Best Books About the Rest of the World
Would Gandhi tweet? Is there any hope for the US-Pakistan relationship? Why did the Syrian revolution fail? When is imperialism imperialism? These are some of the questions answered by this idiosyncratic round up of books concerned with the world beyond America. Many of them were published this year. Some were published years ago. All of them deserve a wide readership.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington between 2008 and 2011, has written the most clear-eyed history of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship yet published. From the day of its founding, Pakistan’s leaders saw America as a credulous superpower whose anxieties about communism could be exploited to Pakistan’s advantage. Pakistan volunteered itself as any ally in Washington’s fight against the Soviet Union, extracted aid and ammunition, and then used the generous benefactions to wage war against India. This pattern, established sixty years ago, remains unchanged. America can do nothing to mend its relationship with Pakistan because it cannot grant Islamabad what it seeks: the territorial disintegration of, and incontestable supremacy over, India. The Taliban, created by Pakistan to choke India in Afghanistan, could overrun Punjab tomorrow and Pakistan’s rulers would still be carping about India. It’s an obsession that is simultaneously the source of Pakistan’s survival and the cause of its degeneration. To be Pakistan’s friend is to be singed—first by impossible demands, and then by the charge of treachery for failing to meet those demands. Not only should Haqqani’s book be read by everyone with an interest in Pakistan; it ought be compulsory reading for members of Congress and officials at the State Department.
2. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass
Created expressly to safeguard the Muslims of India, Pakistan disintegrated in 1971 – after committing the single-largest massacre of Muslims since the birth of Islam. Over nine months in what is today Bangladesh, up to three million people were slaughtered, more than 10 million displaced, and half a million Bengali women forced into brothels erected for the pleasure of Pakistani soldiers. It was an upheaval without parallel in South Asia’s history, and it happened in large measure with the support of President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Gary Bass’s title is a reference to the searing cables dispatched by Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dhaka, in which he castigated his bosses back home for their complicity in the genocide unfolding before his eyes. Kissinger and Nixon, having recruited Pakistan as a conduit in their effort to broker relations with Mao’s China, continued to abet the dictatorship of Gen. Yahya Khan. Bass’s book is made indispensable by the mere fact of its existence. It will shame Americans. But will it prompt Pakistanis to ask why a country founded to protect Muslims oversaw their mass murder?
3. Gandhi Before India, by Ramachandra Guha
South Africa, not India, was the crucible in which the Mahatma was forged. Maureen Swan’s Gandhi: The South African Years (1985) was the first detailed study of Gandhi’s African sojourn. But Guha, arguably the greatest living historian of modern India, has unearthed enough material to justify this splendid book, the first in a projected three-volume series. A professionally doomed barrister thrown into the racial maelstrom of South Africa, Gandhi emerged as the most formidable opponent of segregation of his age. He had little contact with South Africa’s native majority, and some of his early views about blacks are nothing if not racist. But Guha’s argument that Gandhi was “among apartheid’s first opponents” is persuasive and explains why post-apartheid South Africa has adopted Gandhi as a founding father. Guha brilliantly dispels, in the space of two footnotes, Joseph Lelyveld’s suggestion in his recent Gandhi biography that the Mahatma may have been in a homosexual relationship with a Jewish friend in South Africa. Guha, a champion of gay rights in notoriously homophobic India, is hardly outraged by such a possibility. As a scrupulous historian, he appears troubled by Lelyveld’s journalistic clumsiness. Guha, however, does not approach his subject with reverence. He’s deeply critical of Gandhi’s failures as a husband and parent. This is a tremendous accomplishment.
4. Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, by Isabel Hofmeyr
Were he alive today, would Gandhi tweet? Would the 20th century’s most original critic of modernity object to the availability of free news on the Web? He would more than likely have supported some form of paywall. Readers, he once wrote, should be “as much interested in the upkeep of the papers as the managers and the editors are.” At the same time, contends Hoffmeyr, he would have advocated free access for those who could not afford to pay. He was concerned that too much information might “overwhelm” the public and encourage the creation of “hasty and ill-considered” readers. And yet, if he was around now, he would have been a “Wikipedian.” A man personally transformed by his exposure to books, Gandhi recommended slow, deliberate reading. Magnifying seemingly minor footnotes in Gandhi’s years in South Africa—his experiments with printing, reading, and writing—Hoffmeyr has produced a work so exquisitely engaging and so vitally relevant to our age that anyone who reads enough to be concerned about the future of reading should take up this riveting little book.
5. Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change (1984-2009), by Zoya Hasan
The Congress Party is Asia’s oldest political party and the world’s largest political machine. It’s the party that fought for, and secured, India’s independence. It has since governed India for much of the country’s independent life. During these years, internal democracy vanished from the party. Today, you could go to the Kaaba and shun Allah; but you cannot as a Congressman question the omnipotence of the Nehru-Gandhi family. For all practical purposes, they are the party’s proprietors. And yet Congress also remains a serious party, fit for government, the party of choice for old-school liberals who value secularism and abhor unrestrained capitalism. In this important study – the first of its kind – Zoya Hasan analyses the party’s ideological evolution over the past 25 years. As Congress appears poised to be thrown out of power in next year’s general election—the world’s largest democratic exercise—now might be a good time to read it.
6. Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India, by Atul Kohli
Travelling through India in the 1960s, VS Naipaul, the shrewdest observer of the country since Mahatma Gandhi, bemoaned what he called the Indian way of looking. He discovered that well-heeled Indians had effectively seceded from the squalid reality around them for a delusional, make-believe world. They denied the existence of poverty, while remaining intensely fearful of the poor. From the vantage point of today, it’s tempting to say that the world described by Naipaul was the “old India”. But it’s not. “New India” is the same old India. It’s just that its inhabitants have gotten richer—and blinder. They now fear the poor so much that they have declared war on parts of rural India. Atul Kohli’s book is a subtle rejoinder to the cheerleaders of “New India”, which has become, in his words, a “two track democracy” where “common people are only needed at the time of elections, and then it is best that they all go home, forget politics, and let the ‘rational’ elite quietly run a pro-business show.”
7. In An Antique Land, by Amitav Ghosh
The vastness of this book’s ambition—beginning in the 12th century, ending in the 20th, and encompassing between its roughly 400 pages history, memoir, ethnography and reportage—is upheld by the erudition and compassion of its author. Ghosh spent many months in the 1980s living in rural Egypt as a young DPhil candidate in pursuit of field material. The memoir of his time in Egypt is interspersed with the reconstruction of the journeys of a 12th century Jewish Egyptian merchant and his Indian servant. Ghosh excavates a peaceable, thriving world of free trade and mobile labour that was violently disrupted, in the early 16th century, by the superior arms of European traders. A “culture of accommodation and compromise” was swiftly annihilated by “the determination of a small, united band of soldiers.” Even five centuries after that defeat, when Ghosh arrived in Egypt, “for millions and millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this—science and tanks and guns and bombs.”
8. The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric
Andric’s magnificent novel, spanning four centuries, shows us that Europeans did not have a monopoly on the business of ravaging cultures. Andric, who received the 1961 Nobel Prize in literature largely for this novel, grew up in a world whose ethnic composition has remained the same for centuries. Yet peace eluded it. The people of the Balkans are captive to their memories. The bridge of the novel’s title, situated in Višegrad, was built 400 years ago. Ottoman convoys carted away sturdy young Christian boys over it: “carried away for ever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcized, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries.” The identities of generations of people were wiped out in service of the Sublime Porte. The abolition was absolute. Ottoman imperialism is now religiously overlooked for inclusion in postcolonial studies at Western universities. As Vesna Goldsworthy has recently written, this exclusion rests on the preposterous “premise that the Ottoman Empire, one of the longest lasting imperial projects in history, was not a ‘colonial’ power.” It was—and as catastrophic as anything that ever emanated from Europe. The Bridge on the Drina is a powerful testament to it.
9. Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising, by Stephen Starr
Why has the Syrian revolution faltered? Why is Bashar Al-Assad still in power? Starr’s book, published in 2012, now looks remarkably prescient—not because it sets out the answers, but because it introduces us to the anxieties of a cross-section of Syrians as the uprising against Assad acquired momentum. Starr, an Irish journalist, is familiar with Syria, having lived and worked there as a journalist for four years. He supplies a vivid picture of a tyrannical state that eradicated political opposition with chilling efficiency. But like the best reporters, Starr lets the people do the talking—and many of them side with Assad’s dictatorship against the revolutionary alternative. Their fears have tragically been borne out by the opposition’s gradual descent into savagery. Determined to retain power at all costs, Assad unleashed the full might of the Syrian Arab Army on his people. Syria, once the Middle East’s most enduring ethno-religious mosaic, now exists as a united entity only on the map. Swamped by foreign jihadis and fought over by the Sunni and Shia theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Syria is now irreparably fractured. The hopeful voices that populate Starr’s book remind us that, just two years ago, an alternative future seemed possible.
10. From the Death of Yugoslavia to the Death of Tito, by Raif Dizdarevic
Esteemed in the west and envied by the Soviet Union, but outside either’s orbit of influence, Yugoslavia was unique among the nations of the world. In the heart of a continent that had just escaped permanent extinction in a war inspired by doctrines of ethnic purity, it stood as an improbable federation of 20 million people speaking in multiple official tongues and practicing three different faiths. Why did it break apart?
Raif Dizdarevic, a Bosniak, was the first Muslim president of Yugoslavia. It was he who, under mounting pressure from the Serbian hooligans gathered outside the presidency, granted Slobodan Milosevic emergency powers in 1989 to strip Kosovo and Vojvodina of their autonomy. This inaugurated the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Dizdarevic, having grown up abhorring “exclusive nationalism” that privileged narrow identities, watched helplessly as a once-proud nation devoured itself in an internecine war fuelled by ethno-religious hatreds. In this deeply felt memoir – so different from the self-exculpating accounts published by leaders who ordered massacres of defenceless minorities – Dizdarevic, now severely ill, pieces together the story from the day of Tito’s death. The book is not easy to find, but for anyone with an interest in Yugoslavia, it’s certainly worth the hunt.