Books Reviews

Coming to America
On the making of the South Asian diaspora in the United States

Beyond Man and Woman: The Life of a Hijra
On the transgender women of India (hijras) and a powerful memoir by A. Revathi on ‘the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’

The Watchman's Tale
Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Spiritual in Varanasi
A review of Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede.

The Perils of Majoritarianism
On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.

A Chronicle of the Minutiae
A review of Amit Chaudhuri's novel, Odysseus Abroad.

The Rationalist and the Romantic
On Arundhati Roy's The Doctor and the Saint, her introduction to a new 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.

The Terrain of Indignities
A review of Ajay Navaria's Unclaimed Terrain, a book of short stories, and a conversation with the author.

Revisiting the Idea of India
A review of Perry Anderson's The Indian Ideology.

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
A review of Shantaram, a novel by Gregory David Roberts.

Rereading Naipaul
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.

The Reach of Reason
A review of Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity.

Al-Beruni's India
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.


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.

Travel Essays

A Place Called Home
Going "home" can be bittersweet. In one of his most personal essays, Namit revisits Gwalior, the city where he came of age.

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 in Trinidad is home to the leatherbacks, the largest species of turtles. In Apr 2011, I traveled there to see them.

Divinity is Here
A journey to the hauntingly beautiful desert of Wadi Rum, "one of the most spectacular sights in the whole of Arabia."

The Lost City of Ugarit
A journey to the Syrian city of Lattakia and the nearby ruins of Ugarit, the 2nd millennium BCE city where the alphabet was invented.

Nobody's Land
"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.

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.

John Frum
There is a village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the people believe Prince Philip of England is a god.

Notes from Cuzco
Impressions from a 1994 visit to Machu Picchu.

A Hammam in Damascus
On a whim, I dropped by at a hammam near my hotel in Damascus in Feb 2001. It was one unforgettable experience.

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.

Essays on History, Culture, Politics

When Fascists Are Not Evil
On the Trump phenomenon and USA's dark historical moment.

The Two-faced Politics of Indian-Americans
Despite their proximities, why do we Indian-Americans despise Trump yet love Modi? What’s behind this apparent paradox?

Venerating the Army: A Pathology of Nationalism
When love for “the nation” betrays so little love for those who live in it and the egalitarian spirit of the constitution that defines it.

On the Politics of Identity
The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.

The Return of the Aam Aadmi Party
On AAP’s victory in Delhi, the party’s strengths and weaknesses, and its potential location in Indian politics.

Delhi: the City of Rape?
On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.

Ambedkar in the Indian Imagination
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 in south Rajasthan, in villages inhabited by Meena tribals.

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 caste privilege look like in Indian society?

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 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 illustrate 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. The Travels, contains a rich social portrait of India that still resonates with us today.

What Confucius Said
Perhaps 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.

Indigenous Aryans?
Few topics in ancient history are as disputed today as the origins of the Indo-Aryans in ancient India.

Forbidden City
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.

On Diversity
Diversity is a formidable bulwark against political and religious fundamentalism. It challenges, inspires, and helps create more vibrant art, music, and literature.

On Herodotus' Histories
What in his outlook and judgment is still noteworthy nearly 2,500 years later? An evaluation of Herodotus as a historian.

John Frum
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.

Buddha's Finger
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.

Essays on Art 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.

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?

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.

Essays on Science, Religion, Philosophy

The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi
Key initiatives that will not only reduce air pollution but will also help turn Delhi into the “world class city” that AAP promised.

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 (Historical and literary context)
   Part 2 (Textual critique)

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, how is a liberal to act in the world?

From the Outside, Looking In
Speaking of Muslims as fanatics or 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 has drifted far from 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.

Rediscovering Golem
What is life anyway, and how did it really happen upon this world? As a physical phenomenon, is life an accidental and rare occurrence?

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.

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.

Essays on 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 and Poetry

Minding the Grownups
A short, short story by Usha Alexander.

The Death of a Salesman
Yes, I too had a youthful phase—from about 18 to 27—when I wrote poems.


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