Saraswati in America?

“You know, each time I walk into the New York Public Library, I feel the presence of Saraswati, the goddess of learning.” That was Akumal Ramachander, a mentor and a dear friend, calling from Bangalore, to wish me for the New Year. We had spoken a few weeks ago when he was visiting. We spoke about several things, both mundane and profound, as our conversations go. But after I hung up the phone, I realized that he is actually right. Saraswati does live in America, and a brief visit to any university in the U.S. will demonstrate this. While the popular image of the U.S. is about Wall St., Fifth Avenue – all made popular thanks to Hollywood and the massive culture machine that is undeniably the most aggressive and sophisticated in the world, most people consider it only the land of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; but there is wisdom in realizing that Lakshmi, follows Saraswati not the other way around. Where there is no learning, there can be no real wealth.

             Between trying to convince me to become a vegetarian, a task he takes rather seriously, and enquiring about my health, we spoke about my upcoming exams, his health, philanthropy in India, recent elections in Delhi and upcoming national elections. Then, the conversation went back to Saraswati, or her manifestation in the American public sphere. The simple truth is that America is a super power because it is not only free and democratic, but also because there is free flow of knowledge, he added; and I couldn’t disagree. There is access to any form of knowledge, if people are willing to seek it out. Public libraries lend upwards of 25 books per patron, in fact, my school library lends 150 books at a time, to graduate students and I learnt that recently, when I reached the limit for number of books I could borrow. This is in some ways ‘exceptional’ if I may use the term, without its arrogant connotations. I doubt if any country in the world has such a well-established culture and infrastructure for knowledge dissemination.

             What about libraries in India? As a teenager wanting to read books, I remember struggling to find good books. My only choice, living in Bangalore, considered the most cosmopolitan city in India and the IT capital, was to go to the British Council Library ( one of the few decent ones in town) or to my college library. Suffice it to say that both did not measure up. The number and topics of books were limited, so was the availability of books. Nothing on the scale of Inter Library Loan (ILL) a national network of libraries, where one can order quite literally any book that one needs, free of charge. As one of my friends says in jest, if I had access to all the books I wanted in my teens, I would be orbiting Mars by now. Well, not really. My ambitions of being an Astronaut didn’t last more than a week. But on a serious note, the lack of access to books in India is shocking. Even in a big, developed city; with infrastructure, presence of big universities and billionaires who can make a difference, if they wish to.

            Contrary to the publicity that Indian philanthropists get for their generosity, I doubt if there is a genuine effort towards giving and philanthropy, towards the common good. There are a few exceptions, like the Infosys Foundation, Azeem Premji Foundation, Tata Foundation – but these are a few and do not represent the wealth that is present in India. There is not a single philanthropist who matches the vision or courage of Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, though they have wealth which is significant, perhaps not comparable. What is stopping them from committing half of their wealth towards education or healthcare for the poor? Why does an Ambani build an obscenely ostentatious house, estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, when half the city he lives in squalor? Is it a culture of greed that we are witnessing? Or one of callous disregard for learning, knowledge and human life itself? The less said about the government libraries, the better.

While there are incredible programs that are operating in India, to increase literacy, provide education scholarships and what not, the focus on higher education, providing resources to literate people to increase their knowledge and skills are few. However, here is an inspiring example of ingenuity, creativity and passion to make sure that kids have access to books. As Room to Read’s website points out : “Of all the world’s illiterate people, 35% live in India, and despite recent economic growth, India still lacks the basic resources to educate many of its people. Schooling is free and compulsory from ages 6-14, however inadequate facilities, lecture-based curriculum and gender bias cause 40% of students—mostly girls—to drop out before secondary school.” While that is a sobering statistic, and one that should be a call for everyone concerned to shake their inertia and do something about this, there seems to be little by way of effort from the Indian civil society itself to address this problem.

