nagarjuna
The works of Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist philosopher who lived in South India 1800 years ago,
represent "something of a watershed ... in the history of philosophy."
The Dearth of Artificial Intelligence
Despite big advances in computing, AI has fallen woefully short of its ambition and hype. Why is AI in such a braindead state?
Being Liberal in a Plural World
In the absence of a consensus on the ‘truly universal’ values of liberalism, and hence rights—whether on empirical or practical grounds—how is a liberal to act in the world?
From the Outside, Looking In
Speaking of Muslims as fanatics and terrorists is not even considered bad manners; it’s seen as a comic expression of the truth.
Atheistic Materialism in Ancient India
It comes as a surprise to many that in ancient "spiritual" India, atheistic materialism was a major force to reckon with, led by the Carvakas who predate even the Buddhists.
On Knowledge Without Wisdom
Philosophy today is not how the Greeks understood it, as the love of wisdom. It now paves the way for the acquisition of theoretical knowledge as an end in itself.
On Early Islam
This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two major currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue.
Part 1: The Rise of Islam
Part 2: The Golden Age
Part 3: The Path of Reason
Part 4: The Mystic Tide
Part 5: Epilogue
The Social Virus of Terrorism
The term "social virus" is often used to describe modern terrorism; it afflicts the social body indiscriminately and arises out of ill-defined or unaddressable grievances.
How Terrorism Works
Experts on Islamic terrorism are now everywhere, spouting wisdom on countless media outlets and blogs [on] what turns Muslims into terrorists.
Pinker, the Storyteller
Many evolutionary psychologists, including Steven Pinker, professor at Harvard, claim that ... evolution has endowed humans with a "moral instinct".
The Politics of God
In response to 9/11 and the role of evangelical Christianity in US politics, a host of loud atheistic voices have emerged. Most belong to concerned citizens driven by their secular ideals.
What is life anyway, and how did it really happen upon this world? As a physical phenomenon, is life an accidental and rare occurrence?
Breaking the Galilean Spell
The hypothesis of emergentism (or holism) claims that the fundamental laws of nature eventually run out of descriptive and predictive steam.
On Being Spiritual
Spirituality is cool these days. Its warm and fuzzy aura now appeals to more and more people in the West. Here are my provisional thoughts on what being spiritual means to me.
A Mousetrap for Metaphysics
Is it possible to reduce the vast range of humankind's metaphysical responses down to a few distilled outlooks that have shaped (and continue to shape) human culture?
Servitors of Divine Consciousness
Auroville aspires to be "a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and harmony, above all creeds, all politics, and nationalities."
Eugenics Record Office
James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is in trouble again, this time for a racist remark that has led to wide criticism and his firing.
The Eichmann Within
Hannah Arendt's landmark Eichmann in Jerusalem documents the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi kidnapped by the Israeli secret police.
Dispatches from India
Usha Alexander's periodic musings on her life in India. She moved there in mid-2013.
1: First Impressions
2: On Hiring Domestic Help in India
As Though We Were Immortal
Some travel impressions prompted by the living and the dead of Varanasi, India.
An Indian-American in China
Impressions from a journey through China, and the hard-to-avoid comparisons with neighboring India.
The Leatherbacks of Trinidad
A tiny village on the northeastern coast of Trinidad is home to the "so-ugly-they're-cute" leatherback turtles. In Apr 2011, I traveled there to see them.
Divinity is Here
I am in the village of Rum in south Jordan, all signed-up for two days in
the desert. The clincher was the Bedouin honcho's sell job: "I have open
The Lost City of Ugarit
A journey to the Syrian city of Lattakia and the nearby ruins of Ugarit, the 2nd millennium BCE city credited with the invention of the alphabet.
"Cuiabá is the city of mangoes. We don't buy them, just pluck and eat," says Rizardo, our wildlife guide. Riding in the bed of a pickup truck, we are going down the Transpantaneira.
Signore, Speak English?
In 1995, after completing a short assignment in Paris, I went to Italy for
a three-week vacation. I took an overnight train to Rome, the eternal city.
At the Foot of Mount Yasur
I am six hundred miles east of the Great Barrier Reef in the archipelago
of Vanuatu-or, as they say in Vanuatu, the "ni-Vanuatu"
archipelago -- home to nine active volcanoes.
Notes from Cuzco
was six a.m. when the AeroPeru jet arrived in Lima. The night had seemed
real long partly because an elderly senora let her head collapse on my
shoulder every few minutes.
A Hammam in Damascus
Traveling in India, for all the personal growth it brings, is a dust, soot, and sweat laden experience. Even after a bath, rubbing a random spot on my arm produces little black streaks of muck.
Dholavira: A Harappan Metropolis
The road to Dholavira goes through a dazzling white landscape of salty mudflats. It is close to noon in early April and the mercury is already past 100F.
A Day Trip to My Alma Mater
I studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. Sixteen years after graduation, I visited it again to confront some awkward truths.
Death in the Afternoon
A hot Sunday afternoon in Mexico City. The largest bullring in the world is packed with feisty locals.
Economics and Geopolitics
Herodotus, the Iliad, and 9/11
Some curious parallels between the wars of the post-9/11 decade and the Trojan War as Herodotus saw it.
On Public Corruption in India
With findings from corruption research, Anna Hazare and his team, the Jan Lokpal Bill, and the anti-corruption movement.
America, the Cold War, and the Taliban
The roots of transnational Islamic terrorism lie not so much in culture and the Qur’an as in politics and the conduct of the Cold War in Afghanistan.
On Credit Default Swaps
Warren Buffet has called credit default swaps the "financial weapons of mass destruction", others call them "the dark matter" of the financial universe.
Amartya Sen on Globalization
Where does "our own" Nobel laureate in economics stand on globalization?
Fiction & Poetry
Four Excerpts from a Novel
- The Man in the BMW
On their way to China Town, they pass an area with red curtained massage parlors and hookers pacing the streets in tight clothes. They stop at a red light behind a BMW. A hooker approaches its curbside window, talks to the driver, and hops in.
Sasha calls on Saturday afternoon, ‘Are you free?’ Sasha is a Russian escort, 28, slim, dark-haired, with dreamy green eyes
- A Sales Conference
On Sunday evening, Ved flies to Palm Springs, California, to represent his product at Omnicon’s annual sales conference. More than a thousand of his coworkers from scores of countries will attend the three-day event.
It has been a month since they first slept together. He wondered why their verbal sparring had increased in recent days. Just this morning at her place, Liz set off on the youth-obsessed American culture ...
On Telling Stories
We often ask what it is that makes us human ... I'd have to say it's our penchant and need for story-telling.
The Death of a Salesman
Yes, I too had a youthful phase—from about 18 to 27—when I wrote poems.