Archive for March, 2023

I got into a book reading slump and so I did what I normally do – started watching movies. One of the movies I watched was one of my old favourites, the Chinese movie, ‘Curse of the Golden Flower‘. After watching the movie, I wanted to watch another Chinese movie, or maybe a series. Most Chinese series are set during old times with kings and queens, and princesses and princes. I wanted to watch something which was set during contemporary times. I thought if I’m able to see familiar streets and buildings and shops, it will make me feel nostalgic about my Shanghai days. So I looked around and found this series, ‘The Rational Life‘.

Middle : Qin Lan as Shen Ruoxin
Right : Dylan Wang as Qi Xiao
Left : Calvin Li as Xu Mingjie (Ruoxin’s boss)

The Rational Life‘ is a drama set in contemporary Shanghai, and it has everything that we’d expect from a drama – drama at the office, drama at home, friendship, love and everything in between. Shen Ruoxin is a 34-year old woman working in a car company. She is next in line to become the head of the legal department. She is beautiful and single and likes being that way. When she comes back home, she likes gazing at the stars through her telescope and contemplating the immensity of the universe. Sometimes she catches up with her closest friend Ziyan. But if you are single and beautiful and successful, the world won’t leave you alone, would it? Even your own family won’t leave you alone. Ruoxin’s mom constantly pesters her to get a boyfriend, to get married. She repeatedly tries matchmaking for her. At the workplace, Ruoxin’s colleague falls in love with her, Ruoxin’s boss is attracted towards her, and at some point even her assistant falls in love with her. As if this was not enough, there are people in her workplace who are constantly trying to bring her down.

Ruoxin’s best friend Ziyan’s life is very different. She is happily married, she loves her husband and he loves her back, she cooks for him everyday, she loves travelling and having adventures. But she has a different set of problems. Ziyan and her husband decided not to have children when they got married. But a few years later there is a lot of pressure from her in-laws who push her to have a child. They turn her husband to their point of view. At some point even her parents join the chorus and join hands with her in-laws. Ziyan feels isolated in her own home. Eventhough on the surface, it looks like she has a different set of problems when compared to her friend Ruoxin, when we look at things in their essential nature, they are exactly the same. Both of them want to live simple lives, enjoy it the way they like, and experience the simple joys of life. But the people around them keep putting pressure on them and want them to change. It looks like living the simple, fulfilling life is hard. It doesn’t matter whether you are single or married, whether you are working or not, the world just won’t leave you alone.

What these two women do to keep their sanity intact in the midst of all these pressures and how they try to find joy in the simple pleasures, and whether they succeed, is the rest of the story.

This is, of course, the story from one perspective. There are many subplots and many characters and most of them are wonderful. There is, for example, Ruoxin’s assistant, Qi Xiao, who is in love with her, and will do anything for her. His best friend Su Yang is from a small town and lives with him. Su Yang is an artist and cartoonist who finds it hard to get a job. His parents are after him and want him to come back home and find a government job there and settle down. Su Yang is in love with Sijie, who works in Ruoxin’s team. But Su Yang finds it difficult to express his love for Sijie, because he feels that he is unworthy, as he doesn’t even have a job. Sijie is a happy person who loves Su Yang, and who is puzzled why Su Yang doesn’t respond back, though he is clearly attracted towards her. There are more characters and stories, of course, but I’ll stop here.

One of the things I loved about the series was the way it showed Shanghai. Seeing all the familiar buildings and streets and places I used to frequent, made me nostalgic and brought back old memories. Another thing I loved about the series was that there were no dull episodes or episodes which felt like fillers. There were charming beautiful scenes in every episode, and every episode carried the story forward. All the characters were fully fleshed out and they were complex and fascinating. The way the series depicts Chinese culture is beautiful and realistic – how parents intervene in their grown-up children’s lives in every way, in education, in work, in romance, in family life; how children try to exhibit filial piety – that is try to be obedient to parents and not defy them or offend them, which is very hard when you want to live life in your own way; the internecine office politics through which people are trying to bring you down; how it is hard to come from a small town and try to find a job and a place to stay in a big city like Shanghai, and how inspite of that young people still keep doing it everyday; how it is hard for an independent successful woman in the workplace, and how people are always trying to bring her down.

