Sidin Vadukut has found his niche methinks. And boy, has he nailed it! Sidin’s The Sceptical Patriot is a racy, fun read. Writing non-fiction is easy and tough at once. It is easy because, unlike fiction, you needn’t design characters, plot, and story arcs. It is tough because to make it engaging you need to move mountains. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything comes to my mind: science served with humor. Sidin achieved more or less the same: history and humor. And I am inclined to believe that he moved mountains to achieve that.
My maternal grandfather, G. Srinivasachari co-authored ‘The Advanced History of India’ with the great Nilakanta Sastri. When I was sixteen, I discovered that only half of the hardbound version of gramps’ magnum opus was left. Termites had eaten the rest. I enquired within the family and was shocked to discover that not one person had bothered to keep a copy. This has nothing to do with the review of The Sceptical Patriot. I know. I just wanted to highlight how important History is to an average Indian. Even the immediate family of an acclaimed historian didn’t give a shit about history.
It was 1988 and I was applying for my pre-university admissions. I mentioned to one of our family friends,
“I am thinking of signing up for History and Economics.”
He just blanked out for a moment and said,
“Are you into drugs?”
No sane person studied History.
“Learn Typing and short-hand instead,” they suggested.
That’s how I ended up NOT studying History.
I am fascinated by History and I tried reading my grand pa’s book (it was a prescribed book for B.A. History back in the day.) I hope my grand pa will forgive me for saying this, but he made Ayn Rand look good as a writer. Now, that’s the problem with textbooks: death by prose. So, I stopped reading grand pa’s book after 11 pages.
In the years that has passed since, I didn’t bother reading up on History. Enter: Internet. I was consuming e-mail forwards, blog posts, Facebook notes, and what have you, about the wondrous, inspiring past of our great country. It took me a few years to realize that not everything the internet serves up is verified, authentic information.
I always wondered– how could a country that was so prosperous, inclusive, liberal, and diverse, fuck up so bad? What happened in-between? Well, those pages in history were never written or, they are stuck to each other.
Through The Sceptical Patriot Sidin addresses these key questions. Was India the richest country in the world before the Brits came in? Did Arya Bhatta invent zero? Was Sushruta the world’s first plastic surgeon? Will Pulli Raja get aids? (Okay I made up the last one.)
Sidin picks all the popular ‘facts’ on India that the internet has been bombarding you with and takes you on a journey of discovery and investigation. The Vedas, Cholas, and Indus valley. To Marconi the bastard (Italian hehehe), Bose, and Neuro-linguistic programming… It is one hell of a roller-coaster ride.
Every Indian needs to read The Sceptical Patriot. It helps in understanding what exactly being Indian means.
I need to add that Sidin walks the tight-rope of history like Prabhudeva on steroids. It is so easy to offend people these days and it is not easy to write an honest story and also make it inoffensive. A friend from Orissa stopped talking to me because I threw a food packet at him in a house-party. So there.
Stay with me da! I am almost done. There are a few things Sidin could have done better. Nothing major, but these things do intrude on the book’s experience.
I think he should have dwelt a little more on the concept of India. Was it a single country hundreds of years back? Or an odd amalgam of fiefdoms and princely states? I have heard some ‘nationalist’ friends thunder,
“India never attacked any country in ten thousand years you sickular, paid-media, Congi traitor!’
Was there a country called India thousands of years back? I don’t know. But yes, if only The Sceptical Patriot had dealt with that topic a bit more… Oh well.
Each chapter has an elaborate preamble before Sidin cuts to chase. I did wonder a couple of times, “Wasn’t this chapter about Takshasila? Why is he talking about Iran here for so long?” It is my ignorance that makes me say this, but I am sure a better ‘design’ would have made it an YES Bank Awesome-max.
Now go buy the book and tell me what you thought of it.