The First Multinational & The Conquest of a Sovereign Nation

In a globalized world of free markets and open economy, the idea of a multinational subverting the national interest of a country where they are expected to only conduct business is not new. Infact these days, they hardly seem to make news, after the initial furor. It’s almost an expectation that a large for profit organization almost always, may indulge practices that cannot be accounted for in the books and which will propel the interest of certain few in power, while subjecting the larger populace to many inequities and struggle. However despite such organizations being larger than ever in 21st century, not one of them can quite match the sheer greed and treacherous conduct, that led to the subjugation of a nation for nearly 200 years, all to enrich another nation and the company stockholders – The Honorable East India Company!

The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence and The Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple looks at this very phenomena that led to the rise of a group of merchants who had to work long hard years to simply be allowed a trading outpost in India to becoming the very rulers of that nation, in less than 100 years. The story of East India Company, and those of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Bengal and Oudh are well known to every child in India; drilled in from grade 6 history books, with the Battle of Plassey as the day of infamy; a nation conquered through bribe and betrayal. But Mr. Dalrymple goes much beyond this epoch making time of Indian history, to bring to the readers, the very events that led to the creation of East India company; her initial and mostly unsuccessful forays into India. It traces in parallel the history of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperors inter-played with merchants, starting from grant that led to creation of a trading outpost, to being defeated and expelled from the country by Aurangzeb and finally the fall of the House of Timur that led the great grandson of Aurangzeb, the very talented but ill fated Shah Alam to become a pensioner and a puppet ruler of the Company. The book also sheds light to the rise of local powers like the legendary Marathas and the valorous Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the sultans of Mysore as they fought each other and the company is a gallant effort to keep their states sovereign and were defeated each time by conduct of bribes and other underhand means by the Company. It showcases the economic and aesthetic prosperity of almost all parts of India under these local rulers, through the 18th century and the consequences, of Company conquest leading to famine, destruction of native art and trades and displacement of the local populations. Further the book delves deeply into the kind of administration that the company set up from taxation to justice under the name of the Mughal Emperor but really running an independent nation state with the help of a private army. The books also looks at the rise and fall of such iconic British statesman like Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley and spin to the conquests and settlement that each of these Governors brought to the country, until it became a suzerainty of a multinational corporation. Finally, in a succinct manner, the author also manages to illustrate, how as a multinational corporation, East India Company set a precedent for all such companies in future, from corporate lobbying, to the unholy government – company nexus for military action to government bailouts; all well before, any of these terms were actually invented. In the usual style of the author, the book is filled with nuggets of wonderful information, that historical books usually do not contain, including some wonderful Urdu couplets and Ragas now all lost. It also has some rare paintings drawn from a wide variety of sources, once again shedding light on the fact that the so called “dark age” of India was anything but dark and it was the really the interpretation of few westerners who did not understand the country or its history that led to such a narrative.

Let me start by stating the obvious, Mr. Dalrymple never is never disappointing. Filled with quotations and citing, the book is a work of meticulous and thorough research. The author has exhaustively used both primary and secondary resources to tell a story that needed to be told, in the most interesting, easy and lucid manner. The Bibliography and Notes alone stands at nearly 100 pages and talks of the extensive reading done by the author to present this work. It shows in the almost neutral tone of the book; I say neutral, because I have always felt that Mr. Dalrymple like the very Warren Hastings he quotes in the book, loves his adopted country, i.e. India a little more than his birth country. He writes with all the fairness that must be accorded to historical events, balancing good with the bad; but his righteous indignation at the way India was exploited and complete destruction of her trade, commerce and art, for the enrichment of few merchants several thousand kilometres away, speaks volumes about his sense of justice as well as his love for his adopted nation! The language is easy and free flowing and for a chunkster history book, it is also remarkably a page turner. The battle scenes which I usually skip, are described flawlessly, with suspense and thrill, without being long winded or boring. Like always, Mr. Darlymple introduces us to books, long forgotten; in his Age of Kali, he re-introduced many of us with a remarkable and now almost forgotten novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. Similarly, in this books, he re-introduces us to historian Ghulam Hussain Khan and his remarkable Seir Mutaqherin or the Review of Modern Times, a book that is first hand account of the last years of Aurangzeb to the Battle of Buxar. In the end, the author states, that the “story of East India has never been more current“; one has to agree and only add that this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand India, England or multinational companies.

This book is also part of my 2020 Big Book Summer Challenges.

The Old Man’s Adventures….