So, does philanthropy – both at the level of society and the corporate level have any role in addressing this? I believe so, but there needs to be more education and awareness for there to be action. As a cynical friend pointed out recently, that there is no civil society in India, just society. This is one extreme perspective. The fact is that with growing awareness of social issues, involvement of youth in creating public discourses impacting society at large, there is a sense that things can change. So, does it mean that there is an anti-intellectual climate in India? Not at all. There are great centers of learning, many learned people and a vast reservoir of talented and creative youth. The problem, as I see it is that much of this is untapped. The sheer lack of resources, lackadaisical attitude of government and the common man towards equipping the towns and cities with good libraries and venues of intellectual discourse is an unfortunate. We need more libraries, theatres, art galleries and more to create a really intellectually vibrant society. A society that goes beyond reading self-help books – India is apparently the leading market for self-help books in the world – to reading things that actually matter. Self-help and Astrology books don’t build a nation or its intellectuals. They can, on the contrary, do much damage.

So, how do we encourage Saraswati’s presence in our libraries and colleges? The answer may not be simple or easy, but I am sure that as inheritors of a great intellectual tradition, I am sure we can figure that out. Until then, we can admire and learn from some great institutions of learning and libraries such as the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress – institutions that are incomparable, and supported by the common man and the state.


New Year Reading List – Top 12 books in Charity and Philanthropy

Keeping up the tradition of recommending books to read in the upcoming New Year, here is my list of top twelve books for 2014– all focused on Charity and Philanthropy. For starters, the two words don’t mean the same. Hopefully, by the time you are done with the 12 books, you will know the difference. If you are slow reader, read a book a month; if you read fast, aim for one a week. The books are not ranked in any order, so feel free to pick up any title you choose. And yes, some of them are online (for free download) at Project Gutenberg or other sites. So, here goes:

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  1. Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – Perhaps the most cited (and sometimes cited simply because they have to) this book is a classic. Written by a French Aristocrat, who spent a few years in the U.S. documenting the norms of civil society, Democracy in America is a must read for anyone wanting to understand how ‘civil association’ came to be so dominant in the U.S., its moral philosophy and political dimensions. Tocqueville does a great job of illustrating the development of legal systems, relationship of federal government with the states, among other things. But the genius of the book lies in finding how civil society came about in the U.S. and how it is unique in so many respects. If you don’t have this book, buy it. Today.
  2. Bishop, M., and Green, M. Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can save the World – With the discourse of ‘business can save the world’ gaining traction by the day, it is important to be aware of this trend and analysis. While I completely do not agree with the arguments presented here, it is a book worth your time. With Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pledging almost half of their fortunes to philanthropy, will the sector be in a position to transform the lives of millions of poor? Will other HNW individuals follow suit? What are the prospects of this move for philanthropy generally? These are some of the questions Greene and Bishop have dealt with, in this book.
  3. Robert Wuthnow. Saving America?  Faith based services and the future of Civil Society – I am biased towards Wuthnow. He is my favorite Sociologist of Religion and also the most perceptive one. So, his book makes it among the most important ones to read. Infact, any book written by him is an eye opener (and there are quite a few to read). At last count, he had authored over 38 books (I counted that many, not sure if I missed a few). Nevertheless, Saving America offers an in-depth analysis of faith-based services and if they should be supported with tax dollars. Both incisive and perceptive, Wuthnow writes with compassion and a sense of duty towards those who are at the receiving end of the social services. He is a kind soul who is sympathetic with the benefits that these organizations provide to the recipients, but is also scholarly in his approach.
  4. Kass Amy, ed.,Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists. This brings together the best of essays from various cultures, thinkers and ideologies to reflect on charity and philanthropy. There is WEB Dubois, Pope Benedict, Tom Paine and Rabbi Maimonides, among others.  Here is a sample of what is in this book: Eight levels of Giving by Rabbi Maimonides :

There are eight levels of giving:

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know from whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

