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Ambitious, haughty, early historians were overawed by Alexander

Dr R Balashankar

$img_titleAlexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction, Pierre Briant, translated by Amelie Kuhrt, Princeton University, Pp 192 (PB),  $19.95

There have been hundreds of books on Alexander, the great conqueror.  But hardly a few of them were dispassionate, objective and went beyond the king, to see the other side. Pierre Briant’s Alexander the Great and his Empire seeks to remedy that. Written originally in French in 1974, it has run into several reprints, including one in 2005. The present volume by the Princeton University Press, thoroughly revised by the author in 2009, is a translation by Amelie Kuhrt. Says Briant “… we should not focus too much on the personality of Alexander, and must never “forget his adversary, who is too frequently left out of the picture as though Alexander was all alone as he embarked on his personal adventure.” In his original book, he had explained that this was not a straight biography but is devoted to examining the larger questions of his conquests, “the origins of the conquest and Alexander’s aims; the nature and relative importance of various forms of resistance encountered; the organisation of the conquered territories; and the relations between conquerors and conquered.”

It is not a continuous narrative of history. The march of Alexander through various terrains are looked at in political and organisational aspects. Briant feels that it is important to analyse the ambitions that drove Alexander. He as any other great individual, is a product of his history and legacy. Before him Darius I had come up to the Indus Valley and subjugated these regions. “In the first place, it is wrong to see Alexander as a kind of Christopher Columbus. Although his expedition did effectively provide the Greeks with new information about geography and plant and animal species in the conquered countries, it must be stressed emphatically that the king did not discover any virgin territory. Darius I had conquered the Punjab and the Indus Valley, and had integrated them into the Achaemenid empire, of which they still formed (at least nominally) a part. Alexander did not venture into the unknown… Alexander’s main aim must certainly have been to conquer for himself the whole of Darius I’s empire and gain control of the political assets and fiscal resources of the region as the Great Kings had done.”

Briant believes that Alexander did not go farther after the war with Poros not because of solider mutiny, but it was part of his campaign, the long term strategy to return via Persian Gulf after reaching the boundaries of the Achaemenid empire. Briant dismisses ambitions of Alexander on the conquer of the West of Persia, pointing out that with the Eguptians gaining freedom around 400 BC, Red Sea was lost to the Persians. “If we allow him only the smallest modicum of a military commander’s foresight, then we must admit that he can have had no intention of risking his forces in a fool’s enterprise”  he says adding, if indeed he had western plans, there is no authentic source available to reach such a conclusion.

Unlike most of the eulogising accounts of Alexander, Briant quotes several instances when he acted in what must now appear cruel. Burning down of entire villages, killing of all able bodies men, killing his own troops to stem discontent and fear, to mention a few. The mutiny in his army was also partly because of the brutal treatment he meted out to the soldiers who spoke up. Alexander “stooped to base treachery” and selected from “among the Macedonians those who made remarks hostile to him and those who were distressed at the death of Parmenion as well as those who sent letters home to Macedonia to their relatives anything contrary to the king’s interests. These he assembled into one unit which he called the Disciplinary Unit, so that the rest of the Macedonians might not be corrupted by their improper remarks and criticism. (Diodorus XVII.80.4)”

On his return journey while the soldiers were convinced that they would return to Macedon, Alexander had other plans. They were very angry when they realised that he was “setting up the centre of his kingdom on Asia forever” which meant that they would never go home and see their kith and kin. They now saw his mission as a personal enterprise, for which they had little sympathy.

There are some who outright reject the achievements of Alexander, on the other extreme. But an analysis would show that his failures occurred after his death. One of them of course is that he did not produce an heir. The empire built by him broke up, because his successor could not hold it together is another charge against him. Both were matters beyond him.

An extensive bibliography and the History of Alexander Today add substantial further references for those interested in further reading. Briant’s book opens a new line of thinking on Alexander, an interesting perspective.  

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540.)

Diplomacy: An out of the box approach

Dr Vaidehi Nathan

How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, Charles A Kupchan, Princeton University Press, Pp 442 (PB), £16.95

$img_titleIn today’s world peace is more and more identified as cease of war. Friends become foes and foes become friends for mere geo-political self-interests.  The ‘good-old’ neighbourly solidarity is a gone thing. So a book with title How Enemies Become Friends - The Sources of Stable Peace stirs up interest. Charles A Kupchan, a scholar in international affairs, attempts to look at ways of attaining stale peace. And yet, he has not touched the case histories of unmitigated enmities around the globe like between India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, Iran and Iraq.

