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India Today issue dt October 11, 1999
Oct 11, 1999

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Elections 99

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FOUNDATIONS OF ISLAM
Coloured View

A look at Islam that isn't as scholarly as it seems.

By Syed Shahabuddin

FOUNDATIONS OF ISLAM
BY BENJAMIN WALKER
HARPER COLLINS
PAGES: 376, PRICE: Rs 500

Two Cultures

Perhaps it is not fair to the author to ask a Muslim to review what is essentially an anti-Islamic propaganda tract in scholarly guise. But even a non-Muslim reviewer will not fail to take note of the obvious anomalies. First, the author has no academic credentials, no scholarly background, indeed he claims none, to write on this sensitive subject. Second, the brief preface does not arm the reader with any foretaste of what is to come -- an avalanche of facts and anti-facts and misinformation, crushing and benumbing the reader's appraisal faculty, designed to make him lose his objectivity and surrender himself to the hidden purposes of the author.

What Benjamin Walker has done is to bring together in one volume all that has been going round Christendom since it encountered Islam in the 7th century. This book falls in the tradition of "orientalism" practised by European scholars to provide a moral justification for imperialism.

The last chapter identifies some contemporary issues in the Muslim world -- fundamentalism and reformism. The world Muslim community today is coming to terms with the intellectual climate of the age, while going back to its roots. Naturally the situation gives rise to multiple tendencies. No one can presume to reform Islam or "rewrite" the Quran but many Muslim societies can do with a gust of fresh air and reorientation.

For whom does Walker write? It is doubtful any Muslim who happens to read him will forsake his faith. Nor the common non-Muslim who wants to live peacefully with his neighbour and not question his faith. Nor the scholar. He writes for the anti-Islamic polemicist, whose tribe is growing in India. But the era of theological disputes is behind us. This is the age of ecumenism. The book ill-serves modern man's need for inter-faith dialogue.


FALLING APART
Two Cultures

Clash between middle-class values and easy money.

By Jyoti Arora

FALLING APART
BY SUCHITRA BHATTACHARYA
TRANSLATED BY RANI RAY
SRISHTI
PAGES: 260, PRICE: Rs 145

This novel gives an account of Bengali urban, middle-class life. Based in Calcutta the novel nonetheless points towards a more pervasive tectonic shift in values and dreams caused by the multinational ethos and the consequent influx of money into the urban, middle-class household. What is highlighted is a world where "even God the almighty isn't averse to taking bribes".

The story revolves around two families-Chandan Ray Chowdhary's and Satyaki's. On New Year's eve, Ray Chowdhary is caught by the police in the house of Sheila Sen, a woman of dubious reputation. He suffers the ignominy of being treated like a common criminal despite being a respected government official. His wife Anuradha tacitly complies and turns a blind eye to his misdemeanours as the dream of plenty beckons her. This has its repercussions on the life of their son Raja.

On the other hand is Laju, who walks out on her husband Satyaki after his transition from an idealist with a cause to "swindling people". However, the author interweaves a complexity of motivations. In the background is Rudra-Laju's childhood crush who continues to tantalize her. The novel also highlights an incipient paradox that such an uneasy juxtaposition between tradition and the ethics of the new economy would generate. Thus a girl who is a software professional gets married sooner than her more beautiful but non-working counterpart.

However, careless editing and proof-reading errors vitiate much of the reading pleasure. The effort to retain some of the Bengali words, perhaps to convey a certain cultural ambience, only leaves the reader with a sense of alienation. Instead of the footnotes, a more comprehensive glossary at the end would have been better.

AUTHORSPEAK
KEN ANDERSON

Twice Born
Retelling the Mahabharata, potboiler style

Rarely if ever has an ancient epic received such modern blockbuster treatment. Krishna Dharma's Mahabharata, officially launched a month and a half ago, is the subject of a vigorous promotional campaign. While targeting Indians abroad, the main objective is to interest the western reader. "India has a profound spiritual message for the world," says Krishna Dharma. He feels a comprehensible sample, presented enjoyably, will lead the uninitiated to a more serious study. After all was this not the experience of Ken Anderson, an officer in the merchant navy?

Anderson had it all going for him save a nagging sense of emptiness. This led him to the hippie movement in the '70s and, later, residency on a Greek island with his girlfriend to be "out of it all". The "spiritual vacuum" still remained. Returning home, he joined iskcon. Anderson took the vows of initiation and became Krishna Dharma. For eight years he studied Vedic scriptures and practised to be a priest. Today, at 44, he is temple president and priest at the Hare Krishna Centre in Manchester, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Being British is not the only unusual thing about this Hindu priest. Dressed in white dhoti and kurta, the man strikes you as immensely entrepreneurial right from the bone-crushing handshake. His chanting sessions have been patronised by personalities like Madonna and Tina Turner, who reportedly found it an antidote to stress. He also finds time to write and in 1998 published Ramayana, his first novel adaptation of a Hindu epic.

Now comes Mahabharata. The narrative moves effortlessly most of the time, often as racily as a thriller without compromising the elevated style and diction. The visual imagery is every bit as impressive as anything achieved in the cinematic versions: "As the arrow was released, the celestials cried out in sorrow. The shaft sped toward Arjuna with a terrible sound, seeming to divide the sky as a woman parts her hair in the middle."

One reader found it unputdownable: "If I could read it in the shower or in the toilet I would." Now Krishna Dharma hopes to bring out a condensed version of his own Mahabharata to make it still more reader friendly. He also has plans to novelise the Bhagavat Purana and to bring out children's versions of the epics. For mythology buffs, he's a dream.

-Mahesh Nair

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