Book Review: Calling Sehmat

Book: Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka

Calling Sehmet
Calling Sehmat

In 1971, as the tensions between India and Pakistan were rising, the college girl Sehmat Khan agrees to marry a Pakistani Army officer to spy for India. It was a career chosen out of necessity, but she ends up being so good at it that she saved INS Vikrant from destruction. This is not fiction, but the story of a real life patriotic Indian, whose life was so extraordinary, that you would think it’s all made up. As she goes through her journey from a simple college girl to a spy who lived with the sole purpose of safeguarding India, you will find yourself in awe. She was the most beautiful Indian spy who single-handedly ravaged Pakistan’s security system.

The best part of the book is that it gives a well rounded portrayal of Sehmat as she goes through various phases of her life. A quarter of the book is about her college life which shows initial glimpses of her determination and passion. She got selected for a dance competition in which she was to portray Meerabai. She had seen her mother pray to Meerabai and for being the character, she spent hours in the college library, reading all about her. She danced with such intensity and absorption that she did not notice that her legs were bleeding.

Her transformation from college girl to a spy was to honor the wishes of her dying father who had instilled patriotism in her. Her philosophy was “there is no greater reward than to live and die for your country”, a lesson she got from her father. He had told her that there is nothing more disgraceful than being disloyal to the motherland. As a businessman who traveled across the border, he was instrumental in setting up a spy network in Pakistan.

Then you see another Sehmat, who sacrifices her college lover and moves to Pakistan. Her down to earth demeanor and good intentions earn her the trust of her immediate family, her father-in-law and her husband. It was due to her cleverness that they got promoted in their jobs and had career advances. It was during one scan of her father-in-laws office that she found the files which suggested that Pakistani submarines were targeting INS Vikrant.

Living behind enemy lines is not easy. The intelligence gathering techniques of 1971 could not be done remotely; it required acts of courage. The intricacies of these techniques and dangers it entails are covered well. There were many times she could have been exposed and she triumphs over those circumstances with her quick thinking. She even miraculously escaped including a bomb attack. She was a person who planned two steps ahead all the time and that saved her.

Eventually when she settled back in India, the pictures on her house demonstrated her beliefs. Her house had pictures of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Khudiram Bose. In her private space she worshipped Allah, Ganesha, Krishna, Jesus and Wahe Guru. She was fascinated by Meerabai’s hymns.

I finished the book only because it’s inspiring to read about such unknown heroes. The book explores her fortitude and unwavering loyalty to India during a time of war. The initial part of the book about Sehmat’s simple life, her marriage and her activities in Pakistan are paced very well. The writing itself is really plain and starts meandering towards the end. It could have used multiple rewrites with a good editor.. I am not even sure why one chapter of a failed Indian navy attack was described. That would have been better in an appendix or could be the matter for another book.

Despite all the courageous self-assurance displayed by Sehmat during her mission, her life ends in tragedy. Well almost. Memories of the ruthless things she had to do haunt her. Since her life in Pakistan was messy, chaotic and non-formulaic, she ends up suffering from depression. The book describes her encounter with a fakir who gave her spiritual lessons from various scriptures including the Upanishads to get her out of her gloom. In turn she was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in her area and it required an intervention from RAW.

Her life was about love; to her country, to her parents and to her college mate. There is also a movie based on the book, but it leaves out multiple dimensions of Sehmat. As always, the book is better.

Taking Credit for Buddha’s Work

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

Having attention is the brain’s superpower, writes Amishi Jha in her book Peak Mind. Every moment, our mind is bombarded by signals from our sensory inputs. To prevent our brains from being overloaded, the brain filters out the unnecessary noise and keeps our attention on what’s important. Imagine that you are in a coffee shop. People are walking in and out, baristas are taking orders and making coffee while music is playing in the background. In the midst of this, you can focus on the conversation you are having with your friend. If not for our attention superpower, we would be paralyzed by the sheer load of information we have to process and act on.

While it’s a superpower, it’s hard to hold on to your attention. Over the past few years, I’ve squandered countless hours and a fair amount of money on productivity techniques and lifehacks to boost my attention. I have read books like Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, Focus, Atomic Habits, and the Power of Habit. I have learned techniques of using a Pomodoro Timer or using Time Blocking. I have done various productivity courses each having its own philosophy. All these techniques are really good, but they all fail for a simple reason. Attention is fragile. A notification ping on the phone and you drop everything and are scrolling infinitely.