Ruoxin was probably my most favourite character in the story. The way she navigates the challenges in her work, in her personal life and in her love life, are all beautiful to watch. She is also charming and playful in all the romantic scenes, which is very Chinese, and which is very beautiful to watch. One of my favourite scenes in the story is when her boss, who is almost like Darcy (or rather a better version of Darcy) nearly proposes to her. The way Ruoxin rejects his proposal is one of the most beautiful scenes in the story. It is almost as if the scriptwriters took Jane Austen’s scene and improved on it and made it better, much much better! Another of my favourite scenes is when Su Yang defies his parents and explains to them why he can’t come back. You could almost touch the tension in that scene – the sparks were flying! Another of my favourite scenes is the one in which Ruoxin and her boyfriend invite her mom for dinner (her mom is against them getting together and is doing everything to break them up), and they explain to her why they want to be together, and her mom’s heart melts and she gives them her blessing and then she delivers a monologue like Spencer Tracy does in ‘Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner‘, and our heart melts and we start crying…

One of my favourite characters in the story is Qi Xiao’s mom. She is one of the best moms that I’ve seen on screen and her beautiful relationship and friendship with her son made me think of Karen and Lucas in ‘One Tree Hill‘, and Lorelai and Rory in ‘Gilmore Girls‘, and Mahalaxmi and Kumaran in the Tamil movie, ‘Kumaran, Son of Mahalaxmi‘. She is also friends with Ruoxin’s mom, and in one scene, they have a long conversation during which Qi Xiao’s mom tries to change her friend’s mind with respect to her daughter Ruoxin and her boyfriend. It is a powerful and an incredibly beautiful scene – two strong women who are also single moms, who are worried about their children and who approach the art of parenting differently. It was a scene which made me cry.

One last scene that I want to describe, which is also one of my favourite ones, is this one. At one point, both Ruoxin’s boss and her assistant are in love with her, and Ruoxin’s assistant also doubles as her boss’ driver, and one day they are going somewhere in the car together and the conversation turns to romance (in a very indirect way, of course, there is no question of talking about your love life with your boss or with your driver, but they both know exactly whom each of them is talking about, and we can feel the tension in the air), and Ruoxin’s boss tells Ruoxin’s assistant, that if he is attracted to someone, he should first ask himself, whether he is worthy, whether he has the resources to make her happy, before doing something about it. It sounds more powerful in Chinese – he says “Nǐ shì shéi? Nǐ yǒu shénme?” (“Who are you? What do you have?”) It is like someone takes a knife and stabs you repeatedly and you can’t do anything about it. The boss knows that he is the one with the resources and this young man who loves the same woman is no match for him, and he makes it known in no uncertain terms. Of course, our heart goes out to the young man. As someone who fell in love repeatedly with people out of my league when I was young, I wanted the young man to win. But now, having grown older and wiser, I feel that the boss’ words were wise, and they required serious thought.

One final, final last scene. Towards the end of the story, a whole storm has blown through the office, and Ruoxin’s nemesis, is one of the victims. As he packs his bags and box and leaves for the final time, no one even talks to him. The company top management has changed and this guy is part of the old guard and even his loyal supporters don’t want to be tainted by him. He gets into the elevator and who does he bump into there, but our own Ruoxin. So the two have a polite conversation (which is odd, because in the workplace he always tried to crush her, once even moving her into the admin department at the bottom of the food chain, hoping that she’ll leave, but she takes it on her chin and resists and persists – it made me think of my own time at the workplace when I was exiled to the cubicle next to the toilet with no clear job description and responsibilities), and he tells her that he has quit and no one even said goodbye to him. She thanks him for mentoring her during her initial days at the company. He then tells her that he worked in the company for 20 years, and he was there when this building was constructed. Now, suddenly, it is all over. He congratulates her on her success, and he hopes she has better luck than him. I hated this guy from the beginning till the end, but this last scene made me feel sad. He was also a human being at the end of the day, who worked hard and who was loyal to the company. He could have been nice and kind to his younger colleagues, instead of encouraging sycophants. He could have been nice to Ruoxin or atleast tried being professional towards her instead of trying to crush her. But inspite of all this, that last scene still made me feel sad.