  1. Kass, Amy. ed., The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose – Another interesting book by Amy Kass. This brings together some interesting perspectives on philanthropy from various authors, poets and thinkers.
  2. Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving – While many people are trying to leave a mark with their philanthropy, they don’t have a blue print of how to do this. Frumkin, who is at Upenn provides a concise, clear roadmap for those who want to do this. A very well written book, one that is indispensable for those who want to go beyond just writing checks.
  3. William Jackson. The Wisdom of Generosity: A Reader in American Philanthropy – This is a quintessentially American philanthropy book. Using folklores, stories, parables drawn from America’s rich past, Jackson offers us an idea of what philanthropy looks and feels like in the U.S. A rich book, that will make you appreciate the richness of American traditions of giving. I realized that between me and the author, there is a small coincidence:  that the author spent his youth in Bangalore, working with NGOs’ (my hometown) and I was sitting in Indianapolis at the Philanthropy Library, IUPUI, many years later and reading his book on philanthropy. Small world, indeed.
  4. Warren Ilchman and Stanley Katz, Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions – This book looks for expressions of philanthropy across various traditions and religions around the world. This again, brings together various writers from varying backgrounds to offer us a rich compendium of ideas and perceptions.
  5. Elayne Clift. Ed. Women, Philanthropy, and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society – As the role of women is being increasingly recognized in our world, works of scholarship are also being produced. This is an interesting book that chronicles the struggles of women who are philanthropists, in everyday life.
  6. Singer, Amy. Charity in Islamic Societies – This is perhaps the ONLY book length treatment of charity in Islamic societies. And perhaps the book that spurred me to decide on my dissertation topic. And yes, she writes well. I have a deep respect for historians who do their job well and she does a remarkable job of grounding the norms, aesthetic dimensions and values of zakat, sadaqa and Waqf in Ottoman Empire and brings back the narrative to current day. A great book that should be in your possession. A review of the book is here.
  7.  David Wagner. What’s Love got to do with it? A Critical Look at American Charity. – This one is for the critical theorists out there. Wagner is not entirely convinced that charity, as we practice it, makes an enormous difference in society. He offers a well argued, indepth analysis for why things are as they are. A good read.
  8. Olivier Zunz. Philanthropy in America: A History. – This book is a historic look at the emergence of philanthropy and makes a case for its use in public good. Zunz is a historian and brings his skills to fore here. Starting with philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, the book traces the history of philanthropy in the U.S., offering a great narrative of how public good has come to be associated with giving. A good read and I enjoyed this book.

Additional recommendations:

Alright, if that hasn’t satisfied your curiosity, here are a few more (keeping in tune with what one of my favorite professors does – All his syllabus has three reading lists. Required, Recommended and Supplementary).

  1. Robert Wuthnow’s  Red State Nation
  2. Barbara Ibrahim and Dina Sherif, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy
  3. David Hammack and Steven Heydemann eds., Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society
  4.  Helmut Anheier and David Hammack, eds,  American Foundations; Roles and Contributions.
  5. Arnove et al. Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism

If you enjoyed this list, share it with others and if you find a book that you think I should read, please write to me! Happy holidays!


“How to Read a book,” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Book Review



Here is a classic that will help you become a better reader, and as a result, a better thinker. How to Read a Book – A Classic guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bound to make you re-evaluate your reading habits. No matter what level of reading you do, the tips and advise that the authors offer is priceless. Especially, for those who are engaged in higher education or research, the book is a goldmine of advice on how to read analytically and gives a thorough step by step process on how to go about being an active reader. First published in 1940, the book has remained a must read for any serious student and academic and I, for one, recommend that you get a copy of this book, today.


How to Read a Book          The book is broken down into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of reading: The dimensions of reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to different kinds of reading matter, The ultimate goals of reading. The authors go to painstaking details in illustrating how one should tackle each, with examples to guide you, in the process.


In short, the first part of the book is about reading actively, with the purpose of making sense of the content in the book and also to discover the meaning of what is being said. They offer some practical tips for dealing with difficult books, such as:” In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.”(pg.36) They ask the reader to do this, to “inspect” the book to grasp what you can. They recommend coming back to it later, trying to grasp the fuller meaning of the book. They also offer advice on reading speeds, depending on the difficulty of the book and one that must be kept in mind. As an active reader, the authors ask us to ask the following four questions, of each book: 1. What is the book about, as a whole? 2. What’s being said in detail and how? 3. Is the book true, in whole or part? 4. What of it?


In the second part, the authors talk about the various elements of analytical reading, primarily asking us to come to terms with the arguments that the writer is making, by determining the message- at times reading in between the lines, if need be. They call for looking for the various parts of the book, its organization, and their relation with each other and also looking at how the author has defined the problem or problems that are to be solved. They caution us to be careful about criticizing any book, before we fully understand what the author means. This means, parsing out the arguments, propositions and phrases that they are using and being careful not to mis-interpret them. Only then, can one criticize it. They further point out that the criticism should be along the lines of what are the logical inadequacies, flaws in argument and structure, rather than giving our own opinion. In this, they offer a rather scholarly etiquette of evaluating and judging any piece of writing.