A quick fix, you might think, is to just keep the phone in another room. That way you have outsmarted all the software engineers and psychologists who designed those addictive apps. Now try to focus on a task for 30 minutes. You will fail because your mind will start wandering. It has found an interesting thing from the past or a future activity to plan.

If you cannot hold your attention, the only thing you will achieve is to generate revenue for social media sites. At the same time, if you can better your attention span, you can achieve wonders.

Here is a recent example of someone deep in action with amazing focus.

In Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 108-83. After the game, Cavaliers’ star Lebron James was asked about a stretch where the Celtics scored seven straight points. “What happened?” James repeated back to the reporter. He paused, and it seemed like he might dismiss the question, but then, “the first possession, we ran them down all the way to 2 [seconds] on the shot clock. [The Celtics’] Marcus Morris missed a jump shot. He followed it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson. He came off and missed it. They rebounded it. We came back on the defensive end, and we got a stop. They took it out on the sideline. Jason Tatum took it out, threw it to Marcus Smart in the short corner, he made a three. We come down, miss another shot. And then Tatum came down and went ninety-four feet, did a Eurostep and made a right-hand layup. [We called a] timeout.” 

It’s not just basketball. It works for anything you want to master. The challenge is in finding a technique that can help improve your attention span.

This is the end of the road for psychologists like Amishi Jha. They are excellent at identifying the problem, running experiments, and documenting the details. They know about various techniques used by successful people. For example, athletes use visualization as mental practice; golfers will practice swings in the mind and these mental rehearsals activate the motor cortex of the brain the way physical movement does.

Psychologists also know why many of the lifehack techniques don’t work. Imagine that you figured that time blocking is a wonderful technique. When you decide to focus for 30 mins on the presentation you are working on, your mind wanders. At this point, you have set goals, done your visualization, and are staying positive. The reason attention still wanders is that you need attention to implement any of these techniques, which is the original problem anyway.

At this point, science has given up. They can’t find a solution to increase your attention. Instead, in a sleight of hand, they offer you a solution – Meditation or Mindfulness or ancient teaching without the attachment of religion. This solution is not something found through the scientific process. It’s just an appropriation of a technique from the ancients.

This is not like when Einstein predicted that gravity can bend light and later experimentalists confirmed it. In this case, Buddha and his predecessors, the rishis of India had already proved that all of this works. These rishis subjected themselves to various techniques and came up with not just one, but many ways to maintain attention. They are the original scientists.

Now the research is simplified. Just prove that works by submitting it to folks in the army, students, firefighters, and whatnot. After running a battery of tests, they find that – hey this stuff works. Papers are produced, books are written and an expensive consulting business is started.

I just picked on Peak Mind because it was the most recent book I read on this topic. There are many others in this genre. They all follow a simple pattern of here is a problem and the answer in Buddhism, but without Buddha and karma and reincarnation. In a recent podcast, many high achievers admitted to practicing various dharmic practices.  Hence it is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness” to corporates, hospitals, and stressed out people.

Book Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

The book, The Devil and the Dark Water, set in 1634, starts when a fleet of spice-laden ships sets sail from Batavia to Amsterdam. Long before the British started looting the world, the United East India Company was the world’s wealthiest trading company. Among their outposts, Batavia was the most profitable. Navigational techniques were iffy, and the 8-month voyage was at the mercy of pirates, storms, and disease.

The lead ship, Saardam, has a set of interesting characters. First, there is the Governor-General along with his wife, daughter, and mistress. Another passenger is Samuel Pipps— an investigator who has solved many cases— jailed in the ship for execution at Amsterdam.

Then there is Old Tom, a supernatural demon, who previously wreaked havoc in various provinces. It possessed various wealthy nobles causing them to commit large-scale violence. It announced itself, in the provinces and on the ship, with a mark that resembled an eye with a tail.

Soon after the ship sets sail, stranger things begin; people get murdered. The narrative is that Old Tom is back — evident from his symbol, which mysteriously appears in random places — taking revenge. Old Tom whispered to others to murder, and one of his accomplices, a leper, stalked the cargo hold freely.