The series is filled with strong women characters, Ruoxin of course, and Ruoxin’s and Qi Xiao’s moms, Ruoxin’s friend Ziyan, Ruoxin’s friend and colleague Sijie. At one point there is a restructuring in Ruoxin’s office and a new boss walks in, and it turns out that the new boss is a woman, and on the first day she lays down the law, and it sends shivers down the spine of all the bullies – that scene still gives me goosebumps. That boss, Lisa Fang, comes only in a few scenes, but she is amazing.

I loved ‘The Rational Life‘. The writing is beautiful and the beautiful, charming, moving scenes keep coming in every episode. It has 35 episodes, and that is 35 episodes of pure pleasure. Qin Lan delivers a brilliant performance as Shen Ruoxin and I think this might be one of the finest performances of her career. Hoping to watch more series featuring her, but I doubt whether any of them can match this. But I live in hope.

Have you watched ‘The Rational Life‘? What do you think about it? (If you haven’t watched it but would like to, it is there on Netflix.)


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I stumbled upon this book a few days back, and as I’m reading one nonfiction book after another, I thought I’ll read this.

Kuldip Nayar was one of the famous Indian journalists in the 1960s and ’70s. I think his peak in terms of fame came after the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, proclaimed the Emergency in 1975 and proceeded with her authoritarian rule. At that time Kuldip Nayar wrote a long letter to her protesting against the restrictions on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The next day, the police walked into his house, arrested him and put him in jail, where he remained for a few months. His protest was praised and admired by Indira Gandhi’s opponents and critics, and 14 years later, when the opposition came up power, he was rewarded for his resistance, when he was appointed as the Indian ambassador to the UK.

This book is a collection of his articles grouped under various themes, chronologically. There is a section on Partition, there are sections on the Indian Prime Ministers Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi, there is a section on the Emergency. There are also parts on the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and the 1971 Bangladesh war. Some of my favourite articles were an account of Nayar’s conversations with Mountbatten and Radcliffe many years after the Partition happened. Radcliffe especially comes through as a nice guy, living a simple life, making the tea himself and offering it to his guest. The part on Shastri was very insightful as he is mostly forgotten today, because his time as Prime Minister was brief and lasted for only 19 months, at the end of which he died under mysterious circumstances. But during his time the 1965 Indo-Pak war was fought, and the Russians mediated a peace treaty between the two warring countries. Kuldip Nayar seems to have been well regarded in both India and Pakistan, which is rare for Indian journalists, especially during that time. So his thoughts about Pakistan and his interviews with some of the Pakistani leaders, especially Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, are very interesting. While reading the book, one sometimes gets the feeling that Kuldip Nayar is too full of himself, feeling that he is always right and the best. Sometimes he describes how he took confidential information which someone had shared off the  record and wrote an article about it the next day. I’m not sure whether this is ethical journalism. At other times, one feels that he speaks his mind and his thoughts are unconventional for his times. One of these things that I liked was his article on Srilanka, in which he criticizes the Indian government of that time for training and arming Srilankan Tamil terrorists and providing them a safe haven in India. I don’t know any other Indian journalist who has criticized the Indian government for this, at that time. An Indian journalist will typically say  that the Indian government was supporting the oppressed Srilankan Tamils, or will sweep the issue below the carpet and ignore it.

A couple of more things which I read in the book which I found very fascinating. It looked like in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Russia didn’t take either side, and tried acting neutral. Which is very surprising, because I thought that during the Cold War era, Russia was on the Indian side, and America was on the Pakistani side. America was clearly on the Pakistani side, while Russia seems to have prevaricated, and sometimes even bullied the Indian side during the post war negotiations. There seems to have been some Russian support for the Indian side during the 1971 Bangladesh War, but in general, the Russian position seems to have been fuzzy. It seems that Russia regarded India as a poor country and a kind of inferior vassal state, not really a friend or an ally. It was not surprising when after the Cold War era ended, the Russian government dumped their so-called friendship with India, and I remember the then Russian President Boris Yelstin saying that the Russian friendship with India was a Cold War era thing, and it was past its expiry date now. It is ironic now that 30 years later, after Russian politicians have pushed their country into near international isolation with their acts befitting a cartoon villain, Russia is seeking friendship with India again. It is almost like a Coen Brothers dark comedy. I hope today’s Indian diplomats know their history and know whom they are dealing with here.