One of the objectives of the book is to prove that democracy is not a necessary ingredient for stable peace. This is in direct reference to the United States, which the author says makes it a pre condition. That is not entirely true. A large number of America’s friends are dictatorships. Kupchan adds four other ‘ingredients’ to peace. Engaging in dialogue with the adversary; stable peace is brought by politics, not economics; compatible social order between the two sides; and cultural commonality.

After discussing each of these, Kupchan gives some examples of successful peace. The most prominent is the Anglo-American friendship. “The United States and Britain enjoyed cultural commonality on several critical dimensions: race, ethnicity, religion, and language... Cultural affinity appears to have mattered most during the early and late stages of rapprochement.”

For any peace to last, the two sides must tone down their interstate rivalry and geopolitical competition. This would lead to conjoined interests rather than merely congruent, he says. According to him, “Union is the most advanced form of stable peace. The constituent states not only escape geopolitical rivalry and embrace rules and institutions to regulate their relations, but they go on to pool their sovereignty and merge into a new political entity.”   He quotes the cases of two failed unions -- United Arab Republic and the Senegambian Confederation. Most of the ‘friendships’ Kupchan talks about are born out of military needs which later translates into economic and political inter-dependence. The author makes a simple point that “Stable peace is possible. Enemies do become friends.” But it is equally true that in a politically uni-polar world friends and enemies are determined by reasons other than community and culture. For instance, there is no apparent reason at all for enmity between China and India. When the India-China war broke out in 1962, the Indians had been hailing the slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai (Indians and Chinese brothers).

In a world dominated by arms deals, with even democracies such as India spending huge amounts of the national money on buying war equipments, the basic rules of friendship underlined by Kupchan seem to simplistic if not naïve. And hence the thrust of the book remains unclear because what the author states is applicable in an idealistic situation only.

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540.)

The endangered birds of India Chirping is being fast silenced!

Dr Vaidehi Nathan

Threatened Birds of India - Their Conservation Requirements, Asad R Rahmani, Oxford University Press, Pp 861 (HB), Rs 3000.00’

undefinedThe sheer bulk of the book on India’s endangered species of birds is scary. It can only mean one thing. That India is losing its bird population, at a rate not commonly imagined. And what is worse is, they have a few groups of people speaking for them.

India has nearly 1300 species of birds recorded. Out of these 158 are threatened, globally. The reasons range from loss of habitat to microwave towers, to bird trade, down to pesticide overuse. Threatened Birds of India - Their Conservation and Requirements by Asad R Rahmani is an attempt at compiling the data for drawing the attention of the officials and decision makers at the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This volume complements an earlier book  Threatened Birds of Asia, which was equally comprehensive. “Our main purpose here is to publish existing and new information on the threatened birds of India in book form to make it easily accessible to Indian decision makers, policymakers, field conservationists, ornithologists, birdwatchers, media and civil society in general,” says the Introduction.

Almost all reasons for decline and extinction of birds are human-made. Several species of birds have vanished because of pesticide poisoning. Bird trade is yet another major reason. According to statistics, of the 1300 bird species 453 have been recorded in domestic and international trade. “Fuelling the demand for commercial exploitation of birds in India are the following 12 reasons: pet business, birds for table, aviculture, zoos, bird release for religious reasons, black magic and sorcery, medicinal use, sports (bird fights and falconry), taxidermy, for circuses and street performance, and use of body parts, including feathers.” 

According to another article in the book, pesticides have taken the lives of several birds, the main culprits are several organochlorine pesticides (OCPs). The use of pesticides in agriculture commenced in India around 1948-49. It increased manifold with Green Revolution. “India is second largest manufacturer of pesticides in Asia and the third largest consumer in the world...Pesticide use in India averages 600 gm per hectare, compared to 10 kg per hectare in developed countries. Insecticides (73%) dominate the market, followed by herbicide (14%) and fungicide (11%).” The organochlorine compounds stay much longer in the ecosystem since their decomposition is slow and they kill slowly and silently than outright killings.   