Since Samuel Pipps is a prisoner, it falls on his bodyguard Arent Hayes to find the truth. Hayes is not as talented as Pipps in figuring out a story after it has happened from bits of paper left behind. As Hayes starts investigating, uncomfortable truths about the past of various people surface. This is a ship filled with sailors for whom profit comes before principle, pride, and people. It seems they are all connected and have incentives for murder.

Such books, which are historical murder mysteries, are hard to come by. The last ones I read were the Snake Stone and its sequels. In a world where historical fiction means writing yet another book about the Tudor world, this book is like smelling air freshener in a fish market. Another positive is that the book is about the Dutch East India trade, which I do not know much about. Finally, the book’s locale, a floating vessel of wood and nails, make it unique.

The book is well written, bringing out the ship’s ambiance enriched by bilgewater with dead rats. There is mutiny, storm, and shady sailors who can murder anyone for a coin.

“Everybody thinks sailing is about the wind and waves. It ain’t. Sailing’s about the crew, which means it’s about superstition and hate. The men you’re depending on to get you home are murderers, cutpurses, and malcontents, unfit for anything else. They’re only on this ship because they’d be hanged anywhere else. They’ve got short tempers and violent passions, and we’ve locked them all together in a space we’d feel bad keeping cattle in. Captain Crauwels sails this ship, and I keep the crew from mutiny. If either of us makes a mistake, we’re all dead.”

Hayes follows the dictum of Pipps.

“Whether this is a devil dressed as a man or a man dressed as a devil, our course of action remains the same. We must investigate each incident, then follow the clues back to the truth.”

The book is a tad too long. It gets slow towards the middle, and you have to force yourself to read through to find out how a mysterious light could show up in the sea or how a “demon” could roam around a ship.

Book Review: River of Doubt by Candice Millard

River of Doubt by Candice Millard (442 pages)

After leaving the American presidency in 1909, Teddy Roosevelt, led “scientific” expeditions in Africa. During his African trip, “Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,400 animals, from insects and moles to hippopotamuses and elephants.” Probably the bored with this, he decided to run once again for presidency, but lost the nomination.

Looking for a new adventure, he decided to do a cruise on the Amazon river.

Stupidity follows. The expedition was planned by a priest who outsourced it to a store clerk, who had led a disastrous expedition to the North Pole. The clerk had never been to the Amazon. On reaching Brazil, Roosevelt is influenced to go down the uncharted River of Doubt.

The reason? Roosevelt writes: “No civilized man, no white man, had ever gone down or up this river, or seen the country through which we were passing.” Of course, many indigenous tribes lived there, but it did not matter. The statement accurately reflects the views of a man who once believed that the white race was superior to others.

What could go wrong here? At this time there were many known cases of people attempting this adventure and never returning back. “They have simply disappeared in the forest like stones in water. The jungle is jealous and voracious”

The expedition was launched without the right supplies, boats and knowledge. At this point, it is obvious that the expedition is doomed for failure. First, the river was uncharted. Second, there were deadly poisonous animals — snakes, insects, piranhas — which could wipe them out. Third, they could contract deadly diseases like malaria. Fourth, they were passing through the home of indigenous tribes, who could end them with poisonous arrows. But with arrogance, ignorance, and naïveté, the expedition plunged into the river.

Along the expedition, whatever can go wrong does. Roosevelt contracted malaria and faced death. The trip shortened his life. One of the Brazilians in the expedition killed another and fled into the forest. Another drowned. The survivors, almost starved to death. They also had to face infections, malaria and dysentery. They were shadowed by native tribes who could have easily killed them. Col. Rondon — the Brazilian leader — put peace offerings wherever possible. This could be why they did not end up as protein on a cannibal’s diet.

Teddy is an American darling. His face is on Mount Rushmore. He was an unapologetic imperialist, who also setup National Parks. It is hard to like him, especially regarding this trip. What makes the book interesting to read though is the wonderful writing of the author. You learn a lot about the animals, humans, diseases of the rain forest and the history of the region. It makes up an exciting outdoor adventure and a survival tale.

Review: Uri: The Surgical Strike

One of the best scenes in the movie Uri: The Surgical Strike is at the Prime Minister’s meeting to decide how India should react following a Pakistani terrorist attack at Uri killing 19 soldiers. While everyone throws out ideas, Ajit Doval, played by Paresh Rawal, suggests surgical strikes. Then he gives a speech on how this is a new India. — an India that does not remain silent in a moment of crisis and takes the fight to the enemy. He also reminds people not to worry about what US or UN would say and cites the example of what Israel did after Munich.