Another interesting thing which I found in the book was this. I remember my dad telling me when I was a kid that the American government threatened to bring their naval fleet into the Bay of Bengal and bomb India, during the 1971 Bangladesh War. I haven’t heard about this from anyone else since, and so I thought maybe there were just rumours at that time, or maybe my dad was exaggerating. My dad was a history teacher though and he never exaggerates. So it was interesting for me to read an essay in Kuldip Nayar’s book which confirmed what my dad said. For some reason, the American government didn’t carry out their threat, and their naval fleet didn’t materialize in Indian waters. This was probably the closest that India and America had come to actual war on the ground and the heart shudders to think on how things would have been if it had happened.

I’ve heard Indians sometimes say that it would have been great if India had strategic natural resources like oil and uranium. Oil is energy, and uranium is energy and weapons, and with these two, India would have atleast been a regional power from whom its neighbours and superpowers would have stayed away. I’m not sure about this. I feel sometimes that India got lucky because it didn’t have these things. If the Americans threatened to bring their naval fleet and bomb India, for something which didn’t concern them, I’m wondering what would have happened if India had stuff like oil and uranium. There would have been a superpower scramble for the resources and a superpower proxy war would have happened in Indian territory. The Americans have always hated democracy in non-Western countries, especially those countries with strategic natural resources. If there was a chance of democracy, they always intervened, orchestrated a coup, and installed a right-wing dictator who suppressed the people. The Russians, of course, always hated democracy. Being in the middle of these two bullies, India would have suffered. A tinpot dictator would have been installed who would have kowtowed to one of the superpowers. It would have been like the way it happened in the Middle East or in Latin America. India got lucky, because without these strategic natural resources, except for some superpower bullying and being treated with contempt all around, India was left alone. It continued being a poor country with 1940s technology, till the end of the Cold War era. Then the economy opened up, and as they say, the rest is history. It makes me think of one of my favourite verses (Verse 11) from the Chinese classic ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tzu. It goes like this.

“Thirty spokes share a central hub;

It is the hole that makes the wheel useful.

Mix water and clay into a vessel;

Its emptiness is what makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

Their emptiness is what makes them useful.

Therefore consider : advantage comes from having things

And usefulness from having nothing.”

The last lines always make me smile – “Advantage comes from having things. And usefulness from having nothing.”

Having nothing definitely helped India survive the Cold War era. Having nothing will sometimes keep you safe. There is no guarantee of it though. Sometimes even when you have nothing, people will treat you with contempt and will try to crush you. But in this particular case, having nothing seems to have worked. The Ancient Chinese were definitely wise.

I enjoyed reading ‘Scoop‘. Kuldip Nayar has also written a book on the Emergency. It was first published in 1977, and so probably offers a firsthand witness to the events. I want to read this sometime.

Have you read this and other Kuldip Nayar books?

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I wanted to start this month by reading some history. So I read Max Hastings‘ book on the Korean War.

The Korean War was probably the first war in the Cold War era when Western and communist forces clashed on the battlefield. It is not as famous as the Vietnam War, and it is mostly forgotten today. But though the Vietnam War has passed on to history and legend today, with the country filled with bustling cities with tall skyscrapers like any other East Asian city, the fires of the Korean War are still smoldering today, with North Korea and South Korea being two separate, distinct countries, with tension brewing in between. So I thought it will be a good idea to read this book and find out how it all started.

One of the problems I had while choosing to read a particular history of the Korean War was this. Most history books which are available in English today are written by American or British historians. Occasionally, we might find a French or German book in English translation, but otherwise this is it. (There are lots of books on Indian history in English by Indian historians and writers, but that is a unique case, and so I’m going to ignore that for the purposes of our discussion.) So, because of this, a typical history book in English is going to have a British or American bias. Of course, historians try to be neutral, and try to provide the relevant facts, with objective analysis, but the bias always creeps in. For example, a typical British or American version of the Korean War could go like this – “The army of the evil Chinese empire, joined together with the North Koreans and tried to take over the whole of Korea. The heroic American army intervened with the help of friends and helped the South Korean people. In a furious war waged between the armies of the free world and of the communist totalitarians, the noble armies of the free world triumphed. That is why we have a democratic, free South Korea today, which is one of the biggest Asian economies, while totalitarian North Korea is poor and primitive.” This is the kind of history which is peddled by the international press, and media, and this is the history which most of us are aware of. So I was worried that a history of the war by an American or British historian would be a version of this. Maybe a sophisticated version, but still very similar to this.

