The Himalayan Concerto by John Masters

You shouldn’t have to know a place and/or physically be in a place to enjoy a book, but there really is nothing like sitting in the Himalayas, relishing a book about the Himalayas.

John Masters’ “The Himalayan Concerto” was written in 1975, published in 1976, and purports to take place in 1979, and yet nearly 40 years on is still pertinent and quite alarmingly up to date.

 

Reading this book in Leh, the atmospheric little capital of Ladakh, while acclimatising for a climbing expedition to Chamser Kangri…no, wait, sorry…our climbing permit was refused because of a Chinese incursion over the border into Ladakh…as I was saying, this book about the balance of power in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s remains as pertinent today as when Mr. Masters wrote it.

Quite alarmingly pertinent, in fact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Rodney Bateman, a British composer from a family that has long loved and served in India, but is currently unhappily married to an Indian.  Rodney is trying to write his Himalayan Concerto, about the music that binds the mountains and the adjoining countries, and as he travels the length and breadth of the mountains, he is also trying to sort out his own personal life.  Plus investigating some strange happenings on the Tibetan border for the Indian government.  His cover – travelling to research music –  affords him a degree of freedom to wander and chat, and he willingly undertakes to observe whatever is going on and report back to the Indian authorities.

Call it nostalgia, but I love the idea of a foreigner, but one who is known to love India, being co-opted to  – well –  spy for India.  This is a world of climbing, and fishing, and camping, and Kashmiri houseboats, and little private planes dropping off supplies in the highest most unreachable parts of the Himalayas.

That world has long since gone, but the charm of this story remains bang up-to-date, with its twists and turns and politics and downright “old fashioned” adventure.  Mr. Masters writes about Chinese incursions into India, and the Maoist threat in Bengal, and Pakistani sabre rattling…yes, 40 years down the line, open the Indian papers and what do you get?

A good old nostalgic read for a way of life that has gone, and yet…

 

RED SUN by Sudeep Chakravarti

What does one do, as a mere reader, when a book so profoundly shakes you up, frightens you even ? Review it, in the fervent hope that more people will thereby read it.

It’s not much of a contribution to one of India’s most alarming social problems, but if one more person reads this disturbing book, as a result of this review, then this reviewer will feel a little vindicated.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite Country” is not an easy read, not easy at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion it is an essential read. Essential for anyone who cares about India, who cares about the poor, or who is interested in how a healthy, noisily democratic political system can consistently fail so many of its people.

“Red Sun” should be read by any citizen or resident of India, by each and every urban India who sees the ever increasing traffic and profusion of malls and Americanized fast food joints as proof that India is shining, that India has arrived, that India –  the much touted world’s largest democracy – is now well and truly out there, a global figure to be reckoned with.  Read this and reflect.

The book is not an easy read because the subject matter is uncomfortable, shocking and profoundly unsettling.  The author, a former journalist, spent years researching and living with the disaffected poor who support –  actively or tacitly –  the Naxalism, one of the biggest extreme left wing movements on the world, India’s home grown Maoism.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari, which means that for over 40 years the simmering discontent and grinding poverty that launched the movement are still there, unaddressed by the politicians who govern India Shining from the safety and prosperity of far-away New Delhi.

What Sudeep Chakravarti delivers is a dense, scholarly book, that is sometimes written in a slightly breathless journalistic way, and other times packed with facts and figure and statistics –  all of them disturbing.

Take this paragraph in the introduction to the book :

“There is little debate that the spread of Maoist influence is at its core the consequence of bad governance – or plain non-governance – and crushing exploitation in the world’s next superpower. There have been instances in Bihar and Jharkhand where illiterate tribals have been told that they own just six inches of their land ; what lies below the six inches belongs to others : the state, the local trader, the local moneylender – now established via-media for mining interests. Such reality makes the congratulatory data and conclusions about today’s India, much of it true, seem a little hollow.”

What follows is an account of the author’s years of travelling in these far-off almost forgotten parts of India.  He interviews politicians, social workers, local officials, and the people themselves, the very people so let down by their government that they have little choice but to turn the other way when Naxals raid their villages.

As a reader, oftentimes you have to work hard to remember the many acronyms that are scattered throughout the book, to piece together the bits and pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle of local politics and administration, and to remember who the various players in this complex book are – many of Mr.Chakravarti’s sources are referred to only by their initials.

There is hardly a day goes by without a report in the Indian press about someone dying at the hands of Naxalites, another village being attacked, another family devastated.  Read this powerful, alarming book and you will better understand why.

RED SUN is published by Penguin/Viking and the hardback costs Rs 495.

You really should read this book, if you want to understand the nature of the threats facing contemporary India.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it.  Couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below :