At the same time, on the Pakistani side, there is no fear of retribution. One character ridicules India, saying they will ban movie actors and singers for a while. Then everything will be back to normal. During the days of the Accidental Prime Minister, the national sport was competitive dossier exchange — a dereliction of generational duty. It appeared as if we had run out of cheeks to show the enemy to hit.

The Prime Minister and Mr. Doval put an end to it. The rest of the movie is a detailed retelling of how a team of Indian army soldiers cross into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and send the Islamic terrorists to party with the 72 virgins. (Incidentally, I noticed that a line on this was present in the trailer, but was removed from the movie in a kind of Nehruvian move). The technical prowess of India is on display – on how ISRO and DRDO ably supported the soldiers. You bear witness to how people who don’t want to see India going tukde, tukde, do whatever sacrifice it takes to make this a Mission: Possible.

Surgical Strikes would have made Navjot Sidhu sad, but this is the India that we all want to see; to move away from the outlandishly cautious to a bold and courageous one; to be the nation where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; to be the nation which has the political courage to order a surgical strike.

This movie is of a new genre, – a contemporary war procedural, with a no-nonsense retelling of actual events. The director had a bold unwillingness to entertain any material unreleated to the core narrative. But it is just not a cold kill-the-enemy movie. The human grief is given equal footing and the emotional intensity is high when the young child of the murdered soldier comes to pay homage to her father and shouts that the sacrificing life is the ultimate dharma. It is hard not to be shaken by that scene and you long for justice. Now, this not the first time in our country’s history that many such children had to go through such trauma. But this is probably the first time that a political leadership had the courage to bring the culprits to justice.

The technical aspects of the movie are absolutely world class. The music and the appropriate silences, intensify the tension. The final sequence is purely edge-of-the-seat stuff that is thrilling and nailbiting. The movie would have fallen flat if not for the brilliant performance of Vicky Kaushal who is intense throughout the movie. It is also rare to see such perfection from a first time director and kudos to Aditya Dhar for making this movie. If you asked me, “How was the josh, after watching the movie?”, I would say “Very high sir!”

The only hope is that an India, stretched by such boldness, will never go back to its old dimensions.

Book Review: Operation Johar — A Love Story by Abhishek Banerjee

In S. L. Bhyrappa’s novel, Aavarana, there is a dialogue between a Leftist professor and his Hindu student, who converted to Islam. In this conversation, the Professor explains the path of the revolution.

“There are no predefined methods to achieve complete revolution. The path shows the method. The urgent need of the hour is to destroy the traditions of the Hindu society because it is the majority community. Equally, we also need to apply this to the Muslim society. You must view your “conversion” in this light. Lakshmi, for all its faults, Islam stands for equality—share whatever you have, equally. If a revolution ever occurs in religion today, it will be on these principles that Islam already embodies. Hinduism is just a feeble relic incapable of anything.”

In Operation Johar — A Love Story by Abhishek Banerjee, Jatin, an Urban Naxal, goes to the jungle to meet fellow “Gandhians with Guns.” One of the comrades, Rani, takes Jatin to the top of a mountain the jungle and shows a Ganesha, who she considers the guardian of the jungle. Later, the following conversation happens between Rani and Jatin

“You know we are not supposed to have idols and such, worshipping stones and trees and rivers. Those things are foolish superstitions.”

“Really? If it is just a piece of stone, how come you are so scared of it?

“I’m not scared.”

“Of course you are. You saw something of awe and majesty and you felt threatened. So you tried to destroy it.”

“That’s not true. I was just trying to destroy the superstition.”

“But you don’t believe in it, so why bother? Nobody else knew of the place until I showed it to you. No one else would have seen it unless you showed it to them. Were you scared that the stone idol actually might have power over you?” Jatin remained silent.

The ecosystem that is out to get rid of “superstitions” is quite a familiar one. There are the foot soldiers – the urban naxals, the students who falls in love with socialism and communism. Then there are the academics, who provide respectability and cover for terrorism. Money and foreign trips come via NGOs who provide reputation for these academics. These deadly activities would be considered treasonous in normal circumstances. Then we are not living in normal circumstances. If you watch intolerance speeches, the Communist attack on Sabarimala, the award wapsi drama, you can see how the left-wing Hydra co-ordinates their activities.

