The 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was by all accounts a stern, puritanical, and yet generous ruler, characterized above all by capriciousness and a brutal exercise of power. Perhaps the most reliable and certainly one of the most detailed narratives of his rule comes from the hand of ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler who spent six years at the Sultan’s court. Ibn Batuta observes at the outset that “this king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood.” Over the next thirty pages, ibn Batuta details the gifts that the Sultan showered upon nobles but especially foreigners, following it up with gruesome accounts of the punishments he meted out to those who dared so much as to disagree with him.
There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States, was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket. Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48. If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia. But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.
It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”. The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom. “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.
It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021. A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end. Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored. There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis. None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt. That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.
As the coronavirus continues to maul societies, confounding the scientists with its cunning and increasingly finding victims among the young, who were at first considered to be largely invulnerable, it becomes all the more necessary to look closely beyond China and most of Southeast Asia to consider whether other countries or smaller political entities have had been able to prevail in stemming the transmission of the virus. One of the most astounding stories of such success comes to us from Dharavi, as described in my recently published book, The Fury of Covid-19: The Histories, Politics, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (Pan Macmillan), from where what follows is excerpted with some modifications. Dharavi is often described as the most “infamous” and largest slum in Asia, ‘a cliché of Indian misery’, before the film Slumdog Millionaire turned it into the most “famous” slum by bringing it to the attention of the West. Somewhere between 850,000 and a million people live in Dharavi, which occupies an area of less than one square mile, or about 2.5 square kilometres, with a population density of over 275,000 per sq. km. To put that in perspective, the population density of New Zealand, which has also flattened the curve, earned the envy of the world, and won accolades for its young female Prime Minister whom the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and late-night American comic Steve Colbert fawn over as the jewel in the crown of world leaders, is 15 per sq. km.
(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”
A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic. However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved Continue reading →
(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”
“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19. The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading →
(Fourth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
One of the most striking aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has created an upheaval all over the world has to be the astonishing sight of the world’s richest society brought to its knees and appearing as a suppliant before the very country, China, that it holds responsible for the virus. No doubt everyone serving the sitting President will take deep offense at this suggestion, and certainly the United States has made every effort to show to the world that, if anything, it intends to capitalize on this opportunity to further punish its enemies and show that it remains the world’s predominant power. “While coronavirus ravages Iran,” noted the Washington Post in a headline two weeks ago, “U.S. sanctions squeeze it.” The United States has not only Continue reading →
(Second in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been making its way across the world, conquering one territory after another, since it first emerged in China around three months ago. There are now 185 countries where the virus has taken hold, and most of them, barring a few that took early and concerted measures to mitigate it, are finding it difficult to restrain the advance of the virus within their territories. Much like a world conqueror, the virus respects no borders, recognizes no nation-states, and cares not an iota for sovereignty. This may be one reason why the leaders of many countries, and even Donald J. Trump, an open exponent of the idea ‘America First’, have declared that the wholly unprecedented situation created by the virus concerns all humankind. “Let’s look out for each other,” the WHO’s Director-General said in pronouncing the virus a pandemic, “because we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” Musicians, actors, and major public figures are all part of the choir reassuring the world that “we are all in this together”.