So, what about Max Hastings’ book? How good is it? There is good news and bad news.

The good news first. I thought that the context that Hastings gave to the war with the background into Korean history of that period and how the Japanese occupied Korea and how the division of Korea into the North and the South happened – this is very well done. I learnt a lot while reading this. The actual war is described from a Western perspective, but to be fair to Hastings, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the decisions by American leaders and military personnel. (He mostly treats British leaders and army personnel softly with kid gloves, which is very interesting 😊)  Occasionally he also describes things from a Chinese perspective, based on his interviews with Chinese veterans. There are many stories of heroism and valour and sacrifice during the war, mostly of the American and British and other UN soldiers, and occasionally of the Chinese soldiers which are very inspiring and moving to read. There is considerable space given to the American General Douglas MacArthur and his role in the war and how his decisions impacted events. It made me want to read more about MacArthur. The only things I know about him are that he was famous, he was featured in an American postage stamp, and he was suddenly dismissed by his President Truman. MacArthur looks like a fascinating, larger-than-life character, whom people loved or hated, but couldn’t ignore. I hope to read more about him. This is the good news.

Now the bad news 😊 The North Koreans are mostly treated as a mass of homogeneous, evil people, who are ruthless and barbaric. Though there is a lot of description of individual American or British soldiers, there is no mention of an individual North Korean by name. Except for Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are regarded as a primitive, evil horde who are uncivilized and the author probably feels that they deserved what was coming to them. The Chinese soldiers are also mostly depicted this way – as an evil horde who keep on coming and fighting in the night. The Chinese get slightly better treatment though – individual Chinese soldiers are sometimes mentioned and the author is able to interview them and we learn their stories. One of the reasons for this could be that North Korean veterans of the war would have been inaccessible to Western correspondents, as their country was closed and continues to be closed to outsiders today. The same would have been true with respect to Chinese veterans, but there was a thaw between the Chinese and the West in the 1970s, which continued into the 1980s, when Hastings wrote this book, and so he would have been able to speak to some of the Chinese veterans of the war. But, inspite of this small silver lining, it is hard to ignore the fact that the North Koreans and the Chinese are treated as barbaric, primitive, evil hordes, who are out to destroy the beautiful freedom created by Western countries.

So, the book describes the Western perspective of the Korean War. It is detailed from that perspective. We get the occasional Chinese perspective. But the perspective from the opposite side is mostly simplistic or missing. But we can read the book against the grain, look at the author’s conclusions and try to see things from the opposite side. It is lots of hardwork, but it is interesting and rewarding. I do agree with the overall conclusion of the author though – that the American and UN intervention in Korea was good and South Korea is a thriving country today with a booming economy and it is a global leader in popular culture because of that. (Though why the Chinese didn’t take North Korea under their wing, make investments there and make it into a thriving economy, the way the Americans helped South Korea – why this didn’t happen, we’ll never know. What is the purpose of keeping North Korea closed and stuck in a Cold War era time warp? It doesn’t help anyone, including the North Koreans and the Chinese.)

I found Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War very informative and insightful, inspite of its limitations. I loved what Max Hastings said in his introduction to the book – “It is properly the business of a new generation of historians to correct the errors which have inevitably emerged over the past three decades, in light of updated statistics and declassified material. Authors addressing the subject anew must review and challenge my judgements as they see fit.” That is what a good historian says – that history is open to new interpretations as new facts emerge in the future, and his version is neither definite nor final. This made me like Max Hastings.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

This story made me cry.

“Suk Bun Yoon, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who had twice escaped from Seoul under communist occupation, was living with the remains of his family as suppliants upon the charity of a village south of the capital in the spring of 1951. A government mobilisation decree was suddenly thrust upon the village: twenty able-bodied men were required for military service. Suk’s family was offered a simple proposal by the villagers: if the boy would go to the army in place of one of their own, they would continue to feed his parents.