The main characters in the book are a bit unusual – one is a Somu who is studying for the IIT entrance exam and the other is Sangeeta who started her career as a doctor. Somu has a crush on Sangeeta, but Sangeeta is in love with Jatin, who was her classmate. Jatin, a fan of Che Guevera, is out to change the world.

Abhishek has a good pulse on the current system in place. He writes about Birsa Munda, who was never mentioned at his English medium school but was known to the masses, Then, this is exactly how we have preserved our history. This is exactly why discovering Kampilya did not raise an eyebrow while discovering Troy was big news.

There is a good analysis on how venom spouting Professors are able to get money and remain untouched by the state, even when they are exposed.

The folks at Insaaniyat have whipped up some conference for him to be here.” ‘Insaaniyat’ was part of the NGO umbrella that worked with them. They would provide cover for people such as The Professor to move around through a network of conferences and programs organized under their banner, as also to meet and involve like-minded individuals in intellectual circles. The bank accounts they operated in various states under different names also helped to move money around in times of need.

There is another discussion on why traditions are important and have to be preserved

“So, it’s the traditions, the epics of this land, the Ramayana and Mahabharata; this is how Indians of all ages can recognize each other throughout history. Imagine if you could be in a time machine and go back a thousand years into the past. They would still recognize you and me as Indians, because of this common thread of tradition.”

The characters talk about how Mao first tried to replace Chinese culture and how Deng Xiaoping changed it. They talk about how Israel revived Hebrew. In India, it is important for Urban Naxals and Communists to destroy this common bond that has been preserved for millennia.

Abhishek’s thoughtful and exquisitely crafted book demolishes the leftist narrative through a riveting story. If you have read Prof. K K Muhammad’s autobiography, you can see how “secular” historians operate when it comes to the Ram Mandir. S. L Bhyrappa writes about how Marxist historians erased Islamic violence from our text books. We know why we will never learn about Operation Red Lotus or The Lost River in Indian schools. In an India where cultural institutions are controlled by the left and a new elite is emerging by posing as a revolutionary vanguard, promoting ‘secularism’, the book exposes the relentless cruelty, wanton violence, abuses of unchecked power of NGOs, Academics and their foot soldiers. It is also a reminder that a nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.

[Buy from Amazon India, Flipkart, Amazon US]

Movie: Spotlight – Exposing child abuse in the Catholic church in Boston

“I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together”

In the wild, a predator stalks a herd, identifies the weakest animal and then preys on it. It was the same tactic that Boston Catholic priests used to prey on kids. They would identify kids whose families were in a disarray or were low income. These kids did not have anyone to look up to and religion was an important part of their lives. A priest would take advantage of this, give them them attention  and reward them with treats. This guardian angel would then abuse them, physically and spiritually. This abuse was not a secret. The parishioners knew it and so did the Cardinal. But no one spoke against it.
The movie, which is based on real life incidents, starts with the arrival of a new editor at the Boston Globe, who reignites the investigation. A team, called Spotlight, consisting of four reporters start digging through. They knew about a previous settlement, but the documents were sealed by the court. Due to this, they have to find innovative ways to get the information. They contact victims who had settled and lawyers who had tried before and get them to talk. During the process, many people caution against moving forward as it amounted to suing the church. Another reason was that 53% of the readership was Catholic. The Cardinal, who knew about all this, but quietly settled, tells the editor that a city flourishes when its institutions work together. Others ask them to look at the good work that the church is doing and ignore the few bad apples.
<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47575397>By Source, Fair use</a>
By Source, Fair use

Many abuse cases were settled previously and there were lawyers knowledgeable of these incidents. Most of the times, it was the attorney for the victim negotiating with the church lawyers. Since it was a private settlement, there were no documents in court. There was no PR damage too since the victims did not want to appear on TV; Most of them wanted an acknowledgement of the wrong that was done. The court orders of a previous settlement were sealed and the team tries their best to get hold of it. A lawyer who was involved in the previous effort tries to help by guiding them to some documents which are public, but the team finds that the documents have mysteriously disappeared. Finally, when they get it unsealed and they get to know the ugly truths behind the Catholic church.
The Catholic church which had the duty to protect the innocent children protected the priests instead. These child molesters were transferred from parish to parish. Some were sent for rehabilitation and then circulated again. As the reporters continue, they meet one of the priests who admits that he fooled around with boys, but got not pleasure out of it. At the end of their discovery, they find that around 90 priests were involved. It shows that an independent media can do, if it really wants to go after the culprits. The team wrote around 600 articles and won the Pulitzer for exposing the cover ups.
 The Spotlight team
The Spotlight team

