Publisher: Rupa Publications
Price: INR 250
Let me begin this review with a disclaimer before I’m accused of bias. None of the praise that might be directed towards this book stems from the admiration I have for Mr. Vadukut’s columns & travelogues in Mint (where he’s an editor) and none of the criticisms I might point out are influenced by my dislike of the extravagance that Indulge is.
Before you start wondering what that was all about, let me clarify right away. ‘The Sceptical Patriot’ is very much a book about bias – the biased selves we Indians tend to slip into every time someone famous or not-so-famous says about the supposed achievements of our country, depending on who it is & what has been said. And it is this very bias that often results in a sense of pride that is somewhat misplaced on many occasions – Sidin Vadukut‘s first work of non-fiction is an exploration into the validity of these very instances.
‘The Sceptical Patriot’ starts off with an introduction titled ‘Extensive Disclaimers’ in which Vadukut proceeds to tell us how a speech and a blogpost by former Chief Justice of India Markandey Katju, a parliamentary discussion and a string of patriotic mail forwards were the inspiration behind writing this book. He explains his approach in this truth-seeking quest & the limitations of his research while exhorting the reader to keep an open mind & even question the approach itself if one should find it necessary.
“History, it turns out, is far more complicated and interesting than it looks.”
Vadukut dedicates the first seven chapters to seven such individual ‘great India facts‘ in this book – beginning with the most popular ones. An investigation into the legend of Sushruta, the world’s first known plastic surgeon, leads him to connect links to the marketing strategies of an American pharma giant, the world’s first-known magazine and a murder mystery in the North-Western Frontier Province of undivided India. His fascination in the history of the Chola empire results in him questioning the authenticity of the oft-quoted fact that India were far too polite to invade another country or kingdom.
But surely Indians were the ones who invented the zero & the radio? Vadukut discovers they did – and then, they probably did not. His search for the truth about India being the wealthiest nation before the British took over reveals that the only source for the claim itself stands on shaky ground & the Empire perhaps can be absolved of some of the accusations. The argument of Sanskrit being the best language for computer programming is exemplary of the Indians’ love for the approval of NASA scientists while Takshashila (now in Pakistan) claim to fame as being the site of the world’s oldest university might not be the one-horse race many perceive it to be.
Besides the facts, there are also the oft-mentioned quotes outlining the greatness of India & the wickedness of the much-maligned Lord Macaulay. As the author looks into the original versions of these quotes as such, instances of omission, excision & even misrepresentation (as in the case of the Macaulay one) begin to surface – leaving the reader to make his own conclusions.
In one chapter towards the end of this book, Vadukut stresses upon the need to approach history with skepticism. While talking about the history textbooks in most of the Indian schools, he laments the lack of important post-independence events such as the 1962 Indo-China War or the Kashmir problem in them, which he believes will only ensure that the prejudices of earlier generations will continue to prevail among the current & upcoming ones.
In the final chapter, the author explains the point of writing this book by revealing the epiphanies he’d had during the process of research & writing, which in brief serves the purpose of social commentary & provides some much-needed insight on the idea of being Indian, the need for history to take lessons for the future & an open society being the pre-requisite to provoking and promoting intellectual discussion.
What distinguishes this book from any other book aiming to sift fact from fiction is the author’s recounting of past experiences from his life to explain his interest in a particular legend. Or citing anecdotes & analogies to shed more light on his own approach – at times even to counter-question it. Every chapter ends with a fact score card, which tries to mark the possible validity of each ‘fact’ on a scale of 1 to 10 while offering a modified & reconciled version of the same that is much closer to the actual findings.
At the time of writing, the election season in India is finally over & looking back at it (just a little bit), one cannot have missed out on the unabashed distortion of historical facts & legacies, often going to the extent of rewriting even the geography of the nation. While it’s too late to change the outcome this time around, ‘The Sceptical Patriot’ will have accomplished its objective if it induces the reader to be inquisitive every time he or she hears something that sounds dodgy & hollow.
Laced with the trademark wit & humour of the bestselling Dork Trilogy and the much-loved Cubiclenama columns, ‘The Sceptical Patriot’ is a funny, enjoyable & sensible – if somewhat superficial – book on the Indian outlook towards pop-history. If you’re looking for the big summer read that will engage & enlighten your mind, your search ends here. Highly recommended.
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