The third section is about reading different kinds of books such as fiction, social sciences, history, math and science and philosophy- each one calling for a different orientation and style. The last part of the book deals with syntopical or analytical reading, i.e, two or three books of the same kind and what they say about a subject. This is outlined in five steps that the authors suggest: 1. Finding the relevant passages – that speak to the issue(s) that you have in mind, as a reader 2. Bringing the authors to terms, meaning identifying the terms and phrases that you are interested in, and getting the multiple authors to speak to those terms. In other words, it is about forcing the author to use your language, rather than his. 3. Getting the questions clear: This can be done by establishing a set of neutral propositions, that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors give answers 4. Defining the issues and finally 5. Analyzing the discussion : To ask, if the issues under discussion are true, what do all the authors say about it, and wherein they differ or agree.


In conclusion, it is good to remember their advise about tough books:” Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively. To keep on reading actively, you must have not only the will to do so, but also the skill- the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first sight seems to be beyond you.”

How to Read a book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Simon and Schuster, New York, First published in 1940



Ten books you must read in 2013


A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and I rattled off a few titles,  and felt good about the recommendations I had just made. But on reflection, I realized that I hadn’t suggested the BEST books to read, given the paucity of time that we all have. So, if your interests are in the area of Political Science, Critical theory and (or) Civil Society, here are my favorite books.

I have read these and a few more related titled this year and highly recommend them. These are not ranked in any particular order and are clearly books you should consider buying. Collectors items indeed!

  1. Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu Lughod – A classic in its own right. Abu Lughod de-constructs how the current global market system is a by-product of 13th century European trade system. An eye-opening analysis, done with meticulous care.  She talks about how trade was impacted by demographic shifts, weather, wars among other things. You should read her work on Egypt, as well. She is brilliant.
  2. Shadows of War by Caroline Nordstrom – Another gem of a book by an Anthropologist. She analyzes “shadow economies” in war zones, how they are formed, perpetuated. Her work questions deep-rooted assumptions of what is legal and illegal. I kept asking myself, “so who is the criminal here?”, not knowing if it was the diamond smuggler or the corrupt NGO person who was at fault. A true page turner.
  3. Political Order in Changing Societies  by Samuel Huntington – Well, Samuel Huntingtion is not all evil. That is the conclusion I reached after reading his first book. This was written way back in the day (even before I was born), and it shows the power of his analysis (perhaps at his best). He looks at how political growth and economic growth don’t necessarily go hand in hand and how societies adapt to democracies.
  4. Leadership without easy answers by Ronald Heifetz – In case you want to read some leadership stuff. This is a fairly easy read, but his analysis of leadership is quite rich. He is a good writer, who brings in insights from cognitive psychology, his first profession.
  5. Marx- Engels reader –  I must admit, I read my fair share of Marxist theories this semester, and have started to appreciate the necessity of reading Marx, whether you like him or hate him – you just cant ignore him. Much of political economic analysis, globalization theories owe him a lot. My Libertarian friends may disagree.
  6. Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell – Another solid book on how the Western intervention in Egypt has played out over the past several decades. This takes a close look at the technologies of knowledge production and colonization in Egypt. A fascinating read.
  7. World Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein – If you think the whole world is one big mess, you would be agreeing with Wallerstein. It was his idea that one has to look at the world, as an organizing unit for analysis and not each nation state separately. Though the theory is over 30 yrs old, it is still useful today.
  8. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills – Mills is to Sociology what Einstein is to Physics. So, I would encourage you to pick this book up. And he is a great writer too! Very readable book. Short and crisp, it will shake you up a bit.
  9. The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois – I just finished reading this classic yesterday and I must admit, it was almost poetic. The language is fluid, beautiful and extremely sensitive to the subject that he handles. Considered one of the most important books about African-Americans, this is a book you should not miss. Du Bois was the first Black man to get a PhD ( from Harvard University, no less) and is still considered one of the greatest Black leaders of all times. An intellectual giant.
  10.  The Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco – Masco takes us on a journey to explain how the Manhattan project has shaped public consciousness of the Atomic bomb in the U.S. Using ethnographic studies of parts of the U.S which have housed the nuclear power plants, he looks at how native American lands have been taken over by the state, how the poor have been treated and how the fascination for the bomb continues, in its own strange way, even to this day.