One Point Two Billion – Quick Review



Mahesh Rao  width=

Daunt Books (2015), 240 pages

A Christmas Present

One Point Two Billion is a fascinating look into the multiple worlds that occupy modern India.  The thirteen short stories in Rao’s collection cover India’s diverse geography, cultural mores, economic status, and social roles.

Rao’s strongest stories are those with the more understated plots.  The opening story, Eternal Bliss, features Bindu, a woman who struggles to cope with her anxieties while working in a yoga centre.  Rao highlights the uneasy interaction between Indians and foreign visitors and pokes fun at both sides.  He also uses the arrival of inspectors from the Department of Culture to highlight endemic corruption.  Rao’s Joycean epiphany is fantastic.

Personally I was not so keen on the stories, although well written, with more shocking endings.  The subtle approach of Eternal Bliss, The Trouble with Dining Out (two wealthy couples struggle to cope with the underlying sexual tension), Suzie Baby (about an ageing Bollywood star), and Fizz Pop Ah (which follows the fortunes of an Indian cola company and a family that worked there) were more to my liking.

One Point Two Billion deals with multiple issues; corruption, westernisation, attempts to conceal the mistreatment of Dalits, army abuses in Naxalite areas, the rise of the super rich in India, and censorship in Kashmir (in the excellent Minu Goyari Day).  Rao’s book covers a lot of ground and offers the reader thirteen little windows into the lives of some of India’s one point two billion people.

Related Post

The Indian Express review


The Emperor – Review


Ryszard Kapuściński 

Penguin Modern Classics (2006, originally published 1978), 192 pages


The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat  looks back at Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie’s downfall through the eyes of his courtiers.  Selassie had gained popularity when he challenged Italian attempts to colonise Ethiopia.  He did instigate some reforms but as the years passed his primary concern was to keep himself and the semi-feudal system he presided over intact.  Neal Ascherson, in his introduction, makes the point that tyrants, “…tried to use “Development” as a substitute for political and social reform” (p. viii).  When tyrannical or colonial regimes begin to see their power slipping they will try and introduce the minimum level of change that can still insure that the overarching system doesn’t change (“killing Home Rule with kindness” in Ireland in the late 1800s was an example of this policy).  Ascherson also notes that The Emperor can be read as a parable of Kapuściński’s communist Poland.  The Polish dictatorship, despite claiming to represent the people, was a foreign system which had become disconnected from the people (whether it was actually ever connected to the people is debatable) and, like Haile Selassie’s regime, was doomed to collapse.

Haile Selassie was updated on his subjects’ movements through his system of informants.  When Kapuściński interviews Selassie’s courtiers in secret after their master’s downfall the new system is equally paranoid.  Haile Selassie met his ministers everyday.  If a minister achieved something Selassie took the glory, if a minister messed up then the minister took the blame.  In the palace there were three groups; the aristocrats, the bureaucrats,  and the people personally selected by the emperor.  The aristocrats were ultra-conservative, the bureaucrats were the most liberal (many had a higher education), and the personally selected people were fiercely loyal to Selassie.  The emperor micromanaged all of his appointments to give the illusion of total control, “Listen here Mr. Journalist, not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally.  He alone” (p. 31).  Likewise Selassie approved all financial expenditure, even a repair to one of his 27 cars.  The Ethiopian state was so foccussed on its emperor that it failed to function properly when its figurehead was absent.  When Selassie was on one of his many trips out of the country his palace virtually stopped functioning.

Haile Selassie’s concern for his own people was also an illusion, “…His Majesty paid the salaries of foreign engineers but showed no inclination to pay our own masons after the construction of the Imperial Palace called Genete Leul” (p. 39).  The Emperor does not look at Haile Selassie’s reign as a whole.  It focusses on the period leading up to his fall. Kapuściński’s book does however mention some of Selassie’s reforms; he forbade extreme punishments such as the cutting off of hands and legs, he introduced a court system, he abolished slavery, he  set up a postal system, and he sent some people abroad to study.  It was this final reform that proved dangerous to Selassie’s rule.  Young people who were educated abroad quickly saw the lack of freedom and economic development in their home country.  Education was a double edged sword.  Ethiopia needed educated people to run the state but too many educated people could result in the overthrow of the state.  Germame Neway came from an aristocratic family and was sent to be educated in the United States.  When he returned Neway was made the governor of a region in southern Ethiopia.  Much to the horror of local nobles he began to build schools and allegedly gave land to landless labourers.


Haile Selassie’s deposition. He is humiliated by being forced into a Volkswagen Beetle, a less luxurious car than one of his 27 limousines. Credit: Wikipedia

As Selassie realised that his position was being undermined he began to turn his attention to his greatest threat – the army, “These generals, with His Gracious Majesty’s help, arranged such a good life for themselves that our Empire, which contained thirty million farmers and only a hundred thousand soldiers and police, agriculture received one percent of the national budget and the army and police forty percent” (p. 93).  The Emperor was dependent on the top strata of society for survival.  But increasing levels of education meant this elite section was expanding beyond the state’s control.  Graduates were placed in the state bureaucracy but these their increased numbers were placing a strain on the budget.  In order to pay for the increased cost of bureaucrats it was decided to raise taxes on the peasants.  It is here that the feudal nature of Selassie’s regime is most apparent.  The peasants rebelled against paying taxes merely funded their oppression.  Anger with the regime began to overcome internalised subservience and fear of the security forces.

