Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Gratitude, Trust and Tolerance.....“Thank You, Bees,” by Toni Yuly (Candlewick ),“The War I Finally Won,” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books),“The 57 Bus,” by Dashka Slater (FSG)(IBRChildrensBooks)





The sweetness of food, the warmth of a sweater, the soil and rain that nourish plants and flowers: There is much for which to be grateful. But where do these things come from? Toni Yuly shows us, joyfully, in Thank You, Bees (ages 18 months to 4 years). Cheerful ink and collage art sings from each page in vibrant primary colors and interesting textures. Yuly’s clear, crisp depictions of things such as rain, gardens or a treehouse are lively and immediate, demonstrating that we have light from the sun, honey from the bees, wool from sheep, wood from trees — and each of these makes up a part of the home that the Earth gives us. This is an exuberant book about some everyday gifts from the natural world and a lighthearted way to express gratitude for them, with words that are easy, charming and important to say out loud now and then: “Thank you, bees,” “Thank you, trees,” “Thank you, Earth.”




Trust comes hard to 11-year-old Ada in The War I Finally Won(Dial, ages 9 to 12), by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. This stunning sequel to Bradley’s Newbery Honor book “The War That Saved My Life” opens in 1940 with Ada about to undergo surgery on her clubfoot. Its success allows Ada to walk and run, but she remains haunted by memories of her abusive mother. Ada’s worries are further complicated by the uncertainties of war. The cottage Ada shares in Kent, England, with her younger brother and their guardian grows cramped and occasionally fractious when the landlord, Lady Thorton, moves in. Bradley brings to vivid life the home-front experience of blackout curtains, ration books, bombs and the constant fear of loss. When a Jewish teenager from Germany joins the household, Ada remains aloof, believing, like many at the time, that all Germans were enemies. Slowly, the girls bond over a shared love of the horses in Lady Thorton’s stable, and Ada learns of Hitler’s treatment of Jews. A series of tragic events thrusts Ada into action — and brings the disparate characters together. By turns tough and tender, this novel leavens complex themes with moments of wonder and joy, including a trip to the London zoo and a magical late-night gallop.






“The 57 Bus,” by Dashka Slater (FSG)

On the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, a 16-year-old boy in Oakland, Calif., set fire to another teenager’s thin white skirt. The victim received second- and third-degree burns and spent the next few weeks undergoing multiple surgeries. In The 57 Bus (Farrar Straus Giroux, ages 12 to 18), Dashka Slater examines this horrific incident from several angles, providing a nuanced portrait of the assailant and the victim, a brainy teen who identifies as agender (neither male or female). The book also sensitively explores the hot-button issues of gender nonconformity, bias crimes and juvenile justice. And since the attack occurred at one point along the sprawling route of the 57 bus, the city of Oakland — a diverse community beset by inequalities in income, opportunity and safety — also figures heavily in the narrative. For kids in East Oakland, “life had a way of sticking its foot out, sending you sprawling,” and Slater well describes the bleak and bleaker prospects they face.

Celebrating Snoopy Hardcover – October 24, 2017 by Charles M. Schulz, Andrews McMeel Publishing



Snoopy — the world’s coolest dog — finally gets the book he deserves



From “Celebrating Snoopy,” by Charles M. Schulz. (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Growing up in the early 1970s, I drew Snoopy constantly. I started young, depicting Snoopy on his doghouse as three small white hills on a red triangle. Before long, I graduated to Snoopy as a flying ace with a helmet and scarf.

Like too many kids, I eventually gave up the pleasures of drawing, but Snoopy served as a vital introduction to an unleashed imagination. While Charlie Brown dodges kite-eating trees and gets suckered into football pranks, his dog soars, swoops, battles, dances, skates and, best of all, writes. While Charlie Brown leans against a wall and discusses theology, Snoopy relishes the joys of make-believe.

This is made abundantly clear in the massive new anthology “Celebrating Snoopy,” with an introduction by The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs columnist Michael Cavna. Editors Alexis Fajardo and Dorothy O’Brien offer a unique retelling of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” by omitting strips that don’t feature Snoopy in a significant role. So instead of starting with the famous Oct. 2, 1950, image of Shermy commenting, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown. . . . How I hate him!,” “Celebrating Snoopy” launches with the strip published two days later: Snoopy proudly walks down the sidewalk with a tall flower in his collar and is accidentally watered by Patty. In the final panel, both flower and Snoopy’s mood are wilted. The next comic presented here — a strip originally published Oct. 20, 1950 — shows Snoopy popping out of a jack-in-the-box. It’s his first impersonation, and he never looks back.
From “Celebrating Snoopy,” by Charles M. Schulz. (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

This is not the first “Peanuts” anthology to spotlight Snoopy. His flying-ace adventures were recounted in “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” (Fantagraphics, 2015), and his career as an author was honored in the lovely “Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life” (Writer’s Digest, 2002). But the oversize and colorful “Celebrating Snoopy” is the most ambitious move to put Snoopy at the center of all activity in the “Peanuts” universe — which is surely how Snoopy would have preferred it.


Of course, we know otherwise. “The Complete Peanuts” (Fantagraphics, 25 vols.), which set the gold standard in publishing archival collections of long-running strips, makes clear that “Peanuts” always was an ensemble show. This fact is underscored by the new “Complete Peanuts Family Album” (Weldon Owen), a one-volume encyclopedia of more than 70 “Peanuts” characters, ranging from the iconic to the obscure. Along with a trove of “Peanuts” ephemera, this wonderful collection offers first-appearance strips and smart essays by Andrew Farago covering everyone from Cormac to Truffles, and other names that even longtime “Peanuts” fans might not recognize.

Like any good encyclopedia, “The Complete Peanuts Family Album” can be browsed at will, starting at any page. “Celebrating Snoopy,” however, should be read chronologically to fully appreciate the evolutionary leaps of the dog at the center of it all. Aided by Fajardo’s brief but instructive essays, we see Snoopy first as an amusing neighborhood puppy — sort of a comic-strip version of Petey from “The Little Rascals” — only to quickly transform into an entirely different being. “For Snoopy, change begins in the form of a thought, and that thought is how miserable it is to be a dog,” Fajardo writes. By the mid-1950s, Snoopy had begun trying on new personas: There sits the dog on the croquet pole, thinking himself a vulture. In 1958, Snoopy ascends his doghouse for the first time. From that point on, neither his life nor ours will be quite the same.




“Celebrating Snoopy,” by Charles M. Schulz (Andrews McMeel) (Andrews McMeel)

“The best thing I ever thought of was Snoopy using his own imagination,” Schulz once said. The transformation was evident from the start. In 1957, Hugh Morrow wrote in the Saturday Evening Post, “Snoopy of late has taken to dancing on his hind legs, thereby achieving a certain superiority over the children because he is able, while dancing, to ignore them.”


For anyone who has ever looked at a dog’s twitching paws and wondered just what was going on in that mind, Snoopy provides all the best answers. And as David Michaelis revealed in “Schulz and Peanuts”(Harper, 2007), Snoopy’s fantasy life also offered glimpses into Schulz’s own life and passions. Such was the case in 1966, when a fire in Schulz’s studio inspired a series in which Snoopy’s doghouse burns down. While Charlie Brown worries about the insurance policy and Lucy insists the tragedy is punishment for various sins, Snoopy quietly walks over to the charred remains, pauses and climbs back on top of what’s left of his rooftop.

More than a half century later, “Peanuts” fans would recall this story upon hearing that wildfires were threatening the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. His widow, Jean Schulz, lost her home to the blaze, but the museum and its treasures were spared. With all the spirit of Snoopy climbing back on top of his doghouse, the museum has since reopened. It’s yet another reminder of the enduring qualities bestowed by one of our greatest cartoonists on a most uncommon dog.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reign and Religion in Palestine: The Use of Sacred Iconography in Jewish Coinage By Anne Lykke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015), xii+278 pp., 228 b/w illus., approx. $92 (hardcover)




The subject of Anne Lykke’s new book has been dear to the heart of this reviewer for many years and, indeed, covers one of the first numi-matic topics that I addressed. I therefore greatly anticipated the appearance of this book, which is based on the author’s 2012 University of Vienna Ph.D. dissertation. The book is divided into seven chapters surveying the use of numismatic iconography in Palestine during the Persian period (the Yehud coinage) under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties and during the two Jewish Revolts against Roman rule. An eighth chapter offers Lykke’s conclusions, while an illustrated catalog of 228 coins supports her discussion.

Throughout the book, the author convincingly argues that true Jewish sacred iconography appears only on coins issued in times of major crisis, including during the conflict between Herod the Great and the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus Mattathias (39–37 B.C.); the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66–73) and the Bar-Kokhba War (A.D. 132–135). Otherwise, the Jewish coinages of the Persian, Hasmonean and Herodian periods generally allude to Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple cult only in vague, allegorical terms (i.e., the lily and the cornucopia), if at all. The majority of the numismatic iconography was appropriated from contemporary pagan Greek and Roman images. The degree of offense to Jewish religious scruples could vary greatly, ranging from the innocuous (e.g., the double cornucopia, military helmet, etc.) to the outright blasphemous (e.g., temples of the imperial cult, ruler portraits, etc.), depending on the target audience. Innocuous images were employed in Jerusalem and aimed at the Jewish audience, while images of stronger pagan flavor were employed in the Herodian tetrarchies outside of Judea proper with much larger non-Jewish populations.

