Author: Nandita Haksar

Publ: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd, New Delhi

Reviewer: Farah Qureshi

During one of my first classes in anthropology, a professor noted the power of material culture studies. All human culture, she noted, can be traced through the study of physical things, and people’s interactions with these things. It seems natural, therefore, that a study of food is one of the few unanimous material culture studies which can help us understand any society and culture. By directing our attention to the culture around food, The Flavours of Nationalism book is an ideal anthropological text: discussing plural narratives which work very well together as a whole societal narrative. 

Haksar focusses on Indian food cultures, but structures her book as a biography of her own experiences, family, and culture. She narrates personal stories through specific food accounts and histories. We follow her childhood in Kashmir, education and early professional life in Delhi, her travels, and later life in Goa. Through these intimate stories, we come to know the characters of all the people closest to her through these journeys. I longed to be experiencing the same tastes and delights she vividly described. Haksar kindly includes some recipes for the reader’s eventual recreation at home. These recipes are often placed after an account recalling her own experiences with the food. While some recipes are easier and others more difficult, they are all informative and supportive of the cultures described within the text.

Yet the biographical account is also simultaneously a medium for Haksar’s unashamed criticism of the divisions and differences still shifting India today. Her book begins and ends with a basic question: how can everyone sit at the Indian national table and eat together with dignity and equality?

Author: Samir Amin

Publ: Daraja Press

Reviewer: Zarina Patel

The only time I have ever met, and heard, the late Prof. Samir Amin was in 2010 at the Nyerere Intellectual Festival in Dar-es-Salaam when he gave the key-note address entitled ‘The Long Road to Socialism’. I was enthralled. And yet I did not attempt to read any of his multiple writings because I realised the theoretical arguments and the academic presentations of this erudite scholar were well beyond my understanding and level of knowledge.

But while putting together this AwaaZ cover story on the Professor I stumbled upon his October 1917 Revolution – A century later; and was captivated. I have decided to review the book with the hope of encouraging my fellow ‘novice’ readers to delve into it (and his many other writings). Though large sections of the book still remain well beyond the scope of my understanding, I was able to glean from it gems which have deepened, and even changed my view of world history: the North/South divide, Africa and Kenya’s place in it and eventually my being and role as an individual.

Fundamental to my learning has been the realisation of the extent to which historical truths have been hidden from us and distorted. And what, I can hear you ask, is a ‘historical truth’? Is it not dependent on who is pronouncing it? Was Kenya’s Mau Mau movement a ‘war for liberation’ or were the Mau Mau rebels ‘debased creatures of the forest’? I cannot attempt here to validate the ‘historical truths’ but urge interested readers to do so for themselves by reading the book.

Insurgent Empire

Volume 17, Issue 1 | Published 07/07/2020  

Author: Priyamvada Gopal

Publ: Verso

Reviewer: Alan Gibson

This book is a very important contribution to the history of anti-imperialism and racism in the UK. Priyamvada Gopal first tells the stories of several white colonialists who, as a result of the brutality of imperial rule that they witnessed, became convinced that it should be either radically reformed or ended.

The letters and the reports they either sent or brought back to Britain circulated among a growing number of anti-imperialists to become an important current that subsequently formed the basis of anti-imperialist campaigns up to the present day.

Gopal looks at how people such as Madras-based lawyer John Bruce Norton, UK-based liberal John Stuart Mill and Cairo-based ‘traveller’ Wilfrid Blunt responded to key incidents. These included the brutal suppression of the 1857 Uprising in India; the bloody massacre of innocent Jamaicans following mass protests at Morant Bay in 1865; the murderous bombardment of Alexandria and subsequent invasion of Egypt in 1882; the ‘Mau Mau’ struggle for land and freedom in Kenya in the 1950s.

Author: Naomi Klein

Publ: Allen Lane

Reviewer: Martin Empson

For 20 years Naomi Klein has been one of the foremost activists, journalists and writers within the anti-capitalist and environmental movements. From No-Logo, a book that epitomised the anti-capitalist politics of the Seattle generation, to This Changes Everything, a polemic that put the blame for the climate crisis squarely on capitalism, her books are powerful critiques of a world that puts profit before people and planet.

But On Fire is possibly Klein’s best book. It burns with anger at the way the rich and powerful have failed to act on climate change because it means challenging their right to make money. In particular, it shows how, in her words, ‘natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial and economic ones’.

Klein is absolutely clear that no discussion about the dangers from climate disaster can ignore the very real question of how it impacts on the Global South, on indigenous communities and along racial lines. Solidarity with refugees, and the deaths in the Mediterranean, are a key part of this argument; one included in her keynote speech at the 2017 Labour Party conference.

She emphasises the way that environmental disaster exacerbates other social divisions. Writing about the 2016 forest fires in Alberta she tells how hundreds of South African workers drafted to fight the fires discovered they were being paid much less than their Canadian colleagues, and immediately went on strike. Rather than pay them more, the workers were sent home.

Author: Greta Thunberg

Publ: Penguin Books

Reviewer:  Maria Sanders Mora

A few weeks ago, we started the Biology unit in science. My teacher gave us a brief on the topic we would be focusing on: Maintaining Biodiversity. She warned us that this was the topic that people scored lowest on in exams, which drew my attention to parallels outside of school, in the real world (shock!).