The movie does not relies on dialogue and no theatrics, but remains riveting till the end. It is an important expose into a culture of pervasive child abuse that was intentionally hidden. The movie is revealed through the eyes of the journalists. Some of the sordid details that the victims say are absolutely painful. Those are just words that we hear, but none of us can imagine that the pain that was inflicted on those children. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
What is deeply disturbing is that this was not an isolated incident. It was systemic and the institution did nothing to prevent it. Instead they spent their energy in covering it up. At the end of the movie, they show a list of places such abuses happened, and it covers few screens. Since the reach of the church is worldwide, the abuse is globalized. Take a look at the list of abuses world wide  or look at this.  In far away Kerala, Sister Jesme has documented the abuse that adults go through. There is the Sister Abhaya murder case, which shows the “how a city flourishes when institutions work together.”

Mudrarakshasa by Vishakadatta

Mudrarakshasa by VisakhadattaMudrarakshasa, written by Vishakadatta (Translated by R S Pandit) in 6th century CE, is a political thriller set in an interesting period in Indian history. It is the time of Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, and the Nandas. By this time, in Kusumapura (Patna), the last of the Nanda kings has renounced the world and his kingdom taken over by Chandragupta and Chanakya. Malayaketu, a small vassal king, left Chandragupta’s court after his father was poisoned. Though he fled, Malayaketu has a trump card in Rakshasa, the honest and smart minister. The goal of Chanakya at the beginning of the play is to bring Rakshasa to his camp so that Chandragupta would have an able minister by his side.
The title Mudrarakshasa refers to the signet ring of Rakshasa. It was stolen by Chanakya’s spy. Using that mudra Chanakya forges a letter which sets the wheel of intrigue into motion.  After a few back and forth moves, Chanakya is able to brilliantly seed suspicion into the minds of Rakshasa and Malayaketu. The spies of Chanakya spin tales and at some point, Malayaketu is suspicious of Rakshasa’s loyalty. Malayaketu thinks that if Chanakya is gone, then Rakshasa might switch loyalty. Also, though it was Chanakya who killed Malayaketu’s father, the blame was put on Rakshasa. While all this is happening, Rakshasa sees his world falling apart, with his friends disappearing in Chanakya’s web for one mistake he did. He left his family at a friend’s house while he left. That step, along with the loss of his ring, would lead to his fall.
The scenes alternate between Chanakya’s house and Rakshasa’s house with one making a cunning move and the other trying to foresee and counter it. It is like a game of shatranj, but with lives at stake. It creates great drama and suspense. Through dialogue, Vishakadatta exposes the ideals of the characters and to what length they would go to defend their allegiances. Chanakya is focussed on the brilliant and brave Rakshasa — he admires him, though he is in the enemy camp — and wants to get him to the Maurya side. He would do anything to achieve that goal, like forging letters, imprisoning innocent people and threatening to kill them, exiling people, using poison girls and spies.  He knows Rakshasa’s weakness for his friends and exploits it to make him helpless and surrender.
Rakshasa is not a simpleton either. He tries his best to murder Chandragupta. On the day, Chandragupta was to enter as the victor to the palace, Rakshasa had placed a shooter and a mahout to assassinate him, but instead of Chandragupta, the assassins get killed. Then Rakshasa tried poisoning Chandragupta, instead, Chanakya made the poisoner drink it. Then a group was made to hide in Chandragupta’s room. Chanakya spotted ants coming from the floor with food and detected the hidden enemies.
The play shows how spies form an important tool in both Chanakya’s and Rakshasa’s arsenal (“They know a thousand languages, they have a thousand eyes, they travel in thousand disguises”).  There is a Brahmin, Indusharman, dressed as a Buddhist monk, who gets friendly with the ministers of Rakshasa. Then there is Nipunaka, who walks around carrying a cloth with designs of Yama. His task is to keep an eye on the general population. Jain monk, Jivasiddhi too is a spy and so is Viradhagupta dressed as a snake charmer.
Rakhasa, though defeated, ends on a high note. He becomes the minister of Chandragupta, passing a tough test. He is respected for his ethical stand and keeping his moral fiber in-tact, despite all the odds. Chanakya too ends on a high note. He used deception to trap Rakshasa, not to benefit him, but Chandragupta. He himself retires. The play brings out the contrast between these two ministers. Chanakya is ruthless, but Rakshasa is softer and relenting. Chanakya can plot a deceptive scheme, Rakshasa is more of a soldier.
An interesting aspect of this play — and I have to confess that I have not read many — is that there is no romance at all. In fact, there are no main women characters (there are minor ones like guards and wife of one character). Apparently, Sanskrit dramas have a vidushaka character, which is missing in this one. It is a cut and dry political drama with intrigue and intellectual arguments on duty and loyalty.
PS: There is a scene where the Jain monk Jivasiddhi shows up when Rakshasa is looking for an astrologer. Rakshasa reacts, “That naked monk! What an evil omen.”
PS1: Do you know how Chanakya died? Interestingly, it comes from a Jain source, which is the only source.