A recurring theme throughout the book is the idea that paleo-Hebrew script in coin legends served more as a religious symbol than as a real means of written communication with the coin-user. This view is predicated on the widely held belief that by the fourth century B.C., paleo-Hebrew had ceased to be a script familiar to most Jews—having been replaced by Aramaic script—and hence was largely unreadable to the general public. However, if few coin users could read the legends, we wonder what point there was in employing legends that were so laden with meaning. For example, if paleo-Hebrew script was virtually unreadable, there would have been no way to distinguish Hasmonean coins of John Hyrcanus I from those of Judas Aristobulus or to know that the Jewish hever (council) was involved in their production. Likewise, if most of the populace could not read the paleo-Hebrew legends on the coins issued during the First Revolt, how could they have recognized the attempt to mimic the Greek legends of the Tyrian half-shekel (the traditional coin required to pay the Temple tax)? There also can have been little purpose in proclaiming the “Freedom of Israel” on the coins of the Bar-Kokhba War if the script made such stirring words unreadable. While we do not doubt that Lykke is right to see a religious symbolic aspect in the use of paleo-Hebrew script, it seems problematic to discount its use for written communication.

While Lykke provides an up-to-date survey of ancient numismatic iconography and raises a number of new questions and ideas, her writing is marred in instances by poor sentence structure and typographical errors.

The Dream Keeper's Daughter: A Novel Kindle Edition by Emily Colin ( Ballantine Book)





Kickass lady academic main character? Check. Past-present storylines? Check. Time travel a la Outlander? Check. Lost love? Check. Swoon-worthy bad boy best friend? Check. Character with inexplicably accurate intuition? Check.

I raced through the pages, wanting to know more at every turn. The writing was evocative and crackled with energy. I could practically taste what the characters were eating and smell the various environments they inhabited. We primarily get Isabel's perspective in the present, as well as her memories of her relationship with Max leading up to when he disappeared.

We also get Max's perspective in 1816 Barbados. I did not know a slave uprising had occurred there and the depiction of the events leading up to it was done well. The uprising was ultimately unsuccessful and many slaves were killed as a result so Max wants to prevent it from happening, even as he is horrified by the way the slaves are treated. He walks a thin line on both sides as a strange white man, not wanting to arouse suspicion of the white slave owners while understandably not being trusted by the slaves. This leads to so many potentially interesting discussion questions.

My feelings were all over the map with this novel. From the opening pages, I was sure it would be a 5 star book. I inhaled the story. I was fascinated by the mechanics of time travel, in which Max has been gone for 8 years in the present day but he believes he's only been gone 2 weeks. I wanted to know more about their daughter Finn's ability, as either a highly sensitive and intuitive person or someone with ESP. Most of all, I wanted Isabel and Max to be reunited. Of course, I did.

But then I started to see where Colin was taking the story and I did not like this. Not because it was a bad plot choice but my own personal preference. I don't like love triangles and I wanted her best friend Ryan to stay her best friend, not her potential interest. Although let's be clear, I loved Ryan's character. His backstory was heartbreaking and I loved the way he supported Isabel and Finn. His scenes with Finn were incredibly touching. I decided to trust Colin but the novel was hovering at 3 stars in my mind.

I was right to trust the author. Her choices made for an ultimately more interesting story. There was no predictability to be found. Yes, you hope Max and Isabel's mom Julia (who went missing years ago) will make it back to the present but beyond that, Colin is making up her own rules. I wasn't sure I agreed with her choices but they were fresh and unexpected so the novel moved up to 4 stars. I grudgingly accepted the ending. It was not my preference but it made perfect sense for the characters and the story.

In the weeks that have followed, I kept turning the story over in my mind. The way the novel alternated seamlessly between past and present, the history of Barbados, the rich character growth. The bold moves with the plot. It all made for a better book and I couldn't help but respect Colin more for it. Because of all this, the book returned to 5 stars.

This was an interesting ride, to say the least, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Synopsis

An archaeologist discovers her presumed-missing boyfriend is trapped more than a hundred years in the past—a love story that transcends time and place, from the author of the New York Times bestseller The Memory Thief.

Eight years after the unsolved disappearance of her boyfriend Max Adair, archaeologist Isabel Griffin has managed to move on and rebuild her life with her young daughter, Finn, her last tie to Max. But after a series of strange incidents, Isabel begins to wonder if Max might still be alive somewhere, trying to communicate with her. She has no idea that the where isn’t the problem—it’s the when. Max has slipped through time and place, landing on his ancestral family plantation in 1816 Barbados, on the eve of a historic slave uprising. As Isabel searches for answers, Max must figure out not only how to survive the violence to come, but how to get back to his own century, the woman he loves, and the daughter he has only ever met in his dreams.

Before Everything Hardcover – June 27, 2017 by Victoria Redel (Viking)

I read Before Everything, a novel, right before reading My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, a memoir . Both are about a group of friends and terminal illness. And while they took different tacks to explore these topics, the synchronicity was worth paying attention to.




"It's the oddest thing. I spent all those years refusing to be defined by illness. I was so insistent, so ferocious about it. Now I see I wasn't. I have the sweetest life. The kids. My family. All of you."

"Do you feel ready?" Molly asked.

"It's not a matter of being ready. Who'd ever be ready to give all this sweetness up? It's that I'm not really here anymore."

"But you say you're happy to be with us tonight," Helen said. She was so relieved that they were all finally together talking. Not about kids. But this.

"I don't know how to explain it. I'm sorry."

"It's bittersweet." Ming licked the spoon's metal. She made no attempt to wipe the tears off her face.

"Just sweet," Anna said, and picked up the next pint of vanilla bean. p. 153-4

When I started reading this novel, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. A scene in the present might take up a page before flitting back to a paragraph-long memory from the past and all the while, the reader is forming an impression of the group of friends who has arrived to rally around Anna.

Anna has decided she's not going to try any more cancer treatments and begins hospice. Her ex-husband Reuben, still a good friend, becomes her caregiver. Her brothers and many of her friends take turns trying to convince her to try one last round, which has worked in the past. But Anna is tired and she is ready. The bits from her perspective were incredibly moving, as Redel shows not only the confusion of a brain slowing down but the flutter of memories. I particularly enjoyed Anna's realization of all the things she will no longer have to do, from blood draws to shaving her legs. When Anna's son tells her his wife is pregnant with her first, she thinks about everything she wants to tell her baby's baby and this is a fully internal experience. She begins to withdraw as she sleeps more but we are present to her thought process.

Like any group of friends, each person responds differently to Anna's decline. With The Old Friends-Helen, Molly, Ming, Caroline- those who Anna has known since 6th grade, they each remember how they met Anna, how their group formed, and what Anna has meant to them over the years. They consider what Anna will miss, like Helen's second wedding and whatever Molly's teen daughter is going through.

The memories from various points in their lives are overlaid into the present. The memories were often paragraph snippets and I usually wanted more but as the book continued, it occurred to me this is how if often is in friendship. I spent a weekend away with my best friends and our conversation would veer from "remember who I took to prom?" to "here's the book I'm reading" and "this is what happened at work yesterday" with fluidity. Redel has given us that same fluidity and I'm not sure I've experienced it in fiction before but it worked.

Redel took it a step further by including the perspectives of some of Anna's local friends. None of the Old Friends live by her so it has been an entirely different community that has been there for the day-in, day-out of her years of cancer treatment. They respond differently to her decision for hospice, as one might imagine, as they have vicariously experienced the toll the treatments have taken. The two groups of friends don't know how to relate to each other and it was interesting to watch them navigate their possessiveness of Anna.

Of course, it's not always easy to read about someone who is dying. But there was a lot of life and even laughter in this novel. I laughed out loud at a couple astute observations. I teared up at various points. I considered how I'd respond if this was my friend or if I was the one dying.

This is a celebration of friendship and a meditation on the impact we can have on one another. It was bittersweet and lovely. It was one of the most honest accounts of friendship I've found in a novel and I'm so glad I read it.

Synopsis

Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each another since they were girls. They’ve faced everything together, from youthful sprees and scrapes to mid-life turning points. Now, as Anna, the group’s trailblazer and brightest spark, enters hospice, they gather to do what they’ve always done—talk and laugh and help each other make choices and plans, this time in Anna’s rural Massachusetts home. Helen, Anna’s best friend and a celebrated painter, is about to remarry. The others face their own challenges—Caroline with her sister’s mental health crisis; Molly with a teenage daughter’s rebellion; Ming with her law practice—dilemmas with kids and work and love. Before Everything is as funny as it is bittersweet, as the friends revel in the hilarious mistakes they’ve seen each another through, the secrets kept, and adventures shared. But now all sense of time has shifted, and the pattern of their lives together takes on new meaning. The novel offers a brilliant, emotionally charged portrait, deftly conveying the sweep of time over everyday lives, and showing how even in difficult endings, gifts can unfold. Above all it is an ode to friendship, and to how one person shapes the journeys of those around her.



Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race Hardcover – September 6, 2016 (William Morrow)






The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

What can I say about this remarkable book?

I was drawn in from the moment the author described how the story first came to her- literally through an off-handed comment from her dad as they were driving through her hometown. She was the right person at the right time and place to discover, research, and then write about the women who directly impacted NASA's space race.

Just as those women were in the right place at the right time to integrate NACA (what later became NASA) and then ascend its ranks, many going from computers to receiving the designation of mathematicians and even engineers.