People remain, wilfully or not, ignorant of this issue, then echoed in our GCSE scores. But why, if what I have learned in my science lessons is true, is nothing major happening? ‘Why are we not,’ as Thunberg herself puts it, ‘acting as if our house is on fire?’ And why are so many people still ignorant?

Thunberg tells us that we must stop competing with one another. Our political systems are all about pulling one person to the top at the expense of another, all for power, and the people that want this power think it is in their best interests to have ignorant supporters. But as she says, ‘All that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history.’

Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined

Volume 17, Issue 1 | Published 07/07/2020  

Author: JJ Bola

Publ: Pluto Press

Reviewer: Sam York

This incredibly enjoyable book utterly destroys the myths around masculinity and is a great read for younger men told to ‘man up’, ‘stop being such a wimp’ and so on. There has been a significant rise of books around the same theme, but JJ Bola directly relates his struggles and understanding to a younger audience, which has largely gone amiss in recent years.

Mask Off acts as a tool with which to challenge the structures in society that condition men to develop into aggressors, unable to deal with their emotions. Bola opens the book by dismantling ten myths around masculinity - a fantastic way to break down such a complex issue with no easy solution. He understands the scale and the task at hand, and suggests completely dismantling the structures that prop up ‘manliness’.

The book offers interesting insights into what masculinity is. Bola describes it as a ‘performance’ that can become toxic and hegemonic when immersed in a society dominated by men. This insight comes from the view that men are suffering on a huge scale in an era when suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35. Three out of four suicides are by men.

The Windrush Betrayal

Volume 17, Issue 1 | Published 07/07/2020  

Author: Amelia Gentleman

Publ: Faber & Faber

Reviewer: Julian Bild

This book is a searing account of the effects of Tory immigration policy, introduced with the support of their LibDem partners, and designed to make it impossible for irregular migrants to survive in the UK.

With laws introduced in 2014 and 2016, Home Office officials systematically set about destroying the lives of thousands of West Indians who had arrived in the UK in the 1960s and 70s.

Some died in the process, traumatised by losing their jobs and homes, being refused NHS treatment, and with no-one to turn to for help. Others were detained and then deported, or forced to self-deport, to countries they had left as young children and had not returned to for 50 years.

I was ready to be disappointed by this book. It was written by Amelia Gentleman, a Guardian journalist, married to Jo Johnson, a Tory cabinet minister when the policies were introduced. But Gentleman got to know many of the elderly and desperate victims and does not pull punches. The misery heaped on these people was, and continues to be, just unbelievably cruel.

Mau Mau Interrogator

Volume 17, Issue 1 | Published 07/07/2020  

Author: Ken Lees

Publ: Skyscraper

Reviewer: Ken Olende

The 1950s Mau Mau war in Kenya was one of the bloodiest of the conflicts that ended the British Empire. The colonial authorities won, but the cost was too heavy to keep holding on. Still, the colonialists’ view of rebels as ‘debased creatures of the forest’ became common.

Historians have challenged this view. Caroline Elkins’s 2005 book Britain’s Gulag exposes British use of torture and concentration camps. Maina wa Kinyatti has presented the guerrillas’ viewpoint. But the conflict was largely forgotten in Britain until five Kenyan war veterans won a 2012 court case, forcing the British government to accept responsibility for torture and pay compensation.

Since then several books have tried to reassert the traditional view. As an eyewitness and a senior police interrogator, Ken Lees demands to be taken seriously. He rails against the official 1960 Corfield report into the war, not because it whitewashed imperial crimes, but because he believes it underestimates ‘terrorist’ killings. His memoir takes up less than half of the book. A longer afterword by David Elstein, chair of Open Democracy, attempts to undermine Elkins’s ‘revisionist’ version of the war.

Author: Nandita Haksar

Publ: Speaking Tiger

Nandita Haksar’s magnum opus traces the tortured history of Kashmiri nationalism through the lives of two men: Sampat Prakash, a Kashmiri Pandit and Communist trade Union leader who became active in politics during the Cold War years, and Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim who became active in the early days of the Kashmir insurgency. The ideas and deeds of many other individuals and groups are woven into this twin account which tries to examine how Kashmiri nationalists are caught in the web of international intrigue, as they negotiate the rivalries between the old and new superpowers and also the competing nationalisms of India and Pakistan, which invariably translate into Hindu-Muslim antagonisms. Both Prakash and Guru refused to give up the idea of a more inclusive Kashmir, with space in it for all faiths and nationalities. Their paths crossed at a juncture of history when both believed that their vision of Kashmir was possible. But their dream has been all but destroyed by the forces of history, leaving Prakash and his comrades alone and isolated, and leading to the hounding and execution of Guru. This nuanced, multi-layered book combines personal and public narratives, political analysis and the rare insights of an activist who led the campaign to save Mohammad Afzal Guru from the gallows. Singular in scope and focus, and spanning a period of over eight decades, from the 1930s until 2015, this is an unprecedented examination of the history of modern Kashmir.