Marco Lambertini, Chief Executive, BirdLife International aptly puts it, “We live our greatest challenge and paradox. The challenge is to live within the resources offered by our planet. The paradox is that at a time when the value of nature to our economy and wellbeing is well recognised, the destruction of natural habitats and extinction of biodiversity has never been greater and faster.”   

The present volume uses three types of maps — Polygon maps showing general distribution of the species, maps showing verifiable site records for specific species and third polygon maps showing general distribution and stray records. 

The book has separate case studies on various species that are endangered, threatened and on the verge of extinction. It describes and illustrates fifteen critically endangered, fifteen endangered, fifty two vulnerable, sixty six near threatened and two data deficient species and three additional species. The painstaking work has been done by Dr. Asad R. Rahmani, who is the Director of Bombay Natural History Society since 1997. He has written profusely on birds. The book has been sponsored collectively by several agencies. It is definitely a useful volume. A must for those who are interested in birds, even it is only a hobby. 

(Oxford University Press, 1st Floor, YMCA Library Building, 1, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi 110 001)

DSK fixed by hi-tech snoopers

Sarthak Shankar

Three Days in May - Sex, Surveillance, and DSK, Edward Jay Epstein, e-book, Melville House Publishing, Pp 70, $4.99

$img_titleSex, scandal and politics have always been corner stones of news and debate. But few pieces have ever received quiet the coverage that was garnered by Dominique Strauss Kahn following the sexual assault allegation he faced in New York. Edward Jay Epstein in his work Three Days in May gives the most comprehensive narration of the events that unfolded and led to the detention of the then Managing Director of the IMF in prison for four days.

Epstein mentions right off the bay how easy espionage is now by explaining some of the most sophisticated yet easily accessible technology today, capable of sending and receiving information, without letting the user know. Many world class intelligence agencies have even perfected technology througies that allow signals to be transmitted even when the user believes the cell phone is off, even with the battery removed.

This surveillance found relevance in the DSK debacle because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the DSK scandal. Epstein makes special mention of the fact that the staff at the hotel Sofitel where DSK stayed seemed to have anticipated his arrival. He also mentions that the recently surfaced evidence in the form of text message exchanges suggests that DSK feared that his cell phone’s integrity had been compromised. Lastly CCTV footage from the hotel’s security shows some discrepancy in the behaviour of the hotel staff following the victim’s - Diallo’s- outcry after getting assaulted.

Thus Epstein gives a minute by minute narration of the events that occurred in May which caused the Managing Director of IMF to lose face in public. He also very candidly discusses some of the mysteries surround the three days that still haven’t been solved. And he does it all while keeping the report as thrilling as a work of Robert Ludlum. As a bonus he has mentioned all of sources and given access to the various files and footage he used to build his work in the appendix via internet links. Sharp as a tack, Epstein’s work is a must read.

(Melville House Publishing, 145, Plymouth Street, Brooklyn, New York)

Exploring love: Kishwar Desai's new novel

Manju Gupta

Origins of Love, Kishwar Desai, Simon & Schuster, Pp 470 (HB), Rs 350.00

$img_titleHere is a story, woven into different plots before being strung together to form one whole, by a successful television presenter and executive in India for 25 years. She is married to economist Lord Meghnad Desai.

There is Simran Singh, a middle-aged meddlesome social worker and pre-menopausal single parent to a 14-year old girl she has adopted. This girl is called Durga who had served a term in jail in Jullundur after she was falsely accused of being a murderess.

Thousands of miles away in South London, Kate and Ben long to have a child, though for different reasons. Despite all their efforts, fate seems to be skewed against them. Kate has had two miscarriages and is again pregnant but has an ectopic pregnancy for which she is advised complete rest. One day while shopping, she has her third miscarriage when she decides that something has to change. But will her desire for a baby stop at nothing?

There is the customs officer, Diwan Nath Mehta and his ambitious wife who want to move among the who’s who of Mumbai and have no child. Diwan Nath gets embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos that are imported into India in the hope of fulfilling his wife’s desire to be counted among the rich.

Sonia is one of the surrogate mothers who thinks that by selling her womb at the IVF clinic she can collect enough money that would help her escape from her abusive boyfriend and return to her parents.

Dr Subhash Pandey and his wife Dr Anita Pandey run an IVF clinic called Madonna and Child. They have a junior partner Dr Ganguly, who has studied many aspects to the business of assisted reproduction, especially its secrets and methodology. The clinic can store sperms and eggs for half the price that has to be paid abroad, with a nice profit as well.