I had never heard heard about the West Computers before. Nor had I thought much about how the NASA program came to be or just how much math was involved, especially before electric computers were around. And I definitely didn't have a sense about how exciting this time was. I found this book to be incredibly educational on many fronts.

Hidden Figures is part history book, part profile of several of these computers. It's in a similar vein as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Unbroken, and The Boys On The Boat. Hidden Figures covers more than 25 years between when the first black women were hired in 1943 to the successful launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 and a little of the years after.

The story of what these women accomplished is incredible in itself. I'm not mathematically gifted so reading about the calculations they were figuring out and how it was used to invent plane and then space technology boggled my mind. Katherine Johnson, who is probably the most well known of the West Computers, directly contributed to the space launch. But if anything is evident after reading this book, it's that every single employee, from the janitor to the engineer, made that accomplishment happen and it is sad that history books tell us about the astronauts and maybe the engineers but that's it. For that reason, I'm so glad to now know the names of Katherine, Dorothy, Mary, and the others.

Each of the women profiled deserve to have a book written about them alone! I do wish some of their stories had been further fleshed out. A few narrative threads petered out sooner than necessary and I was left with a couple of questions that the epilogue didn't address either. But overall, Shetterly did a great job bringing these amazing women to life and showing how they helped one another, whether they were there from the beginning or brought in along the way.

What elevates this book even further is its consideration of racism and sexism. Just because NACA was at the forefront of integration does not mean its black workers were treated fairly. There were separate bathrooms and a separate table in the cafeteria. They could work alongside white colleagues but they were still kept in their "place." Each person responded to this differently. And as the times changed, so too did NACA and this was gratifying to see. It also highlighted the disparity with the state of Virginia, which greatly resisted desegregation.

This was also at a time when men didn't believe women's delicate brains could handle tricky mathematics so all women, black and white, started out as computers, even if they had college degrees in math, even though men with the same experience were hired as mathematicians. Women had to prove themselves over and over again and some eventually got to pursue higher degrees and were promoted, though this often depended on which engineer they worked for and how progressive they were.

All of this makes the West Computers' accomplishments that much more impressive. Shetterly effectively used the backdrop of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement within this narrative.

All people deserve to be treated fairly and to have the same rights. What might have happened had NACA delayed integration? Would we still have sent men to the moon? Maybe eventually but Apollo 11's success depended directly on the decision to hire black women to be computers.

The decision to do the right thing shouldn't be based on what we can get out of it. We should speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and ableism because it's the right thing to do. Because we are better together. Because we have so much to learn from one another.

It's a lesson we need to keep in mind these days.

"It's a story of hope, that even among some of our country's harshest realities- legalized segregation, racial discrimination- there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.

The greatest encouragement along the way has come from black women...For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we've believed to be true, but that we don't always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America." p. 248

I'm so glad Shetterly wrote this book and I'm grateful to the women who were her inspiration.

Improvement by Joan Silber Counterpoint,



k


“Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” John Berger wrote in his novel G. (1972). In the decades that have followed, that line has become a rallying cry for contemporary novelists, including Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, and, most famously, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But it’s worth remembering that, from Mrs. Dalloway to Underworld, the novel has often relied on a plurality of voices—sometimes a chorus, sometimes a cacophony—to evoke the texture of life. A technique that once felt radical has become a new fictional norm.

So it bears noticing when a novelist creates a genuinely new way of suggesting the complicated dance of relationships formed and dissolved, of connections made and missed, that sets the tone for a human life. For the last seventeen years, in a succession of books that are structured as a hybrid of the novel and linked stories, Joan Silber has been quietly stretching our understanding of how stories can be told. Using one person’s narrative as a jumping-off point for any number of others—the high school ex-girlfriend who appears momentarily in one chapter might become the focus of the next—her work generates tension and momentum from the ebbs and flows of individual lives, but also from the unexpected and sometimes unexplained links between them. “The world is not revolving around you—or it’s revolving around you from your point of view, but there are a lot of other revolutions going on at the same time,” she has said. Her method is “a way of conveying that, of giving a broader canvas than fiction sometimes gives.”

It’s a testimony to Silber’s gifts that none of her books in this mode—starting with In My Other Life (2000), there are now six—feels formulaic. Each of them pushes in a new direction. Ideas of Heaven (2004), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is a “ring of stories” written in the first person, in which every speaker connects almost invisibly to the next until the final piece of the puzzle brings them all together. In The Size of the World (2008), faulty screws in a guidance system for American planes in Vietnam kickstart a journey across decades, from Vietnam to Florida, Thailand, Sicily, and New Jersey. Fools (2013) begins with a circle of anarchists in 1920s New York and masterfully unspools threads that lead from Paris to Mumbai and finally circle back around. In each book, the characters are linked not only by their circumstances but also, and more importantly, by their shared preoccupations: the twin paths of sex and religion as routes to ecstasy; the unintended and often irrevocable consequences of our actions; the challenge of reconciling our practical desires with our moral impulses.

With Improvement, her eighth work of fiction, Silber takes on what might be the quintessential American drive: improving ourselves, our partners, or our situations. How do we live our “best life,” as Oprah exhorts from the newsstand? How do we become our best selves—through travel, romance, caretaking, risk-taking? Like the Turkish carpet that drives much of the book’s action, Improvement repeats shapes and motifs, layering them in an intricate pattern that builds into something far more complex than the sum of its parts.

That carpet, from the village of Kula, was brought to America by Kiki, whose niece, Reyna, narrates the first section of the book. Reyna doesn’t know much about her aunt’s years in Turkey, other than that Kiki met a carpet seller in Istanbul in 1970 and married him. When his business failed, they moved to his family’s farm in the countryside, living with his parents. Eight years later, Kiki returned to New York on her own, toting nine carpets in her “third-world” luggage—“woven plastic valises baled up with string.” She sold a few and kept one for Reyna, who adores her but regards her as a little wacky.

When the novel opens, just before Hurricane Sandy, Reyna, a single mother to four-year-old Oliver, has been waiting patiently for several months for her boyfriend, Boyd, to be released from Rikers Island, where he was sent for selling marijuana. He is devoted to her and to Oliver, but his friends—especially Lynnette, his ex-girlfriend and the sister of his friend Claude—mistrust Reyna, presumably because she’s white. As a part-time receptionist at a veterinarian’s office, Reyna doesn’t make much money; still, she has everything she needs and is happy with her life, especially with Boyd in it.

But when Boyd gets out of jail, he finds that his social position has fallen. No longer allowed to tend bar as he once did, he’s stuck working at a diner. He, Claude, and two other friends cook up a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Richmond, Virginia, where taxes are low, and sell them in New York. For the first few runs, everything goes fine, and the influx of cash gives Boyd and the others a new confidence. Money and the things it gets us—not all of them material—is one of the threads Silber will worry throughout the novel. “From repeated success, from tests passed and suspense endured, their personalities were all showing signs of change,” she writes.

Claude had stopped looking hangdog and was now a seemlier specimen, Maxwell took on the dignity of a general, and Wiley was getting closer to unbearable. Boyd simply had more hope in him.

We know that something will go wrong, and it does. One day Wiley, the designated driver, doesn’t show up. Maxwell doesn’t have a license, Claude is a terrible driver, and Boyd, still on probation, isn’t allowed to leave New York. They ask Reyna to step in, and she agrees, but at the last minute she changes her mind. Who will take care of Oliver if they get caught and she goes to jail? Claude, impulsively, takes the wheel. He and Maxwell never make it to Richmond. Outside Baltimore, trying to turn onto I-95 from a rest stop, he crashes into a truck. Claude dies before the ambulance gets there; Maxwell winds up in the hospital; Lynnette nearly loses her mind with grief. And Boyd leaves Reyna, their relationship poisoned by her last-minute refusal to help and the disaster that followed. His yearning for improvement has sabotaged them both.

In life, we often don’t recognize the moments that potentially alter our courses until long after the results are fixed. The same goes for Silber’s fiction, which is centered around those moments of irrevocability but often allows them to pass by almost unnoticed. Reyna doesn’t even learn of Claude’s accident until nearly a week later, after the consequences have already begun to take shape. Everyone touched by it—some directly, others tangentially—is altered. Each is seen briefly but fully, with distinct desires and sorrows.

Teddy, the middle-aged trucker who was driving the tractor-trailer Claude crashed into, is haunted by the moment: “the noise of the car’s arrival, the unbelievable cosmic smack of it collapsing itself into crumpled metal.” He feels doubly guilty, both for Claude’s death (though the accident wasn’t his fault) and also because he was on his way to visit his ex-wife, Sally, with whom he’s been having an unlikely affair (he is remarried). They’ve met again twenty-six years after their divorce, after her casual request for a document led to an e-mail correspondence and then a series of furtive meetings. Teddy still feels guilty, too, about the way he behaved during their marriage: he drank too much and once ran over a fancy dress of Sally’s with his truck while they were having a fight. He wonders how to repay her for his bad behavior:

He’d assumed his genuine remorse was enough—it was a lot, from him—but how much of life was weighable and concrete and physical and how much was the-thought-that-counted?