An American army truck bore him and the other bewildered young men first to Seoul, and then on up the dusty road towards the front. They spent a night in an old station warehouse, where they were given chocolate and a can of corned beef. It was the first meat the boy had tasted for six months, and was impossibly rich. He was sick at once. Next morning, after five hours on the road, he and a cluster of others were deposited at the camp of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was not to be a soldier, but a porter under military discipline. He found himself joining a unit of some forty porters attached to the battalion. His first job was to carry a coil of barbed wire up to the forward positions. It was hopeless. He was too young, and too weak. The corporal in charge took pity on him. He was assigned to become a sweeper and odd-job boy at the rear echelon. Yet life remained desperately hard. Each night, the porters were confined to their hut, yet they were sometimes awakened amid the sound of the gunfire to carry ammunition or equipment forward. One day, they found themselves hastily ordered back to a new position. Suk scarcely understood what was happening, beyond the confusion of retreat. Gradually, he and the others understood that there had been a battle, and heavy casualties. Around half the porters had disappeared, captured or killed.

After the battle, the porters’ conditions seemed to improve. Suk became more accustomed to the life, and determined to educate himself. As he learned a little English, he questioned the soldiers incessantly: What was the longest river in the world? Which was the highest mountain? How was England governed? Since in later life he became a professor of economics, this experiment cannot be considered a complete failure. The soldiers called him ‘Spaniard’, because he had a reputation for hot temper. Yet when the Ulsters were relieved and he found himself attached to the Royal Norfolks, conditions deteriorated again. He was caught scavenging for food, roughly handled, and sent for a spell in a barbed-wire cage. He was then sacked from his job as a porter at battalion headquarters, and sent to the pioneer platoon, where he spent several more months.

‘I was very homesick,’ he said. ‘By February 1952, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The only letter I had sent to my family was returned undelivered. I was missing them desperately.’ That month, he was given leave to Seoul. He reached the capital determined not to go back to the front. He contacted some of his old schoolmates, and in April was able to arrange to return to school – a school without books or desks. His only asset was a strong command of the English language which he had acquired on the hills behind the Imjin.”

This happened hours after the war ended and the armistice was signed. It made me smile  It also made me sad at the meaningless futility of war.

“When dawn came, men on the UN line peered out across the silent valleys between themselves and the Chinese. In many places, little clusters of bold spirits slipped forward through the wire and the minefields, searching with intense curiosity for their former enemies. What did they look like, these strange creatures who had been glimpsed only momentarily through binoculars, or as screaming shadows in the darkness of an attack? The same curiosity possessed their enemies. On the low ground between positions, there were stilted little encounters. The Chinese passed over beer and bottles of rice wine. UN troops offered chocolate and cigarettes. Some Chinese made it apparent that they were as delighted that the war was ended as the Westerners. But these meetings could scarcely be called fraternisation. They were impelled not by fellow-feeling for the enemy, but by the same impulses that would provoke any earthman to inspect visiting aliens.”

Have you read Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War or any other book on the Korean War?

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I read an essay by June Jordan on Martin Luther King recently, and I realized that I haven’t read a proper book by him. Of course, I have read words spoken by him and have seen others quote him, but I haven’t read a book by him. So I looked around and found this book and picked it up, and I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks. I finished reading it yesterday. I read it for ‘Black History Month‘.

A Testament of Hope‘ is a collection of Martin Luther King’s important essays, speeches, interviews, and excerpts from his books. It has something of everything and it seemed to be the best one-volume collection out there and is a beautiful introduction to his work. The first part of the book has essays by King in which he describes his philosophy of nonviolent protests. It has one of the most beautiful descriptions of the philosophy of nonviolent protests that I’ve ever read. He talks about the three words for love in Greek, eros, philia, and agape, and it made me smile, because it took me back in time, to my teenage years, when I first encountered these three words. King also talks about how Gandhi pioneered the use of nonviolent methods to fight against oppression. There is even an essay on his trip to India, which was insightful to read. Throughout this part of the book, King also talks about the struggle against segregation, the fight for integration, and how equality can be achieved by peaceful, nonviolent means. One of my favourite essays of his was ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail‘.