Dr Anita is in charge of collecting embryos coming from Britain. One day when she goes to collect the consignment of embryos that has arrived, the middleman Ali starts playing a game with her in the hope of extracting more money from her.  A baby daughter is conceived via in vitro fertilisation and the surrogate mother Preeti is kept in the clinic for complete nine months and after the delivery, she mysteriously disappears. The English couple, Mike and Susan arrives, to take back the child, but they are shocked to learn that the baby daughter is HIV positive when neither Mike nor Susan shows any HIV strains.

(Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8HB;

Understanding the Young Turks in new perspective


Manju Gupta

The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, Taner Akcam, Princeton University Press, Pp 483 (HB), $39.50

$img_titleThe demise of the Ottoman Empire was a one-act drama that lasted a century, with a changing cast of players re-enacting the same scenes over and over. As the great empire crumbled, a succession of ethnic and religious groups played out their struggle for independence on its shrinking stage against a backdrop of forced population exchanges, deportations, massacres and ethnic cleansing.

As the last great early modern empires, the Ottoman state entered its long 19th century, trailing the heritage of Byzantium but lacking the means of modernisation. Without the requisite political and social structures and public consensus of a nation-state, “the Muslim Third Rome” could no longer bind together the diverse groups that peopled its vast territory.

As the Ottoman Empire devolved into nations-states, ethnic and religious groups, which had been living side by side in the same villages, towns and regions from the Balkans eastward, now broke into violence, wars and revolutions, leading to brutally suppressed rebellions, forced population exchanges, deportations, ethnic cleansing, massacres and genocide which concluded in 1923 with the treaty of Luassane, thus providing for the independence of modern Turkey. The first narrative in the book is associated with the Muslim Turkish communities who came to identify themselves with their otherwise cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic Ottoman rulers. The Muslim Turks believed that they founded their republic after a life-or-death struggle against the Great Powers and their treacherous collaborators, the Ottoman Christians whose sole aim was to wipe the Ottoman state and Muslim Turks from the face of the earth.

The demise of the empire is viewed by the author as a positive development of the national liberation struggle against the oppressive Ottomans, that is, the “Turks”. The result of all this was that the Muslims criticised the Great Powers “for intervening too much, while the Ottoman Christians faulted them for not having intervened enough.”

The author’s aim is to emphasise the reality of the Armenian genocide as seen in the context of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states. It was certainly a clash between the Empire’s Muslim groups (ethnic Turks, Kurds, Circassians and others), who were regarded as “Turks” against the Christian elements (Armenians, Greeks and Syriacs).

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540.)

Fairy tales as a genre of history telling

Nidhi Mathur

The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes, Princeton University Press, Pp 235 (HB), $29.95

$img_titleZipes is considered one of the true experts on fairy tales. He brings considerable erudition to the book which covers some broad issues in fairy-tale analysis, such as how they spread – he takes his lead from Richard Dawkin’s Theory of Cultural Names – and the role of women collectors and narrators.

Though it is impossible to trace the historical origins and evolution of fairy tales with reference to a particular time and place, we do know that humans began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity of speech. They may have even used sign language before speech originated to communicate vital information for adapting to their environment. Units of this information gradually formed the basis of narratives that enabled humans to learn about themselves and the worlds that they inhabited. The tales were not given titles but were simply told to mark an occasion, set an example, warn about danger, procure food, or explain what seemed inexplicable. People told stories to communicate knowledge and experience in social contexts.       There is a very valuable quote provided by Arthur Frank, author of Letting Stories Breathe, who said, “Stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate…stories work with people, for people and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible and as worth doing or best avoided.”          If there is any single genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale, yet, we still have difficulty in explaining its historical origins, how it evolved and spread and why we cannot resist its appeal, no matter what form it takes.

The book focuses on the significance of Madame Catherine-Anne d’Aulnoy and the French writers of fairy tales in the 1690s.

Zipes concludes by saying that in the distant past, those people who learned to read and write served the victors and rulers, taking little interest in the culture of the common people, whose tales and social relations were largely ignored or dismissed. But Zipes is happy that the pioneer folklorists of the 19th century opened their eyes and ears and began preserving the rich narrative traditions of the folk.

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey - 08540.)

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