Briefly Noted: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, SS colonel Hans Landa or the “Jew Hunter”, reaches the home of a French dairy farmer looking for a Jewish family. The next few minutes are a typical Tarantino scene, where you know the end is not going to be good. For leaving his family alone, the farmer betrays the Jewish family hiding in his basement.
From the Dreyfus Affair (recently retold in An Officer and a Spy) to World War II and beyond,  Jews were never safe in France. Even now France is seeing a rise in antisemitism and an increase in aliyah. Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow starts with a bomb explosion in the Marais district of Paris, known for its large Jewish population. When the French find out that ISIS (“ISIS gave purpose to lost souls and promised an afterlife of eternal copulation“) is responsible for the attack, they request the help of Gabriel Allon, who is going to be Israel’s next intelligence chief. The only data point they know is that a man known as Saladin is responsible for this attack. They neither know his real name nor his nationality. To find out the real identity of Saladin, they need someone who can infiltrate ISIS.
Among all the books of Daniel Silva, this is probably the best. While rest of them are thrillers, this one grips you because of two things. One, he deals with a real problem and how the world is reacting to that. While the book was written prior to the Paris attacks, it resembles real events that happened recently.He ridicules President Obama, who called ISIS, al-Qaeda’s jayvee team and also people who call ISIS as un-Islamic.
Here is a paragraph from Greame Wood’s article in The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[What ISIS Really Wants]

Second, the book does not have much sub plots and hence the main plot grips you. Silva’s book ends with an attack on the American soil by ISIS sleeper cells and that is a real fear.

Briefly Noted: Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery (Li Du Novels) by Elsa Hart
Early in the 17th century, the English were trying to get a foothold in India as traders with the visit of Thomas Roe to Jehangir’s court. In China, at around the same time, the Ming dynasty was getting replaced by the Qing dynasty. The world was changing, not just in terms of a dynastic change, but also in terms of Western religious and economic imperialism. Jesuits and Dominicans were wandering around China looking for converts. The English East India company was also looking for a way to gain foothold in the country. (The Virginia Company was already setting the template for destroying native civilizations in the America)
In Elsa Hart’s work of historical fiction set in this period, a Jesuit priest is found murdered in the town of Dayan near Tibet. The magistrate of the town does not want this incident to upset the celebrations that have been planned for  Emperor Kangxi, who is visiting shortly. There are many suspects – the Dominicans, the trader from the Company, the library clerk, the first lady, the Tibetans and a wandering story teller — who have their own secrets. While the magistrate is happy to ignore the incident, his cousin Li Du is not. An imperial librarian and now an exile, he  happened to be in the magistrate’s house when the murder happened and will not rest till the mystery is solved.
The book is interesting in the way any historical fiction is. It gives an introduction to an interesting phase of Chinese history. It brings out the transition from Ming to Qing very well and also the way the Tibetans are treated. The details in the story gives a good feel for Chinese culture and social norms. The story follows the three act structure very well, but the intensity of the transitions is timid. There is no violence, or torture or gruesome deaths, thus making it different from most other historical fiction. In a book market where historical fiction focuses mostly on the Western world, this book is a welcome change.