Back in Richmond, Darisse, whom Claude has been seeing on his trips there, grows despondent when he doesn’t show up at the bar where they were supposed to meet and stops answering his phone. (“Who had told the girl in Richmond, or was she still waiting?” Reyna wonders after she hears about the accident.) She works as a home health aide and lives with her grandmother, who consented to take her in but not her two-year-old daughter. She’s allowed to see the little girl, who now lives with her ex’s mother, only on weekends and only when her ex is in the mood, which sometimes depends on her willingness to perform sexual favors. Soon after Claude’s disappearance, she meets Silas, a soft-spoken nurse who takes her out to a jazz club and on their next date brings her back to his stylish apartment. Everyone around her thinks he’s a step up from her previous boyfriends—he dresses well, treats her nicely, makes her waffles for breakfast—but somehow she still doesn’t feel right with him and continues to long for Claude. One person’s improvement is another’s step down.

With each of these stories—by the end of the book, there will be several more distinct strands—Silber spins another variation on the novel’s larger themes of advancement and decline, of the mysterious and messy workings of love, of paths taken and not taken. Her technique of shifting viewpoints from one chapter to the next highlights not only the way a single dramatic event can ripple outward into ever-expanding circles, but also how a moment that is incidental for one person can be decisive for another. Apparently minor details also gain something when seen from a different perspective. By the time Kiki’s luggage, which looked so foreign to Reyna as a child, appears again, we know exactly how she acquired the carpets she’s carrying and what they mean to her.

Dieter is a German in his early thirties when he spends a summer in the 1970s traveling in Turkey with two friends, illegally buying antiquities to sell at a profit back home. One day the trio stops outside Kiki’s farm, and she impulsively invites them to stay the night. After an evening spent drinking and singing Beatles songs, they ask her to join them—they could use a Turkish speaker. “Was this her next adventure, come in off the road to summon her?” Kiki wonders. For her it’s a turning point—though she chooses to stay, she will soon realize that her marriage is over. For the Germans, she’s simply a curiosity, “the American girl, keeping house with that granny in the middle of nowhere.” They will move on and mostly forget about her.

The changing perspectives constantly challenge the reader’s sympathies. A character who behaves badly in one story may be depicted more forgivingly in the next. Reyna knows Lynnette only as Boyd’s jealous ex-girlfriend, defensive and suspicious of outsiders. But when the reader sees her later through the eyes of a client in the salon where she works, a different Lynnette appears—fierce, yes, but loyal and ambitious. Here we learn about Lynnette’s own desire for improvement: to open up a salon of her own, which she imagines Claude, with his smuggling money, will help her do. When circumstances that she couldn’t have predicted and doesn’t fully understand bring about the realization of her dream, it feels, strangely, as if some kind of restitution has been made.

It’s a clich√© to compare a short-story writer to Chekhov; usually critics do that just to say that the stories are good. But there are a few writers, such as Alice Munro and William Trevor, who are consistently and meaningfully called Chekhovian, and their distinct quality, I think, is that their stories don’t feel like snapshots of a life, but seem to represent that life entire. Silber, too, bears this distinction; she manages to make the canvases of these linked stories stretch more broadly than seems possible. Sometimes years spin by in a glimpse, as when we learn from Dieter of his wife’s bout with cancer:

Gisela looked wonderful too—older, more angular, and now with wine-red hair, a change she’d begun as defiance. When the chemo made her hair fall out and it grew back in chunks, she went auburn. Her hair was longer now, an areole of jagged fuzz, still punk maroon.

That’s all we get about her illness, and it’s all we need.

The uniformity of Silber’s tone is the only real limitation of her method. The narrative’s perspective moves fluidly from one character to the next, but each of them sounds more or less the same. This is likely deliberate, a way of bringing together so many diverse figures. If they all had distinctive voices, the result might be chaos. Silber has said that she’s “not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices.” But our inner voices aren’t always as cool and detached as the prose on these pages. A greater tonal variety would lift the novel’s energy level just a notch.

There are always more stories; there are always more ways of telling stories. Part of Silber’s gift is knowing which stories not to tell. Her prose is spare, devoid of flourishes and extraneous information. We learn everything we need to know about Silas, Darisse’s new boyfriend, from the descriptions of his apartment: “a big shining dining room table and a whole field of orchids along a window,” the bedroom “very big and too full of bright light and too arranged, with its surfaces of tan and brown and bamboo.” In their stark setting, the details she offers are gems. Steffi, the lone woman in the German trio that visits Kiki, is the lead negotiator in their antiquities dealings; bargaining over a cuneiform tablet, she unhooks the gold locket she’s wearing and sets it on the table: “The real joy of the trip for her was in those moments. Her face was hardly ever like that, shining.” “Lot of stories in the world,” Silas comments offhandedly the morning after he and Darisse first spend the night together. Perhaps Silber is saving his for another book.

It’s worth mentioning that Silber came to her distinctive narrative structures not entirely by choice. Her career has been marked by setbacks that say far more about the publishing industry than about the quality of her writing. After publishing two more conventional novels—Household Words (1980), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and In the City (1987)—she was unable to get another book published for thirteen years. Interviewing Silber for The Believer, the writer Sarah Stone called this hiatus “the literary equivalent of being dropped in the wilderness with nothing but a light sweater and a stick of gum.” Paradoxically, Silber told Stone, she found her period in the wilderness freeing, because she knew no one was expecting anything specific from her. She felt no pressure to repeat herself; instead, she could find a new path.

When Ideas of Heaven was named a finalist for the National Book Award, there was a small outcry. Not because a beloved and original writer had finally gotten her due, but because the book, like the other finalists—Florida (Christine Schutt), Our Kind (Kate Walbert), Madeleine Is Sleeping (Sarah Shun-lien Bynum), and the eventual winner, The News from Paraguay (Lily Tuck)—was too “obscure.” Writing in The New York Times, Edward Wyatt expressed incredulity that these books had been nominated at all, in view of their poor sales, which he cited as somewhere between seven hundred and nine hundred copies. As it turned out, he misstated the numbers. A rather long correction explained that the Nielsen BookScan figures on which he had relied could have excluded numerically significant sales to libraries or elsewhere. But the real flaw of his article wasn’t this error. It was his assumption that there is a reliable correlation between a book’s sales and its quality.

One might ask instead: If a group of well-regarded judges thought these were the five best books of the year, why weren’t more people hearing about them and buying them? What if someone had suggested that it might be time to pay attention to smaller literary novels by women rather than allowing the big books of the season (Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America was the main contender that year) to suck up all the attention? What if, instead of a piece mocking these books for their low sales and denigrating the small press that published one of them, a mainstream newspaper had questioned why a National Book Award–nominated author had been rejected by mainstream publishing houses?

“Is she still around?” a friend exclaimed in delighted surprise when I mentioned I was reading Joan Silber’s new novel. It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer as innovative, humane, and wise is not read more widely. One of the underlying themes of Improvement is whether improvement is enough. Can things that are broken ever be entirely fixed? Or must we settle for incremental change, bit by painful bit?

Management Education in India: Perspectives and Practices. Manish Thakur and Rajesh R. Babu (eds). Springer. 2017.

IManagement Education in India: Perspectives and Practices, editors Manish Thakur and Rajesh R. Babu bring together contributors to analyse the development of business and management education in India in the context of the nations’s recent social, political and economic transformations. The volume offers a good overview of the role played by Indian business and management schools,and also reveals how dominant discourses continue to shape institutions of higher learning across the country. 

Management Education in India: Perspectives and Practices analyses Indian business and management schools in the context of the contemporary social, political and economic transformations of India. In the collection, the contributors try to hold accountable multiple stakeholders in the development of business/management education in Indian business schools, especially in IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management). As such, they study the role of the state, civil society, business corporations, business leaders, academic guilds and students in the development of business/management education 
across the country


.

The book consists of an introduction written by the editors, Manish Thakur and Rajesh R. Babu, followed by two sections. The first deals with the very idea of business/management education in India, especially in the neoliberal era that began in 1991. The second part contains eight chapters discussing the study and role of several academic disciplines in contemporary India.
In their introduction, by analysing the state-based economic modernisation of India during the Nehruvian era (1948-1991), Thakur and Babu posit that the foundation of IIMs in different Indian cities during the 1950s and 1960s was based on the creation of a new class of state elites who were in charge of the industrialisation of the country in the public sector. However, as the authors state, during the increasingly neoliberal era from the 1990s, interest in Indian business/management studies was drowned out by newly introduced curricula designed to adapt the latter to the liberal growth of the Indian economy.
According to Anup Sinha, one of the contributors, this model of growth turned the Indian economy from a public management-oriented economy to a business-oriented one (49):
There has been a transition from the ‘management’ vision based on social imagination to a ‘business’ view of modern India during this time. It was driven by both a failure to create a shared vision of society and the global collapse of socialism (49).
As such, business/management studies in India were transformed from ‘scientific fordist managerialism’ in the 1950s and 1960s into ‘market managerialism’, which insists that ‘only markets run by professional managers can efficiently organize human interaction’ (28).
Indian Business School, Hyderabad 
Subsequently, the first part of the book concentrates on the divisions between the curricula taught and practised in business schools and the realities of Indian economic and social mutations. Nimruji Jammulamadaka, Sinha and Abhoy K. Ojha criticise business/management education in India because of a failure to adapt to Indian economic realities and social transformations, particularly in three aspects of learning: literature, tools and academic techniques. These authors argue that Indian management studies should be ‘decolonized’ (23-42) in order to avoid the ‘simulacra effect’ (55-79), which leaves Indian business/management students alienated from their studies. In other words, they propose that Indian business/management intellectuals more actively participate in the process of knowledge production based on Indian social relations and its historical cultures.

