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September 14, 2014

Book Review: The Sceptical Patriot

Text by Nittal Chandarana

Sidin Vadukut reviews India and we in turn review his latest book, The Sceptical Patriot

The Read: The Sceptical Patriot
Author: Sidin Vadukut
Publisher: Rupa Publications

What it is: A clever book that questions everything any proud patriot has haughtily claimed at a social do after a drink or two. Was the zero really invented in India? What about surgery? Have we really never invaded another nation or initiated a war? Do we really provide a third of all men capable of holding white-collar jobs to the world? I don’t know. Neither does anybody else. These are statements fashioned to make us feel better about our country and if any statement is thrust at you multiple times, you will definitely go on to believe it. Much like 65% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

What we loved: The topics the author chose and the points he made in the concluding chapter. Why do our history books glorify certain things but leave out the really important events like Operation Blue Star and the Naxalite movement and the many wars our country has had to fight. There are generations of students diligently mugging up the date of the Partition of Bengal but this they are ignorant of. Also, that we must question. Everything. Every bit that’s taught to us, every bit we read. Excellently done.

Maybe Not: Some rants shifted focus from the topic and we found it difficult to get back on track.

Took the devil by its horns: About the scene in the Bollywood film Namastey London wherein Akshay Kumar recites a patriotic monologue mainly directed to a certain Mr. Pringle, he writes: ‘It is clever, manipulative filmmaking that you feel instantly guilty about enjoying. It is, in other words, the Bollywood equivalent of a chocolate-dough pizza topped with Nutella, banana and whipped cream. With Diet Coke…Who is Sushruta? Did he really invent medicine? There are British people still called Pringle?’

Verdict: Pfft. Taste is subjective. It is non-fiction. It might make you squirm a little at the blind acceptance of facts we have all indulged in. We quite liked it for all the cynicism and rationality it possesses. Plus, it made us want to go ahead and carry out our own research.

 

Q&A with Sidin Vadukut

1. Of all topics you have covered in your book, which is the one that baffles you the most?
All the chapters were challenging in their own way. But I think the one on Ayurveda and Sushruta was the hardest to pin down and structure meaningfully. That chapter required a lot of reading, multiple rounds of fact-checking and several rewrites. It was also baffling in the sense that the final story is almost nothing like I expected it would be. Every day, I would discover a new angle or a new aspect of Indian medicine and the exchange of ideas with the West. Really tough chapter.

2. Do you think it is possible to now change what history has taught us? Do you think the world will accept it?
I think so. The reluctance of the world, or rather societies, to gain fresh perspectives on history is not a failing of history per se. After all history, by itself, is just a description of what happened. Things get more complicated when you get into the matter of historiography and how this history is written, discussed and engaged with. Societies like India pose a particular challenge because we tend to deeply intertwine our history with ideas of who we are as people and our religions and our cultures. Our colonial past, and our residual feelings about this past, tends to complicate things even further. So many Indians look to history not to better understand ourselves, but to vindicate our beliefs, opinions and prejudices. Therefore many people approach any attempt to tackle Indian history with suspicion rather than curiosity.
But once we lose this insecurity I think history has much to offer. Acceptance and change all comes from engaging with history with an open mind. And if we do… yes I think history is a powerful tool to constantly challenge our understanding of the world around us.

3. You have done extensive research for this book. Is there something you had to leave out? Could you tell us what that is.
Plenty of things. And in hindsight I shouldn’t have. If you look closely you can see that some of the latter chapters are a bit too short. I was afraid, perhaps without basis, that readers maybe put off by a longer book. In hindsight I should have left a lot more research and history in there. In the chapter on Bose and radio, for instance, I cut out large chunks of the history of radio was discovered and understood all over the world. It was truly a global innovation. But I left a lot out to focus on Bose.

4. Why, according to you, are facts and history tweaked?
To suit particular biases and narratives. Mind you there is nothing particularly wrong in this. Two different historians can look at the exact same archival material and come to vastly different conclusions. (As they continue to do, say, about the origins of the first world war.) The problem is when there isn’t space for healthy debate and discussion. And when disinformation grows and spreads faster than information. Which is really the case with so much bad Indian and international history on the Internet.

5. Is there another book in the pipeline? 
Yes. The next book will also be on Indian history. But I am still to lock down the theme. Unlike TSP, this one will tackle just one topic, and tackle it in depth. I have a feeling it will either be 16th century India, or ancient India. Sadly I cannot reveal anything more at this stage.

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