Book Review: The Sceptical Patriot:Exploring the Truths Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories by Sidin Vadukut

I’ve read other books by Sidin, and enjoyed them – they have been light, fun reads, just like his tweets. Entertaining, and light-hearted. When I found out on Twitter that he was soon to publish a non-fiction book, I was intrigued. Even more so, when I read the subject of the book. Sounded just like the sort of books I love. I just had to get my hands on it. And so I did. It helped that the Kindle edition got released in the UK, which is something that never seems to happen with Indian authors’ books.

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India. A land where history, myth and email forwards have come together to create a sense of a glorious past that is awe-inspiring…and also kind of dubious. But that is what happens when your future is uncertain and your present is kind of shitty—it gets embellished until it becomes a totem of greatness and a portent of potential. Sidin Vadukut takes on a complete catalogue of ‘India’s Greatest Hits’ and ventures to separate the wheat of fact from the chaff of legend. Did India really invent the zero? Has it truly never invaded a foreign country in over 1,000 years? Did Indians actually invent plastic surgery before those insufferable Europeans? The truth is more interesting—and complicated—than you think.

That pretty much sums up the book. We’ve all come across these glorious facts about India. Of how India invented zero, and how Indians were the pioneers in Plastic Surgery, and more. How many of these are really true? Were we truly world leaders in most things until the invaders plundered our country and brought it to the state it is today? Are we being gullible by believing it all or are we being needlessly sceptical by being cynical ? Well, read the book to find out. Sceptical patriot that Sidin is, he has gone around digging into archives of libraries, read up stuff and put together a very interesting book indeed. What sets this book aside is the author’s style of writing. He includes personal anecdotes and I personally loved the way he introduces most of the chapters, and the way he ended each of his analysis- with a ‘Sceptical Patriot Score Card’, showing exactly where we stand in terms of these truths/myths. The historical facts that he recounts are fascinating, some I have read about and others which make me want to go and dig up the books he has listed and read them. Cover to cover.

His writing style reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson’s books, but is more relatable, for me, as he speaks of things which I can relate to much more, so it made a great read for me. The subject was engrossing and it was absolutely unputdownable- I actually wished I could call in sick at work and read the book at home, but better sense prevailed.

What I liked most about the book was the last chapter. The way the author ended the book. Some of the things he talks about, I wish a lot of would read and understand. India would definitely be a much better place for that.

I know that sometimes people are put off by non-fiction books, but I think this one is the one to start with if you worry about a non-interesting book putting you off.

I would easily rate it 4.5/5. A brilliant book, and one that I enjoyed immensely.

About the Author
Sidin Vadukut is a journalist, columnist and blogger. He has an engineering degree from NIT Trichy and an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad.

In a career spanning around a decade he has made automotive parts, developed online trading platforms, almost set up a retailing company and had a sizeable portion of a tree fall on his head. He is currently an editor with the Mint business newspaper.

This book is available on Amazon(UK) and Flipkart.

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The Lost Empire of Atlantis by Gavin Menzies

I don’t recall where I got to know about this book, but I had it in my wish list. When I got my hands on it finally, it was amazing how the book took hold of me.

Gavin Menzies takes us on his journey to rediscover the Lost Empire of Atlantis. He builds up on his theory that the Minoan empire was more accomplished that it is assumed. He tries to bring together facts and goes on to try to prove that the Minoan civilization had extensive sea faring abilities and that they might have discovered America way before Christopher Columbus. He challenges some of the accepted notions of the lost civilizations.

I have no real knowledge of history, so I would not be in a position to say whether all that he says, could actually be true or not, but he sure does paint a very convincing picture.

The manner in which he relates it, makes it a fascinating read. It left me wanting more, at the end of the book. To me, the added interest was that I had visited Thera(Santorini), which has an important role to play, and it helped me visualize things a bit better. I had also read about how it is assumed that Atlantis might have been there, before the mighty volcanic eruption ended it all.

I think it would make interesting reading for anybody who likes historical research of this sort. I had not known that I enjoyed it before I read this book. And maybe if someone with a better grasp of history read it, they could tell me how much of it is fiction and how much could be reality?

For me, it was a fantastic read. I will be reading it again, to absorb it better, and maybe do some other related reading as well, to understand it better. And yes, I will try to get hold of his other books. I really enjoyed his style of writing and his obvious enthusiasm for his subject.

Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but as I read this book, I felt I had to write about it.

I had heard of William Dalrymple, but had never managed to get hold of it. For some reason, my library’s online search never yielded any results. One day, at the library, I managed to browse through the ‘History and Culture’ section and came across this book. I had no idea whether this was aclaimed or not, but liked what I could glean from the back cover. This is what it says

‘ In this title, a Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve to death. A woman leaves her middle-class family in Calcutta, and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfilment living as a Tantric skull feeder in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden from Kerala becomes, for two months of the year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as a deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison. An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 4,000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi – or temple prostitute – initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling. Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story.’

After reading the book, I have to say, I was not disappointed in any way. Dalrymple, covers nine lives, nine people, who have given up materialistic lives and turned towards the spiritual. Spiritual ways that are as diverse as possible from each other. From a Jain nun who pulls out her hair one by one, as part of her vocation, to tantriks who live on cremation grounds. Each just as spiritual, just as believing in their path to divine happiness.

The best part of the book, for me was the way it is written. The author chronicles each story with such compassion, honesty, and being totally non-judgemental. It takes you right to where the story unfolds and gives you an insight to what might be propelling people to give up their lives for what they consider their faith.  He lets their words say their story.

A fascinating account of how diverse India really is, and how beautifully all these diverse faiths and beliefs have lived together, in peace. How Hindus go to Sufi saints for blessings, and how Brahmins get blessings from a Dalit temple dancer. When trouble comes calling, people are ready to try anything that might work. This book is all about how faith intermingled with modernity, of how the old traditions are still revered and followed, even if some of the people who actually keep these traditions alive find it difficult to lead lives without taking on other jobs in order to make ends meet.

It also indicates how these practises might soon come to an end. In case of the illiterate story-teller in Rajasthan, the book talks about how education seems to threaten this ancient at of storytelling. For some reason, when people get educated, their ability to read seems to reduce their ability to remember the epics word by word. Interesting, isn’t it?

I would give it a 5/5, for being the most fascinating book I have read in recent times. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in historical and cultural books.