The second section of Management Education in India explores the role of various disciplines in business/management studies in India. As in the first part, the authors explicate the lack of consistency between the curricula of such schools and Indian social/economic needs. As Babu reminds us: ‘In India, the business schools are traditionally modelled according to the American counterparts, and the approach towards the design of the business curricula is no different’ (165). Across eight chapters, contributors elaborate how the teaching of various educational disciplines is divorced from the realities of Indian society.

Jacob Vakkayil, Megha Sharma et al, Basu and Partha Ray address the introduction of organisational behaviour, mathematics and economics in Indian business schools. As they discuss, the teaching of these should be applicable to the realities and needs of Indian society and not a simple reproduction of western theories. Vakkayil writes: ‘Here, rather than imitating Western approaches that privilege paper productivity, we need to develop our own models for what constitutes good research’ (89). Similarly, Ray proposes the use of inductive methods rather than deductive ones in order to further benefit from case studies in Indian business education.

In the fourth and sixth chapters, Neog and Babu remark on how business ethics and business law are neglected in Indian business schools. For Indian business education, morality equals charity and spirituality. As such, the authors argue that business ethics are assumed to be a part of Indian culture; consequently, business/management schools feel no need for its introduction in their curricula. Although Neog believes that business ethics should be consistent with Indian local cultures, he states that Indian business people sometimes find themselves in certain professional situations where they do not know how to conduct their actions or how to react to newer problems in the business/management world. While management studies focus on leadership-based approaches, Indian intellectuals tend more to employ Indian mythology and spirituality in order to promote inspiration-based leadership and project management.

Still, although the contributors of Management Education in India propose the decolonisation and localisation of business/management studies, they fail to introduce real and explicit alternatives. As such, they repeat and reproduce the same neo-managerial discourse using Indian and local rhetoric. In other words, even though the discourse of justification of such managerial studies remains the same, the authors try to adapt the language and grammar of this to the local cultural context (23-43). As Jammulamadaka reminds us: ‘In all these attempts at resisting and Indianizing, the epistemic and ontological dominance of Management and Managerialism was never questioned’ (35). As he further elaborates:
Decolonization of knowledge can be accomplished only with a respectful acknowledgement of different societies. It begins by delinking from Western epistemic categories and examining phenomena from other sets of categories including those of the once colonized (40).
For example, one of the means by which Indian business people try to act morally in the Indian business world is to introduce personal/familial relations and logics into professional work (40-41). As shown in Indian cinema and literature, such attempts are based on the reconciliation of Indian ethics and professional business. However, these efforts reproduce the same business/management discourses using Indian cultural language, i.e. the ethics of charity.
In this respect, I believe that Management Education in India is a good introduction to business/management studies in India, despite the lack of clarity on how the authors look into the localisation of this phenomenon across the country. As a result, this book is important for further studies, not only to analyse the influences of localisation, but also to research the ways dominant discourses remain reproduced in institutions of higher learning in India.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Leningrad .....The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad by Alexis Peri Harvard University Press, 337 pp., $29.95 Leningrad 1941–1942: Morality in a City Under Siege by Sergey Yarov, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait Polity, 409 pp., $45.00 Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster by Polina Barskova Northern Illinois University Press, 232 pp., $49.00 (paper) Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad edited and with an introduction by Polina Barskova, translated from the Russian by Anand Dibble and seven others Ugly Duckling, 159 pp., $18.00 (paper)





Two women collecting the remains of a dead horse for food, Leningrad, 1941

On June 22, 1941, news of the Nazi invasion prompted disbelief, immediately followed by outrage, across the Soviet Union. About 300,000 citizens from Leningrad joined the armed forces and another 128,000 the militia—the narodnoe opolchenie. These battalions of ill-armed cannon fodder were expected to slow German panzer divisions with little more than their bodies. They had no uniforms, no transport, no medical services. Only half of them had rifles. Soviet losses were appalling. In the “Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operations,” which lasted from July 10 to September 30, 1941, the Red Army and militias suffered 214,078 “irrecoverable losses” out of 517,000 men—a fatality rate of 41 percent.

General Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North had advanced out of East Prussia through the Soviet-occupied Baltic states. Apart from a sudden Soviet counterattack near Lake Ilmen, German progress was slowed only by the terrain of marshes and thick birchwoods. Almost half a million Leningrad civilians were sent out to dig over six hundred miles of earthworks and four hundred miles of anti-tank ditches. None of these precautions saved the city from its first great disaster.

On September 8, the day the Germans took the fortress town of Shlisselburg on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, thus cutting off the railway line from Leningrad to Moscow, Luftwaffe bombers targeted the food depots in the south of the city. “Columns of thick smoke are rising high,” Vasily Churkin wrote in his diary, horrified by the implications. “It’s the Badaevskiye food depots burning. Fire is devouring the six months’ food supplies for the whole population of Leningrad.” The failure to disperse the stores had been a major error. Rations had to be dramatically reduced right from the start. In addition, little had been done to bring in firewood for the winter. But the greatest mistake was the failure to evacuate more civilians. Fewer than half a million Leningraders had been sent east before the railway line was cut.

More than two and a half million people, including 400,000 children, remained in Leningrad. Hitler decided that he did not want his troops to occupy the city. Instead the Wehrmacht would bombard it and seal it off and let the remaining residents starve and die of disease. Once reduced in population, the city would be demolished and the area handed over to Finland. Hitler wanted to eradicate the cradle of Bolshevism.

Stalin, refusing to believe that the Germans could have broken through so easily, suspected sabotage. He sent General Georgy Zhukov on a plane to Leningrad to take over responsibility for its defense, with instructions to adopt the most ruthless measures. Zhukov claimed that, on going straight to the Smolny Institute, he found the military council in a state of defeatism and drunkenness. Zhukov wasted no time in issuing orders to all commanders of the Leningrad Front: “Make it clear to all troops that all the families of those who surrender to the enemy will be shot.”

This went even further than any of Stalin’s decrees. Ironically, Stalin himself was liable to execution under this order, since his son Yakov Djugashvili was captured by the Germans. Stalin was not unduly worried by Zhukov’s decree. He approved of his pitilessness. When Moscow was threatened in November, Stalin was severely tempted to strip Leningrad of troops in order to save the capital. He had little sympathy for what he saw as a city of the intelligentsia who despised Muscovites and were suspiciously fond of Western Europe.

“The Time of Death” and “The Season of Death” were the names given to the worst period of the siege, from the winter of 1941 until the late spring of 1942. Soldiers in the Red Army received rations. Civilians, unless privileged in some way, were left to starve on a diet that could not sustain life. As with the Ukraine famine of 1932–1933, information about starvation was ruthlessly repressed for decades. It was not until the era of glasnost in the mid-1980s that the Ukraine famine and the starvation in Leningrad emerged from their smothering in propaganda.

Siege literature published in the Soviet era was distorted at least as much by self-censorship as by official prohibition. Some survivors, as many Red Army veterans did, revised their own experiences through the filter of what they read in official histories. A number avoided taboo subjects, such as cannibalism, for political reasons. Others could not face repeating the details of the city’s degradation. Even though the Party had initially encouraged the keeping of diaries, censorship was needed later to conceal the extent to which individual experiences contradicted its collective narrative of daily heroism. This took the form of very selective quotation and skirting around the central subject of starvation. Publishers and even “authors themselves,” Sergey Yarov explains in his introduction to Leningrad 1941–1942, “watered down the diaries and letters to try to make them conform to the official Soviet trope of ordeals engendering heroism, which was rewarded by victory.” The writer Lydia Ginzburg, he adds, was criticized by censors “for dwelling unduly on the issue of food.”

Hunger became an unmentionable subject. Between 1.6 and 2 million Soviet citizens died during the German blockade of Leningrad. These included around 800,000 civilians, approximately 40 percent of the pre-war population, almost the same number as the military losses. Some were killed by German bombs and shells; a large number died from disease, and most from starvation, yet these categories cannot be separated statistically. In The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad, Alexis Peri points out that the death toll was roughly equivalent to “the total number of American military who died in all wars between 1776 and 1975.”

Peri, in her fascinating and perceptive book, concentrates on 125 diaries kept by Leningraders throughout the blockade. As many of the diarists themselves recognized, their war was physically, symbolically, and psychologically an internal one. Starvation meant that their own bodies were desperately feeding off themselves, first the fat, then the muscle, and finally the internal organs. Their struggle to survive was not against the German enemy but against an unforgiving bureaucracy, thieving strangers and neighbors, and sometimes even family members unable to control themselves. The sense of isolation came from the geography of the besieged city, known as the “ring,” the “circle,” or the “island” because it was cut off from the “mainland” of the Soviet Union.

People wrote these diaries for many reasons. Some hoped to preserve their humanity and sanity in the face of moral annihilation and to make sense of the suffering and death around them. A number minutely recorded every resentment and slight as their relationships broke down. For some there was a need to testify. A diary also helped them escape the feeling of imprisonment. “To write about the circle is to break the circle,” wrote Ginzburg. Others saw themselves as modern-day Robinson Crusoes, a character admired then because he was seen to be starting a new society, almost as if he were a prototype of the New Soviet Person. One Leningrader even coined the term “Robinsonia.”