The second part of the book has many of his famous speeches and sermons. I think all his famous speeches are there, including ‘I Have a Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘I See the Promised Land‘. Martin Luther King was a powerful speaker, and all his speeches were inspiring. My favourites were ‘The American Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘A Time to Break Silence‘, his famous protest and condemnation of the American government for its role in the Vietnam war. One of the things I was looking forward to, while reading his speeches and other parts of the book, was to find where his most famous lines made their first appearance. My most favourite quote of his, and probably the most famous lines he ever spoke, is ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice‘. I found it in many places, in his essays, speeches, book excerpts. It was lots of fun to spot it.

There were five interviews in the interviews section of the book, and my favourite out of them was the Playboy interview. Playboy is a magazine which is famous for its centrefold pictures, but Playboy also has a serious side, and it has featured wonderful interviews with important people. This interview was very detailed and insightful and beautiful.

The book section had excerpts from all his books. My favourite was ‘Stride Toward Freedom‘, which was about the Montgomery bus protests. ‘The Strength of Love‘ is a collection of sermons and there was one sermon in it called ‘A Knock at Midnight‘ which was incredibly beautiful.

One of the things I loved about Martin Luther King was that he didn’t shy away from difficult questions and didn’t try to sweep things below the carpet. He answered these questions precisely and clearly. In one of the interviews, he is asked about whether nonviolence will continue to be effective as in recent times protestors have started resorting to violence after being influenced by the Black Power movement. The reply he gives to that is one of the best defences of the nonviolent movement that I’ve read. In another interview, a Jewish Rabbi asks him about why some of the black leaders are anti-Semitic and whether the overall African-American community is anti-Semitic. The answer he gives to this tricky question (in cricket parlance, it was a total bouncer or a googly) is one of the best parts of the book. As we say in cricket, Well played, MLK! 😊

I loved ‘A Testament of Hope‘. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life, and definitely one of my favourite books of the year. It was 700 pages of pure inspiration which gave me goosebumps all the time. I read it from the first page to the last, like a regular book, but I feel now that it is a book which is best read a few pages at a time, one essay at a time, with time spent after that in thinking and contemplation. I think that is the best way to get the maximum pleasure and learning out of the book. The book has a beautiful introduction by the editor James Melvin Washington, which talks about Martin Luther King and his life, and puts this book in context.

Martin Luther King was a soft-spoken, gentle preacher who suddenly emerged as a civil rights leader in 1955 during the Montgomery bus protests. He was 26 years old at that time and he was virtually unknown. In the space of a little more than a year, he emerged as a national and international icon and as a leader who fought for the rights of the oppressed through peaceful means. Fame, awards, and glory followed, including the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was the youngest to win. He didn’t rest on his laurels and continued his crusade and fought for the rights of his people, gently and nonviolently. He died when he was 39, when a mad man shot him, when he was planning a new nonviolent crusade the next day. He was still so young, with a rich future ahead. It is amazing to contemplate on the unbelievable things that he accomplished in this short span of 13 years. It also feels sad to contemplate on what he might have accomplished if he had lived a long life. Out of the three great nonviolent crusaders of the 20th century who fought against oppression and for the rights of their people – Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – two were assassinated by mad men. I don’t know why people hate gentle souls who favour peace over war, and love over hate. Only Nelson Mandela survived as he managed to come out of prison and see off the apartheid era and take his country to a new age.

It is hard to believe that once upon a time a gentle soul like Martin Luther King walked on this earth, spread the message of peace and love while fighting for the oppressed, and accomplished great things. We are in his debt.

It is hard to choose a few favourite passages from a book like this, because the whole book was so beautiful and inspiring. As John Updike once said, “Just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” This is that kind of book. But I can’t inflict it on you and quote the whole book to you. So I’m just sharing some of my favourite passages here. Hope they’ll inspire you to read the book.