Sometimes you come across a book that initially does not seem promising at all, but because your friends kept eulogizing about it, you keep at it, all the while wondering what in the blazes did they see in the book; that is until you reach a certain section, and the dots begin to connect and by the time, you finish the book, you are a convert! This is my story of reading The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I bought the book last year August as a gift for someone. I never ended up giving it as I found things she better liked than reading and my flatmate–sisterfromanotherlife-fellowbookreader  (mentallynailbiting) ended up devouring the book! She then kept nagging me to read it, again and again and again and I took more than 12 months, to reach that one page where the dots connected and now it’s been a couple of week’s since I finished the book, but I am still reeling from it!

The novel begins with the one hundredth birthday of  Allan Karlsson, who decided to climb out of the window of his old age home as he wants to live a little more and does not find the life of the old age home quite suiting his needs! He then ends up with bag full of cash, with a drug lord(Gunmar Gerdin) on his tail and the inspector of police (Gunmar Gerdin) wanting him arrested for what may be triple murder. On the way, he picks up a motley crew of a had been criminal (Julius Johnsson), a would have been many things but now hot dog seller (Benny Ljungberg) and his religious brother (Bosse), a beauty with a farm( Gunilla Björkund) and a dog (Kicki) and an elephant (Sonya), as they travel from Sweden to Bali in a trail of irascible adventures and fun! Along the way, we get flashes from Allan’s life as helped shape almost all the events of the 21st century and meet President Johnson and Nixon, Mao, Stalin, Franco and all the great players that shaped the 100 years and bringing the circle back to Allan and his interesting past!

This book is both an adventure tale and a social and political satire with succinct commentary on modern history! Those who decry this novel as political and say they do not like politics ….er…wake up! We live in a world, where saying that they are not political is in itself a political statement! What’s more to say, this book is political is one of the most simplistic and superficial account of the book ever! Mr. Jonnason goes out of his way to show the fragile and imperfect nature of politics and ideology and without taking any sides, beautifully shows that all a man needs to be happy is some peace, quiet, friends, food and a good drink…er..make it two drinks; ok three!  Very few modern literature, have such brilliant display of political satire, as brought forth in this novel. To quote one among my favorite phrases  in describing the politics of the Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling & Mao Tse-tung – “A clown and a parasite, Allan thought, doing battle with a cowardly, incompetent figure who to cap it all had the intelligence of a cow, and between them, a serpent drunk on green banana liquor.” Wish Chinese politics course during my graduate school years had been half as interesting! But there is so much more to this book beyond politics – in the character of Allan Karlsoon, we find a the quintessential man of Zen, who is happy to be left alone with his food  and friends, no matter which country or ruler. He is brilliant but does not seek power to further his cause and will only use his willy brains to get out of tricky situations. He is loyal, and in his off hand way caring and lives with an eternal optimism of taking life as it comes and making most of it! The other cast of characters play beautifully off Allan’s scheme of things and come off brilliantly showing the complete range of mankind – the brilliant, brave and sometimes foolish sides of human nature! Needless to say the writing is FUNNY and ha-ha funny and never is there a dull moment, if you stick it through the first 30 odd pages!

To end, I would only say, READ THIS BOOK! It is one of those irrepressibly funny and brimming with positivism, novel, that stays with you for a very very long time!

Once Upon a Time, in Latin America

I realized at the end of last year when I was taking a stock of all that I had read through 2014, that my reading scope especially in terms of non-Anglo-American authors were limited to the point of nil. This was something that needed remediation for sure this year and a good place to begin seemed like Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits.

The House of Spirits has been standing around in my Classics list forever and every time there was a Classic Club Spin, I hoped to get it as the read of the event. It never happened, so last month I decided to take matters in my own hand; take charge of my destiny so to speak and attempt to read this novel anyway. It was not until last week I actually began reading it and not until day before yesterday I finished it. I needed a day or two, just to assimilate the kind of emotions and thoughts, this book had unleashed, before I could put it down on paper!