Isolation increased with the lack of outside news. Anyone who listened to a foreign radio station, when the electricity was working, risked execution. Cautious citizens did not dare mention the blockade or the siege. The correct phrase was “the battle” or “the defense” of Leningrad. Bulletins from the Soviet Information Bureau and reports in Leningradskaya Pravda revealed little, so rumors ran unchecked. With the darkness of a northern winter, an oppressive silence fell upon this frozen city of the dead. The dearth of information in itself seemed to contribute to the death rate. “Curiosity about tomorrow,” wrote Irina Zelenskaia, “is one of the stimuli sustaining me to live.”

The terrible effects of starvation destroyed identity. People could not be recognized by close relatives or, if they had not faced a mirror for some time, even by themselves. “I look like all those other devils,” wrote Aleksandra Borovikova, “I have become just bones and wrinkled skin.” A number of diarists noticed how a physical similarity developed between the sexes as breasts shriveled, arms wasted, and faces wrinkled. Men and women bundled themselves up against the cold in the same sort of clothes, with men sometimes wearing women’s fur coats and women wearing men’s trousers. Even so, men died more rapidly than women because their bodies stored less fat.

In a bizarre side effect, dystrophy made boys and girls begin to grow facial hair. The seventeen-year-old Elena Mukhina described herself as looking like an “old man.” This prompted a number of diarists to wonder who they really were. In the History Museum of St. Petersburg there is a sequence of identity card photographs of a young woman called Nina Petrova, who appears to age fifty years in just over sixteen months.

Medical interest in the process of starvation in Leningrad was intense, yet Soviet doctors do not appear to have discovered what the Germans found when the German Sixth Army was encircled at Stalingrad. On December 17, 1942, the army pathologist Dr. Hans Girgensohn was flown into the Kessel, or “cauldron,” as the Germans called it, to discover why unwounded soldiers were dying so rapidly. He carried out more than fifty autopsies and many interviews. Death from starvation, he observed, was undramatic. His study of the phenomenon of accelerated starvation showed that the combination of intense cold, stress, and exhaustion so upset the metabolism that the bodies of the victims had been able to absorb only half the calories and vitamins they had consumed. He pointed out that even though these soldiers received some food every day, they were still dying far more quickly than hunger-strikers in prison who took only water.

Almost all the diarists described how hard it was to stop themselves from thinking about food the entire time. The obsession became dangerous and disorienting. The medical student Zinaida Sedel’nikova wrote of “a stomach war.” “I never thought that a hungry stomach could dictate behavior so powerfully,” she wrote. People developed a more acute sense of smell and taste, a great disadvantage amid the squalor and the degraded food, with bread bulked out with sawdust. Their reflexes slowed, and muscle control was reduced due to Vitamin B deficiency. Their eyesight deteriorated and their legs weakened as they swelled, so it became increasingly hard to stand for endless hours in food lines or tow a child’s sled with the corpse of a family member to the cemetery or morgue.

Those privileged to receive a Category I ration card or enjoy access to a Communist Party canteen were far less likely to suffer. Only 15 percent of Party members died, as opposed to nearly 40 percent of the general population, and none of the nomenklaturadied from starvation. At the other end of the scale, teenagers, who received the lowest official ration as “dependents,” were especially vulnerable. A Category III ration card was known as a smertnik, or death certificate. Children, on the other hand, were given priority with a butter ration. Malnutrition, and the stress within families over dividing up the food, could produce paranoia. Every crumb counted. Resentments mounted and could destroy marriages. Death was a relief to the sufferer and all too often to the rest of the family, which then had one less mouth to feed. Grief and guilt would come only once the famine was over and former emotions were restored.

The instinct of mothers to give part of their own share of food to their children had to be balanced against the fact that they were usually the ration collector, and if they fainted from hunger in the street, the rest of the family might die. Roles, however, were sometimes reversed, with quite young children trying to care for parents who had collapsed. Whole families as well as individuals died unnoticed in frozen apartments. One woman who searched for surviving children in apparently abandoned dwellings was shocked at their indifference. “A person would be lying in bed beside a dead family member, in a state of complete torpor,” she wrote.

Inevitably, there is a certain overlap in source material and information between Peri’s and Yarov’s books. But the late Professor Yarov, a native of Leningrad, develops a rather different approach to great effect, using wider sources. “This is a book,” he writes, “about the price that had to be paid in order to remain human in a time of inhumanity.” He takes up that fundamental question: Are our ideas of civilization and natural justice merely a thin veneer when put to the extreme test of starvation?

Dmitry Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, 1941

Even within the family, the temptation to steal food could be overwhelming. The ration collectors might eat part of it on the way home and then claim that they had been short-changed at the store, or attacked and robbed. People would keep corpses in an apartment to take advantage of the deceased person’s ration card. Another uncomfortable truth was that those who played entirely by the rules were unlikely to live. One way to survive was to obtain work in the food distribution network or in catering. In orphanages the staff stole from the children. Workers in canteens never seemed to lose much weight, prompting their customers to count how many pieces of macaroni they could find in a bowl of watery soup. But it was dangerous for individuals to raise accusations against people with such power. The only time common outrage provoked collective action was against people who jumped a line outside a bakery.

Among the most despicable were those who stole ration cards, thus condemning the rightful owner to death, or those who snatched food from the hands of the old or infirm as they emerged from the store. Nobody went to the aid of these victims for fear of losing one’s place in line. There were cases of people setting off air raid sirens to reduce the number of people waiting ahead of them, or spreading rumors of unlimited food available at another store. People would step over anyone who collapsed in line, while those who fainted from hunger in the street were liable to have their ration card stolen.

Officials managing the evacuation from the city across Lake Ladoga used their position to extract bribes from people wanting to leave. In times of hunger, the possession of food has always been both an important currency and a form of exploitable power. Among the shuffling skeletons of Leningrad, Peri writes, conspicuously young women who had not suffered deprivation stood out. These included the “cafeteria girls” and the sarcastically named blokadnaia zhena, or “blockade wife.” This would be the mistress of some official or senior manager in the supply system who could provide her all the food needed to keep her attractive. She was the equivalent of the “campaign wife” in the Red Army, known as a PPZh (short for pokhodno-polevaya zhena, because it sounded like PPSh, the army’s standard submachinegun), who was usually an attractive young nurse or signaler appropriated by a senior officer against her will. One “blockade wife” who unwisely exposed her healthy flesh in a bania, or public bath, among the skeletal bodies was teased by a bony woman: “Hey, beauty—don’t come here, we might eat you!” She screamed and ran.

There was a sharp class divide between the few who maintained normal weight and the famished masses who suffered from swollen legs, infestations of lice, and purple blotches from scurvy. “Anyone who does not look starved is a scoundrel,” wrote Izrail Metter.

The true extent of cannibalism during the siege is very hard to assess, largely because lurid urban myths spread about neighbors murdering children to eat them. Some 1,700 people were arrested for the crime, but there is a marked moral difference between eating the carcass of a person who has already died and killing someone for his flesh. The authorities, however, firmly suppressed any mention of either crime since both clearly undermined the Party line that the resistance had been heroic.

Any idea of self-improvement toward the New Soviet Person was grotesque in the circumstances of Leningrad. Peri brings out this contradiction well. From 1937 on the individual was responsible for his own condition. Leningraders were supposedly New Soviet People “born in the fire of war,” according to the journalist Nikolai Tikhonov. But the notion of physical perfectibility was taken to a grotesque conclusion after the war when limbless veterans of the Red Army, known as “samovars,” were exiled from major cities and dumped out of sight by a shockingly ungrateful government.

Sergey Yarov is rightly fascinated by the minutiae of morality. In such conditions, a sense of right and wrong became much more acute. Already famished people who broke off part of their bread ration and gave it to a stranger in a worse state would be remembered warmly for their sacrifice. Those on a Category I ration who hoarded food for an emergency when those around them were dying would be seen as unforgivably selfish. This clearly became an insane obsession: a number of people starved to death because they didn’t dare touch their miserly reserves. The worst crime in the eyes of almost everyone was to steal food from children.

Yarov develops his examples under such headings as “The concept of honesty,” “Charity,” “Attitudes to theft,” and “The shifting boundaries of ethics.” He looks at moral choices, moral imperatives, and moral blindness. Certain ethical dilemmas arose frequently. Was it, for instance, worth wasting food on somebody who was going to die anyway? Yarov is particularly good on how standards shifted. “A part was played also by the ‘collective’ nature of the ordeal people were experiencing,” he writes. “It was difficult to be the first to decide to behave immorally, but once that was being done by other citizens, immoral acts did not seem so terrible.”

Several diarists were struck that, amid the grandeur of former St. Petersburg, they had been thrown back to a primitive state. “We are like cave dwellers waiting to see the sun,” wrote Dima Afanas’ev, a sixth-grader. In her new book, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster, Polina Barskova uses source material similar to Peri’s and Yarov’s, but her purpose is to “assess how people subjected to catastrophic events relate to their cultural and physical environment.” Barskova has also edited Written in the Dark, a collection of poems by five writers who experienced the siege. One poem by Pavel Zaltsman describes the “canteen girls”:


In heels and pilfered silks,
In the basement kitchens,
Stirring pots and cooking meals,
Stand the most vile creatures.


And these creatures paint their lips
Over cow’s tongue gathered,
As, abundantly, the milk
Fills their breasts, unwithered.