Three Kinds of Love

“Now when the students talk about love, certainly they are not talking about emotional bosh, they are not talking about merely sentimental outpouring; they’re talking something much deeper, and I always have to stop and try to define the meaning of love in this context. The Greek language comes to our aid in trying to deal with this. There are three words in the Greek language for love; one is the word eros. This is a beautiful type of love, it is an aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his Dialogue, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. It has come to us to be a sort romantic love, and so in a sense we have read about it and experienced it. We’ve read about it in all the beauties of literature. I guess in a sense Edgar Allen Poe was talking about eros when he talked about his beautiful Annabelle Lee, with the love surrounded by the halo of eternity. In a sense Shakespeare was talking about eros when he said “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove; O’no! It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, it is the star to every wandering bark.” (You know, I remember that because I used to quote it to this little lady when we were courting; that’s eros.) The Greek language talks about philia which was another level of love. It is an intimate affection between personal friends, it is a reciprocal love. On this level you love because you are loved. It is friendship.

Then the Greek language comes with another word which is called the agape. Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.” I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemp- tive, creative, good will for all men. And it is this idea, it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement.”

On Being Maladjusted

“There are certain technical words which tend to become stereotypes and cliches after a certain period of time. Psychologists have a word which is probably used more frequently than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” In a sense all of us must live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted. The challenge to us is to be maladjusted – as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”; as maladjusted as Lincoln, who had the who had the vision to see that this nation cannot survive half slave half free; as maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions. “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit Happiness”; as maladjusted as Jesus who could say to the men and women of his generation, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”

The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment. Through such courageous maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom justice.”

Human Progress

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. The Darwinian theory of evolution is valid in the biological realm, but when a Hubert Spencer seeks to apply it to the whole of society there is very little evidence for it. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without hard work, time itself becomes ally of the primitive forces of irrational emotionalism social stagnation.”

Just and Unjust Laws

“Much has been made of the willingness of these devotees of nonviolent social action to break the law. Paradoxically, although they have embraced Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s civil disobedience on a scale dwarfing any past experience in American history, they do respect law. They feel a moral responsibility to obey just laws. But they recognize that there are also unjust laws.

From a purely moral point of view, an unjust law is one which is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe. More concretely, an unjust law is one in which the minority is compelled to observe a code that is not binding on the majority. An unjust law is one in which people are required to obey a code that they had no part in making because they were denied the right to vote.

In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty,  whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

This distinguishes their positon on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects that law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

Civilization and Culture

“We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture. Professor MacIver follows the German sociologist, Alfred Weber, in pointing out the distinction between culture and civilization. Civilization refers what we use; culture refers to what we are. Civilization is that complex of devices, instrumentalities, mechanisms and techniques by means of which we live. Culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion and morals for which at best we live.

The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance ends for which we live. We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture, and so we are in danger now of ending up with guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. This is what the poet Thoreau meant when he said, “Improved means to an unimproved end.” If we are to survive today and realize the dream of our mission and the dream of the world, we must bridge the gulf and somehow keep the means by which we live abreast with the ends for which we live.”

“Where Do We Go From Here”

“Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the African-American was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is fifty percent of person. Of the good things in life, the African-American has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things in life, he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all African-Americans live in substandard housing. And African-Americans have half the income of whites. When we view the negative experiences of life, the African-American has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among African-Americans is double that of whites and there are twice as many African-Americans dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population…This is where we are.”

Roget’s Thesaurus

“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie.  The most degenerate member of a family is a “black sheep.” Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced teach the black child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuating his false sense of superiority.”

The Bootstrap Philosophy

“Now there is another myth that still gets around; it is a kind of overreliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the African-American is to rise out of poverty, if the African-American is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the African-American must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma; but beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863 the African-American was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man – through an act Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest – which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell African-Americans that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

On the Vietnam War

“And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think if them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and to hear their broken cries.

They must see the Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people weren’t ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned international atmosphere for so long.

For nine years following 1945 we vigorously supported the French in their abortive attempt to recolonize Vietnam. After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come through the Geneva Agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops, who came help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while, the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us – not their fellow Vietnamese – the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know that they must move or be destroyed by our bombs, and they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops, and they wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American fire power to one Viet-Cong inflicted injury. They wander into the towns and see thousands of children homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think, as we ally ourselves with the landlords, and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions : the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in crushing one of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political forces, the United Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators!

Now there is little left to build on – save bitterness. And soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these; could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them, and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.”

Have you read ‘A Testament of Hope‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Martin Luther King quote?

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