The novel begins at the eve of World War I and ends somewhere in 1960s and though the country is never called out, couple of minutes into the book, you know Ms. Allende is talking about her beloved country – Chile. The history and politics of Chile is intertwined through the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Del Valle-Trueba clan. The book begins with the eccentricities of the Del Valle family, which includes Rosa the beautiful, engaged to struggling miner Esteban Trueba, the youngest Clara who has paranormal powers and their politically ambitious father who plans of being a Senator at the Parliament and their suffragette mother.  Rosa dies soon after through a poison intended for her father and her fiance devastated by her death, leaves the mines and goes back to his country home his family hacienda, Las Tres Marías, to lose himself in rebuilding what his father had lost and in the effort forget about Rosa. He soon makes Tres Marias into a successful, well run, modern farm, but his methods are autocratic, feudal and violent, including his habit of raping the peasant women.  Several years later, summons from his sister about the impending death of their mother brings Esteban to the city and in an effort to fulfill his dying mother’s wish to see him married and settled, he seeks out Del Valle family in hopes that if they were in agreement in marrying of their eldest daughter to a pennyless miner, today as a successful man, he should be able to secure the hand of another of Del Valle daughter. Esteban and Clara get married and move into a city house along with Esteban’s sister Freula.  Clare gives birth to a daughter Blanca and eventually two sons Jamie and Niclolas. They become a model family from the outside though there is enough ferment inside including Esteban and Fruela’s clashes in trying to secure Clara’s attention. The family spends its summer months at Tres Marias and Blanca becomes fast friends with Pedro Tercero, who is the son of her father’s foreman and eventually lovers. In one of such visits, a terrible earthquake hits the country, completely destroying Tres Marias. Clara takes over the running of the farm since Esteban is seriously injured in the quake and unable to supervise the running of the farm and slowly brick by brick, Tres Marias comes back to its original form. It is at this point that a French count Jean de Satigny comes as a guest to the hacienda, with the intention of marrying Blanca who is now heiress to a large fortune. However he soon realizes that Blanca is in love with someone else and goes out in the night to meet her lover. In an effort to end this liaison and secure himself of Blanca as his bride, Satigny goes and reveals her midnight adventure to Esteban. Estaban , who by now has become increasingly more violent, beats up his daughter and hits Clara, leading to Clara and Blanca leaving Tres Marias and moving  back to the city house.  It is during this time that the Trueba boys also come of age – Jamie realizing that he needed to so something more to alleviate the terrible conditions of his fellow countryman, becomes a doctor and Nicolas in attempt to form and develop clairvoyance ability like his mother, gets involved in the spiritual movement. Blanca then discovers she is pregnant and is forced to marry Satigny by her father; the marriage does not last long and Blanca returns to her father’s city house to deliver her daughter – Alba. They year’s move on as Alba grows up in politically volatile atmosphere – Esteban becomes a Senator who is vociferous in his denunciation of socialism and these political convictions lead to a more disturbed household as Jamie becomes a socialist much to the anger of his father. In these years of turmoil, Clara manages to be the heart of the household and the soul that makes the house, home. With her death, begins the decline of the Del Valle-Trueba clan, leading to tragic results for the entire family, as deeds from Esteban’s past come to riddle and hurt his future, as the country is plunged in civil unrest, leading to a military coup and destruction of all democratic values.

The book is simply put beautiful. I know many people have said many things about this novel, but it is beautiful, the language, the characters, the plot! The characters are as true to life as they can get – I could see Esteban Trueba ranting and raging through Tres Marias; I could see Clara perform her clairvoyance tricks while taking care of her family.  I could see Jaime, Alba and host of all the characters that populate this book and make it come to life. You cannot hate even the most evil characters, because the author gently leads you to the understanding that what they are because of what they had to endure from others. There is no pedagogic teaching her nor a holier than thou speech, only a gradual understanding of men and women and how they become, what they are and the understanding of fate – a fate that is a result of your actions and one which will come back to show you the mirror in your own lifetime. The entire ensemble is real – of flesh and blood, even when there are elements of magical realism, you believe them, because you can see them. The books spans over 50 years of turbulent history, but not for one moment does Ms. Allende lose the plot or miss a beat. She wonderfully weaves in such motifs as the Class struggle, emancipation of women and  economic equality through the very structure of the book, without making these themes look like an add on. A complex historical saga is told in a simple style through the narratives of Alba and Esteban, two very distinct and clear voices that are consistent through the book and never change in their perspectives.  Finally the language of the book, though calm and simple is lyrical and striking. The descriptions are gorgeous and the understanding crystal clear for readers to grasp!

One of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of those that stays with you for a long time after you finished it!

A Stormy Night Adventure!

It was late in the day and I had not yet decided the book I was going to read for The Classic Club Readathon 2014. I had specifically declined all social engagement and had cooked enough food to last the entire weekend on Friday, so I could devote January 4th for the Readathon. I had piled up enough coffee/tea/wine and nuts to see me through the day and I was all set – except for the book. I just could not decide on what book to read! I wavered between re-reading Daphne Du Maurer‘s “Rebecca” which I had not re-read in a long time. I also mulled over reading Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone” or I could try something new like Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Other Side of Paradise”. While I wavered and thought and re-read the synopsis of all the books and discarded one in favor of the other, only to return to the original again, Fate or God or could be both, I think disgusted with my indecision, decided to take matter in their own hand and raged such a storm that all wires went down and the valley where I stay was plunged in darkness. Inquires reveled that we would be stuck in this powerless/internet less world for next couple of hours to come! Oh! Joy!