Gennady Gor, a science fiction writer and art historian, astonished those who had known him with the savagery of his siege poems when they were discovered after his death:


I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom
At how slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing,
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Amid the horrors and heartlessness, as in all the most appalling episodes of World War II, the stories of self-sacrifice and unpredictable compassion from strangers just manage to save the reader from complete despair at the human race. A Red Army officer took pity on a schoolgirl, G.N. Ignatova. “He took me to the army c
ommanders’ dining room and gave me his meal,” she recounted. “He sat there, crying. Later I was told two of his children were in [German] occupied territory.”

Genocide in Myanmar ....The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim, with a foreword by Muhammad Yunus Hurst, revised and updated edition, 239 pp., £12.99 (paper) Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim–Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging edited by Melissa Crouch Oxford University Press, 345 pp., $55.00




Rohingyas fleeing across the Naf River from Myanmar into Bangladesh, September 2017

The Rohingya are a community of Muslims concentrated in the northern parts of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. There have been Muslims in Rakhine for a thousand years, but their numbers were substantially increased by migration from British India, particularly Bengal, during colonial rule. Before the recent forced exodus to Bangladesh, the Rohingya population in Myanmar was estimated at a little over a million, but that figure is contested. The last census did not count them because the government did not wish to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate identity. Including Rohingya refugees in nearby Bangladesh who fled during “clearances” conducted by Myanmar’s military rulers in 1978, the early 1990s, and 2012, their total number is likely larger.

There are other Muslim communities in Rakhine and Myanmar, but they are culturally and ethnically different from the Rohingya, who have been singled out for violent discrimination. Their distinct dialect and ethnic “otherness,” combined with their concentration in northern Rakhine, have made them seem to Myanmar’s rulers unassimilable and a threat to the integrity of this avowedly Buddhist state.

In late August 2017, Rohingya militants attacked police stations in northern Rakhine using knives and homemade bombs. Twelve members of the security forces were killed. The Myanmar military retaliated by burning Rohingya villages, killing and raping civilians, and forcing more than half a million Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.

The scale of this ethnic cleansing represents the most extreme triumph of majoritarian politics in South Asia. The persecution of the Rohingya has made Myanmar something of an inspiration to majoritarian parties in neighboring states. The Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, announced in mid-August that the 40,000 Rohingyas in India (refugees from an earlier exodus) would be deported because they were illegal immigrants. Even in early September, after the ferocity of the Myanmar army’s “clearances” was known and the extent of the exodus became apparent, no one in Narendra Modi’s administration voiced even the pro forma expressions of concern by which governments often acknowledge widespread human suffering.

Majoritarianism—the claim that a nation’s political destiny should be determined by its religious or ethnic majority—is as old as the nation-state in South Asia; it was decolonization’s original sin. Postcolonial nations in South Asia began with varying degrees of commitment to the ideal of a pluralistic, broadly secular state, but after a decade or so of independence they were either taken over by military rulers or transformed into religious states by majoritarian politicians.

Pakistan was carved out of British India to create a Muslim-majority country, and although its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, seemed at times to support the idea of a secular state, the genocidal violence of the 1947 Partition more or less purged the country of its non-Muslim minorities. In its short-lived constitution of 1956, Pakistan formally defined itself as an Islamic republic, and it has remained one for over sixty years.

Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was founded in 1948 as a secular nation, but by 1956 its Sinhala Buddhist politicians were pushing to redefine it as a Buddhist republic with Sinhala, the language of the Buddhist majority, as the sole national language. This majoritarian push was aimed at marginalizing Tamil speakers, a substantial non-Buddhist minority concentrated in the north and east of the country. Bangladesh, which won independence from Pakistan in 1971, was established as a secular Bengali-speaking nation, but after a coup in 1975, a military regime turned it into an Islamic republic. (The Supreme Court restored secularism in 2010, but Islam remains Bangladesh’s official religion.)

Major General Aung San, who brought about Myanmar’s independence from Britain after World War II and was assassinated in 1947, envisioned it as a secular republic. The constitution of 1948, however, which established Myanmar as an independent nation, conferred full citizenship on most ethnic minorities but withheld it from the Rohingya. Throughout the 1950s, the government of U Nu, the country’s first prime minister, accommodated the idea of a Rohingya community and held out the prospect of citizenship for Rohingyas. The census of 1961 even recognized “Rohingya” as a demographic category. The evolution of Myanmar into an explicitly Buddhist state began in 1962 when a military government seized power in a coup d’√©tat and enforced a Buddhist nationalist ideology. This process culminated in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which officially denied Rohingyas the possibility of full citizenship.

Ironically, it was during the transition to civilian rule between 2012 and 2017 that the country became a purely majoritarian polity through ethnic cleansing and by formally excluding Rohingyas in particular and Muslims generally from every democratic process and institution. The violence of 2012 (which prefigured the ethnic cleansing of 2017) resulted in 120,000 Rohingyas being expelled from towns in northern Rakhine and confined to camps for internally displaced persons. The 2014 census was designed to exclude “alien” minorities; nearly a third of Rakhine’s population went uncounted because the Rohingya refused to identify as Bengali Muslim, which would have lent credibility to the claim that they were foreigners, not citizens. The census was used to compile the new electoral rolls for the country’s first democratic elections in 2015; it effectively disenfranchised the Rohingya and led to the total absence of Muslims from Myanmar’s parliament for the first time since independence.

That year, the government confiscated the registration cards that had entitled Rohingyas to health and education services and, until recently, to the right to vote, which they had previously been granted at the whim of the regime. The cards were the only official documents of residence or identity that they possessed. These administrative actions successfully established Buddhist supremacy in Rakhine and in Myanmar as a whole.

The absence of an important minority from both the electoral process and parliament is the sort of total victory that majoritarians in South Asia have long dreamed of but never achieved. In 2014, a year before Myanmar’s elections, Narendra Modi led the BJP to an absolute majority in the Indian general elections. His majority was historic because it did not include a single Muslim member of parliament from the BJP. But twenty-three Muslims of other parties were elected to the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament’s lower house; the absence of any Muslims from Myanmar’s legislature was a more comprehensive victory for majoritarianism. It is no surprise that a right-wing Hindu nationalist party in India would keep its distance from Muslims, but in Myanmar it was the liberal opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, that didn’t field a single Muslim candidate.

The NLD may have excluded Muslim candidates for strategic reasons—to ride out the anti-Rohingya sentiment stirred up by extremist clergy, to defer to the military’s prejudices during the sensitive transition to democracy, to avoid antagonizing Rakhine’s Buddhist majority—or because of the prejudices of its own members. The result was the political marginalization of an already threatened minority. Myanmar in 2017, with a parliament free of Muslims and 600,000 Rohingyas violently driven out, has proven that it is possible for a religious majority to achieve political domination.

The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim doesn’t pretend to be an objective history of the tragedy unfolding in Rakhine. It is a partisan book, and its claim on the reader’s attention is not its grasp of history but its urgency and prescience. Completed in 2015, immediately after the long-awaited elections, it warned that the transition to democracy had, tragically, left the Rohingya more excluded, more vulnerable, and more likely to be expelled than ever before, unless the NLD and military acted to stop their persecution. In his epilogue to the updated paperback edition, written after the violence of September 2017, Ibrahim reflects on the vindication of that prediction and argues that “we are now seeing an unstable situation escalate into the ethnic cleansing of an entire community.” His prescience is reason enough to recommend his book, and particularly the sections that deal with the transition to democracy in 2015.

Majoritarianism insists on different tiers of citizenship. Members of the majority faith and culture are viewed as the nation’s true citizens. The rest are courtesy citizens, guests of the majority, expected to behave well and deferentially. To be tolerated at the majority’s discretion is no substitute for full citizenship in modern democracies. It is a state of limbo, a chronically unstable condition. A polity that denies full citizenship to its minorities will, sooner or later, politically disenfranchise them or expel them on the grounds that, despite being residents, they aren’t citizens at all and actually belong elsewhere—in India or Pakistan or Tamil Nadu or, as with the Rohingya, in Bangladesh. Myanmar has three categories of citizenship: citizen, associate citizen, and naturalized citizen. The Rohingya are classed as foreigners.

The one South Asian state that had formally resisted the temptation of majoritarianism until the 1980s was India. Founded as a constitutional republic in 1950, it treated its substantial Muslim minority (it has the third-largest Muslim population in the world) as full and equal citizens. Despite its being 80 percent Hindu, there was no formal sense in which India’s religious minorities were expected to assimilate into Hindu culture. The only parties that demanded this assimilation, such as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political ancestor of Modi’s BJP, were minor regional parties that had little power. For the first twenty-five years of the republic, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and then his daughter Indira Gandhi, India remained a constitutionally secular state.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the political balance shifted following the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s experiment with authoritarian rule between 1975 and 1977. But the new politics was also shaped by pogroms. In 1983, two thousand Muslims of Bengali ancestry were slaughtered in a matter of hours in the town of Nellie, in Assam. (Unofficial estimates place the number of deaths at more than ten thousand.) The indigenous Assamese who perpetrated the massacre thought the Muslims were illegal migrants from Bangladesh whose names had been included on the electoral rolls. Bangladesh, then a relatively new nation, was seen by unsympathetic neighbors as a net exporter of people, and since these immigrants tended to be Bengali-speaking Muslims, they looked and sounded conspicuously alien.

The 1983 massacre in Assam was a landmark in Indian politics. The student organization whose anti-Muslim activism culminated in the pogrom established a political party that handily won the next provincial election. The incident demonstrated that illegal immigration was a serious problem, that Bengali Muslims were a political scapegoat, and, most significantly, that pogroms could be politically profitable.