As with British rule in Ireland it was a famine that was the final nail in Selassie’s rule.  Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this documentary online) exposed the heartlessness of the Ethiopian state.  The juxtaposition of images of starving people with pictures of Haile Selassie feeding meat to his dogs and feasting on champagne and caviar.  The film wasn’t shown in Ethiopia but it’s contents began to filter back to the country.  The Emperor doesn’t look at the ethnic divides that contributed to the Ethiopian state’s lack of concern about the death of up to 300,000 of its people (presumably because the courtiers that Kapuściński interviews are Amharic like their emperor) but famine was used as a method of control by Selassie and the subsequent Dergue regime.  Shamefully one courtier (A.A.) defends the lack of response to the famine on moral grounds, “…it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit” (p. 112).

Haile Selassie’s regime was eventually overthrown by the brutal communist Dergue.  Life under the Dergue was, for many, worse than living under Haile Selassie.  But Haile Selassie’s failure to create a just society paved the way for further death and destruction. Many of  Haile Selassie’s courtiers talk with a sense of nostalgia for the Emperor’s rule but, as Kapuściński points out, “One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that H.S. – he and his people – took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace” (p. 160).

Related Links

Article on the 1973-74 famine

The Constant Gardener – Quick Review


John le Carré  China.png

Hodder & Stoughton (2001), 512 pages

A Present

My Dad had a spare copy of this book (I think a neighbour gave it to him) which I received at least three years ago.  It’s sat on the shelf glaring at me for those years so I eventually thought I’d bite the bullet and read the thing.  I enjoyed the film, starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Feinnes, so I knew the general plot.

The Constant Gardener has a plot that goes deeper than the conventional thriller.  Issues such as the power of pharmaceutical companies in Africa, the role of former colonisers in post-colonial states, and the unaccountability of government bureaucrats are all covered.

While there is plenty of action, spread across Europe and Africa, Le Carré’s great skill is to create believable characters.  The characters are not merely tracks along which the plot runs.  They shift  and twist in the breeze of changing circumstances, memory, and new revelations.

The Constant Gardener does not have a happy ending.  If you are looking for the cathartic effects of justice you will be disappointed.  However if you want to look look into a dark immoral world where money, power, and corruption intersect then The Constant Gardener is a novel for you.


Melancholy Witness – Review

Witnessing Troubles

Seán Hillen  

The History Press  Ireland (2014), 120 pages

The Winding Stair Bookshop – €10 (second hand signed copy)

Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles is a collection of artist Seán Hillen’s photographs of Northern Ireland between 1979-1990.  Hillen, a native of the border town of Newry, was perfectly placed to capture the violence, fear, and occasional black humour that pervaded Northern Irish society.  Hillen is better known for his photomontages which take a wry look at modern Irish society through the mythical lens of John Hinde postcards.  I might look at his photomontages in another blog post.

Hillen’s photographs cover more than scenes of violence.  There are photographs of Twelfth of July parades, a religious pilgrimage, people going about their daily business.  But there is an almost constant undercurrent of violence, the possibility that something unexpected will happen.  Policemen or soldiers are present in many of the photographs, heavily armed and twitchy.  What look like building sites are the aftermath of bomb attacks.  There is constant government surveillance, the army, the police, security cameras, army watch towers, the knowledge that your phone could be tapped, your post opened, that you could be talking to an informer.  This oppressive surveillance was often ineffective.  You lived with of the psychological effects government oppression (even if often meant to prevent violence) but seemingly without the benefits of government protection.  In some cases the forces that were supposed to protect you ended up killing you or causing horrific injuries with “plastic bullets” (like Bloody Sunday or the numerous instances of State collusion with terrorists).

Hillen Photo

Newry, c. 1985

I visited the North shortly after the Good Friday Agreement with some Dutch friends.  The watchtowers were still on the South Armagh border hills, bristling with antennae and cameras to watch the local population.  Some were IRA members and supporters but many were not.  There were “Sniper at Work” signs and “Free the Colombia 3” graffiti.  Hillen captures the architecture of a chronic conflict.  As an outsider all of this seemed extraordinary but to the local population this became normal.  Talking about the helicopters that buzzed across the sky (in many places it was too dangerous for the British army to travel by road) Hillen notes that, “…the noise of the helicopters became so familiar that its absence then became strange.” (p. 86)  In Northern Ireland I visited Crossmaglen with its large army base that dominated the centre of town.  It had the busiest heliport in Europe, it was far too dangerous for soldiers to travel by road.  There were no police (or tax collectors!) allowed into the town.  The army base was seen as an occupying presence.  When footballs from the local GAA club dropped into the army base they weren’t returned.  Local resentment (especially Catholic republican resentment) at the inbuilt discrimination, poverty, and lack of equal civil rights often overspilled into protests, violence, and riots.

Some of Hillen’s most effective photographs are of riots (see cover photo above).  He successfully captures the adrenaline, the anger, and the game of rioting.  Poverty, boredom, resentment, and (in some cases), a desire to kill British soldiers and police were all motivating factors in riots.  The rioters were virtually all young men.  Like many conflicts the Troubles was primarily fuelled by young men; rioters, terrorists, police, and soldiers.  These young men were often guided by older men, invisible from the public but the guiding hands behind the conflict, moving their pieces across a deadly chess board.


A colour version of an image from the book.  “Taken through the window of my sister’s car; a teenager is seen being dragged to a waiting police car after some questioning.” (p. 92)

Melancholy Witness is an excellent collection of photographs.  Hillen’s local knowledge adds a depth to the accompanying captions.  What comes across most strongly is Hillen’s empathy with his subjects.  He does not distinguish between Catholic or Protestant, rioter or policeman – they are all trapped in a situation which they have little control over.  They are striving to live their lives, to make their lives better, and to overcome the circumstances that surround them.


Related Links

Irelantis – Irish photomontages by Seán Hillen

John Hinde Postcard Archive – A major influence on Hillen’s photomontages.