Considering the situations, Du Maurer, Chopin and Fitzgerald were out as they were all in my Kindle and the battery was low and would not last me through the night. I could go for Dicken’s  but the print was too small for reading in candle light and I have enough Myopia to last me a lifetime without tempting it more. So it was Wilkie Collin’s “The Moonstone”. As I hovered at my bookshelf to draw out the Volume in a la Lady with a Lamp style, I noticed a slim volume, right next to “The Moonstone”. I drew it out and realized it was H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solmon’s Mines”. Now shocking as this may sound, I had not read this book. I had read “She” by Ridder Haggard and I had read “The Lost World” by Author Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” but I somehow had missed reading the very first of the lost settlement writing. The original Africa adventure tale! So without further debate, I settled down to read this much neglected and overlooked book, discarding all the original thought through options! Ah! Such is life – man proposes and God/Fate disposes!

Anyway, enough philosophy, here goes the tale of reading the tale –

Allan Quatermain, a nearing 60 Elephant hunter is the narrator of the tale and he describes of an adventure that began about 18 months ago when aboard a ship that was sailing to Durban, he met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. They are in a quest to find Sir Curtis’s brother, who was last seen by Allan Quatermain couple of months ago, heading for the mysterious mountains across the desert in search of the fabled Solmon’s diamond mine. It was said that no man survived the journey and no one returned alive from the mountain. Sir Curtis and Captain Good solicit Allan Quatermain’s expertise in the journey; along the way a Zulu named Umbopa who though acts as a servant and general man Friday joins their journey. It is clear that Umbopa has some mysterious questof his own that he seeks to fulfill through this journey.  Travelling through the desert and after various adventures and desperate condition, they reach the Kukanaland; through some glib talking and the magic of modern science including the set of false teeth and use of a gun, the three white men convince the Kukanaland people of being godly creatures from “the stars”. Kukuanaland though extremely organized and well maintained is ruled by the cruel King Twala with the help of the witch Gogool. Twala gained the throne after murdering his brother and running out his brother’s widow and young son out of Kukuanaland into desert where they both are presumed death. After many blood shedding ceremonies which were apparently in honor of the “white men from the stars”, Umbopa reveals his identity and order is restored in Kukuanaland by killing of Tawala. The original three then continue their quest for the mines and the consequences there off forms the climax of the story.

Needless to say this is one thrilling adventure tale, more so when read through a stormy dark night, especially when cut of s from modern civilized amenity like electricity and internet. However, taking away the ‘atmospheric’ element of the story, there is no getting away from the fact that this is wonderful yarn. I am not generally in favor of hunting Treasure Islandy tales, but this book is so much more than that. To say the King Solmon’s Mines is an adventure tale, is over simplification of the worst kind.

Though written in simple direct everyday language (it is the everyday language of 1880s), the tale grips the reader by the collar and does not let go, with its turbulent highs and lows. There is enough humor to break the tension and it is woven through the tale in such finesse that its breaks the tension just when the reader is about to bite off his fingers (by now you have chewed through your nails!) with some laugh out loud moments. It also raises some very interesting questions that have more than a shade of political and social commentary in it. For instances, right at the beginning Allan Quatermain describing himself, asks “What is a gentleman?” and then debates through this question in some way or form through the tale. Then when talking about African, he writes the word “nigger” and then scratches it out saying that he will never use such a term to describe African race. There is also the question of equality when Allan Quatermain upbraids Umbopa for use of imprudent speech when talking to Sir Curtis and Umbopa replies that how does Allan Quatermain know that Umbopa is not of equal rank as Sir Curtis in his own land and may be enen a superior? Though there is stereotypical barbarism of the Africa in the blood rites and cruelty displayed by Tawala and Googol, it far limited and written from the 19th century perspective hardly any commentary is passed on the superiority of the Europeans over Africans. In fact, there is much to admire that comes through Ridder’s description of the level of organization of Kukanaland Army or the noble conduct of many of its inhabitants. He even includes an inter-racial romance between Foulata a girl from Kukuanaland and Captain Good; but is candid enough to question how it will survive in a conservative 19th century England society, though he is full of admiration for Foulata. There is enough questions raised on the relationship between Europeans and Africans at economic, political and social levels and goes beyond the pale of the standard cliche of superior white race showing civilization to backward communities.

As a predecessor to many such tales and adventure stories, I cannot help but say, it rightly stands out the original masterpiece. I am just very sorry to have read this so late in my life!