In 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards led to the systematic murder of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, won a large electoral victory after this pogrom, and the lesson of Nellie was reinforced, this time at the national level. Subsequent pogroms of Muslims in Bombay (1992–1993) and Gujarat (2002) were followed by electoral victories for parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP that were complicit in the violence. There has been no formal disenfranchisement of minorities, but majoritarian parties in India have learned that encouraging violence against minorities pays off electorally.

Majoritarian violence had become a shortcut to power throughout South Asia. In Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, insecure military rulers sought legitimacy by aligning the state with its religious majority, while in India and Sri Lanka, nativist parties won elections by promoting the idea that the nation was being subverted by predatory minorities. By the end of the twentieth century, majoritarian parties were either in power or the principal opposition in every South Asian nation.

In his essay for Islam and the State in Myanmar, a collection that addresses the relationship between Myanmar’s Muslims and their government, Benjamin Schonthal demonstrates the extent to which Buddhist majoritarianism in Myanmar is akin to Sinhala nativism in Sri Lanka, noting recent meetings between the Sri Lankan Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power) and the explicitly anti-Muslim monk-led 969 movement in Myanmar. Ashin Wirathu, its most notoriously Islamophobic preacher, visited Colombo in late 2014 to sign a memorandum of understanding between the Bodu Bala Sena and 969. People in both countries, Schonthal suggests, “are beginning to see their own actions in a broader regional framework.”
A Rohingya girl at a makeshift camp in Bangladesh, after crossing over from Myanmar, September 2017

In another essay in the collection, Nyi Nyi Kyaw compares 969’s campaigns to those of Hindu chauvinist organizations in India like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP. The supposed fertility of Muslim men and their practice of polygamy are seen as threats to the future of Buddhists in Myanmar. The allegation is that Muslim men are waging a “Love Jihad”; as Kyaw notes, Ashin Wimalar Biwuntha, a 969 monk, has accused Muslim men of seducing Buddhist women “for their reproductive tactics. They produce a lot of children, they are snowballing.”

The terms “Love Jihad” and “Romeo Jihad” are lifted straight from the lexicon of Hindu bigotry. The BJP and its affiliates are committed to fighting so-called predatory Muslims practicing “Love Jihad” with street vigilantes organized in “Anti-Romeo squads.” The chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu monk called Yogi Adityanath, has for years led a private militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Force), in the battle against this phantom enemy. In fact, his principal credential for the chief minister’s office in 2016 was his proven ability to mobilize the “Hindu street” against Muslims.

The imagined threat of demographic extinction at the hands of fast-breeding, evangelizing Muslims is central to majoritarian mobilization in India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Several Indian provinces have passed laws that strictly regulate religious conversion. Their unstated goal is to prevent conversion to Islam or Christianity; conversion to Hinduism, on the other hand, is seen as reversion. It is referred to as ghar wapsi, or “homecoming.” In the discourse of Hindu majoritarianism, all Muslims and Christians are ancestrally Hindu.

Myanmar remains at the vanguard of majoritarianism in South Asia, in its capacity to violently expel an ethnic minority, disenfranchise those who remain, and make the prejudices of Buddhist chauvinists into law. The Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief, popularly known as Ma-Ba-Tha (the abbreviation of its Burmese name), began in 2013 as a campaign to pass what were collectively known as the Race and Religion Protection Laws. In a little over two years these laws were approved by the legislature and signed into law by the president.

Of all the laws governing monogamy, birth control, religious conversion, and interfaith marriage that implicitly target Muslims, the most flagrantly discriminatory is the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law. A Buddhist woman under twenty years of age needs parental consent to marry a non-Buddhist. Local registrars are empowered to post marriage applications. The couple can marry only if no one objects, but any citizen can contest the application, causing it to be challenged in court. In the event of a divorce, the woman automatically gets custody of the children. The purpose of the law is to make intermarriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men as difficult as possible. Monks, priests, and majoritarians in every country in South Asia will have taken note that the government of Myanmar has been able to stand out as the defender of the faith by legally discriminating in favor of the country’s majority on the basis of religion.

Majoritarianism in South Asia isn’t necessarily about targeting Muslims. Nor is it provoked by the need to discipline recalcitrant minorities in general. Majoritarian politics results from the patiently constructed self-image of an aggrieved, besieged majority that believes itself to be long-suffering and refuses to suffer in silence anymore. The cultivation of this sense of injury is the necessary precondition for the lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that invariably follow.

Majoritarianism promotes equal-opportunity bigotry. In Sri Lanka the rout of the Tamil Tigers and the final destruction of the goal of a Tamil homeland did little to assuage radical nativists. For the Sinhala Ravaya (the Roar of the Sinhala Nation), the Ravana Balaya (Ravana’s Force, referring to a legendary king believed to have ruled over Sri Lanka), and the Bodu Bala Sena, Muslims have replaced the Tamils as the existential threat to Sri Lanka’s integrity as a Sinhala Buddhist nation. The Muslim community was orphaned by the civil war: Muslims had long been distrusted by the Sri Lankan state since they speak Tamil, but they were also purged from Tiger strongholds because they were not Tamil enough. Now, Schonthal writes, the new Muslim threat is seen as demographic, financial (through their alleged control of trade and industry), and transnational, because local Muslims are viewed as part of a broader conspiracy to Islamicize the Buddhist world. But Sri Lankan majoritarians don’t necessarily single out Muslims: a long-standing campaign by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party) for a bill that would place strict limits on conversion to non-Buddhist faiths was spurred by a dislike of Christian missionaries.

Even Pakistan, whose population is almost entirely Muslim (97 percent), has targeted minority Muslim sects. Starting in 1974 it began a fifteen-year process of Islamicization, declaring members of the Ahmadi sect non-Muslims, passing blasphemy laws that were routinely used to persecute minorities, and patronizing fundamentalist Sunni organizations that were willing to commit acts of horrific violence against Shias. Bangladesh, another Muslim-majority nation, has seen a decline in its Hindu population. While the Bangladeshi state under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has become more secular, it remains a dangerous country for Hindus, tribal minorities, and atheists.

The recent expulsions of Rohingyas from Myanmar have provoked a storm of criticism, which has received defensive responses not just from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s official spokespersons, but also from historians, policy experts, and foreign diplomats. If their arguments in defense of Myanmar’s policies succeed in normalizing the largest forced exodus in peacetime since the mid-1990s, when two million Rwandans were forced to leave their country, minorities across South Asia will become even more vulnerable to persecution.

India’s first response to the violence in Rakhine was an implicit endorsement of the carnage. According to a joint statement issued on September 6 during the Indian prime minister’s state visit to Myanmar, “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.” The joint statement made no mention of the exodus of Rohingya refugees. India’s foreign secretary, speaking at a conference in New Delhi, was careful not to criticize Myanmar:


The fact that there is an exodus of a large number of people from the Rakhine state is clearly a matter of concern. Our objective will be to see how they can go back to their place of origin. That is not easy. We feel this situation is better addressed through practical measures and constructive conversation rather than doing very strong condemnations.

The largely Western condemnation of Myanmar’s government and Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized as excessive, simplistic, and ill-informed. The argument made by majoritarians is that the narrative of Rohingya victimhood obscures and silences the trauma of Rakhine Buddhists because the latter haven’t been as adept in lobbying human rights organizations in the West. This argument highlights efforts by militant Rohingyas to create an independent or autonomous Muslim zone in northern Rakhine since decolonization. It emphasizes the fact that the Muslim community in Rakhine greatly expanded after Britain annexed Burma in the early nineteenth century and allowed immigrants from Bengal to enter the region. It insists that the Rakhine Buddhist resentment of Bengali Muslim encroachment needs to be situated in this longer history if foreigners are to arrive at a more evenhanded treatment of two communities, both victims of rival ethnic nationalisms.

The trouble with this position is that evenhandedness by any historical reckoning is impossible. The only way the argument in favor of the brutal treatment of Muslims makes sense is if one accepts the Burmese Buddhist distinction between native and alien as the basis for citizenship and belonging. The reason the Rohingya demand recognition as an ethnic group is that full citizenship in Myanmar has always been contingent on membership in one of the “national races,” or taingyintha. The government’s policy of excluding the Muslims of Rakhine from the taingyintha and then denying them citizenship, despite generations of residence, on the basis of that exclusion is Kafkaesque in its circularity. As Nick Cheesman, an Australian academic, points out in an article on taingyintha, “ultimately Myanmar’s problem is not a ‘Rohingya problem’ but a national races problem…the idea of taingyintha itself is the problem.”

Once the news of this latest atrocity recedes, the Myanmar government will have reason to believe that its project of diminishing the presence of Rohingya in Rakhine is well underway. Sri Lankan nativists who believe that the country’s Buddhists are bhumiputras (sons of the soil) and non-Buddhists are mlecchas (inferior aliens) will take heart. The BJP government in Assam, where illegal Bangladeshi immigration sparked violence in the past, will learn new lessons about the latitude given to perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, as long as it is conducted by “sons of the soil.”

The fact that the most vocal protests about the recent violence have come from European countries, foreign human rights groups, and United Nations organizations has encouraged the Myanmar government and its apologists to dismiss them as the handiwork of know-nothing outsiders and professional breast-beaters. But this murderous purge is not a quarrel between the West and the rest. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is a particularly vicious chapter in a long history of majoritarian nationalism in South Asia. Unless that history is acknowledged and its legacy contested, more tragedies lie in store.