In the Dork trilogy, Sidin Vadukut expects us to suspend disbelief, over all the dumb things the protagonist, Robin “Einstein” Varghese, does, for which he somehow eventually receives fantastic payoffs. In ‘The Sceptical Patriot’, Vadukut urges us to do just the opposite.
Subtitled ‘Exploring the Truth Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories*’ (the asterisk denoting ‘Conditions apply’), Vadukut’s first book of non-fiction goads us to have a skeptical, enquiring mind toward all the glorious “truths” that are hurled our way by jingoistic politicians, cultural chauvinists and lazy history books, instead of accepting them at face value. “Facts” such as India invented the zero, Sushruta performed the world’s first plastic surgery, this great land never invaded another land in the past 10,000 years, J C Bose invented the radio before Marconi, and Taxila/Takshashila was the world’s oldest university.
Vadukut aims to get to the heart of the “truth”, with a lot of research, referencing and reading. Plus an army of questions. In the chapter on Taxila, he has us mull over how exactly to define a university. In the one about the Chola kings, he urges to keep looking and digging for further and deeper truth. And in the one on the invention of the radio, he makes us consider: an invention isn’t as easy a definition as GK books make us believe – many inventors may have invented things that enabled the final inventor (or assimilator) to come up with that invention; so, who do you really credit it to?
Intentions aside, Vadukut is candid enough to admit that this is at best a “pop history” book and some discussions are beyond its scope. Fair enough. For he doesn’t aim to establish the truth, but like any ideal guide, or even teacher, he urges us to find out the truth for ourselves. Nevertheless, he does share the “truth” according to him: at the end of each chapter that examines a particular popular India “fact”, he gives a truth scale, offering his opinion of the said truth. And leaves each chapter with a few questions for the reader (learner) to chew on.
However, Vadukut hasn’t abandoned his trademark gut-busting humour, though it can’t be abundant in a book of this nature; else, it wouldn’t have been just ‘pop’, but actually junk. In the Sushruta chapter, he goes, ‘We don’t care if plastic surgery was invented in India by Bijumon Biryanveetil or Blossom Babykutty. All we want to know is if they did this before anybody, anywhere else.’
Vadukut also shows that he can write. You don’t see this in Dork; Dork is distractingly funny. However, he shows he can layer and build stories, in the process, making non-fiction absorbing. The way he does this is by beginning each chapter with an extremely tangential anecdote or experience and then eventually linking it to the “fact” under exploration. For the one on Taxila, he begins with his visit to the Edinburgh castle, where he learns how impregnable it was designed to be. He then moves on to how India had a natural barrier from almost all sides due to its location (the seas in the south and the mountains in the north and north-east) – which is why all invaders came from the north-west. He finally comes to talking of Taxila’s location – it had to be where it was for where else would you see so much interaction in those times?
‘The Sceptical Patriot’ thus comes across as a very admirable and even brave effort. Someone questioning, and urging us to question, the veracity of these “time-honoured” statements. However, it is also a sign of the times that Vadukut has to bookend the heart of the book with disclaimers (at the beginning) and worries of the culture vultures coming after him next (at the end): ‘This is going to piss off a lot of people, and I am buying asbestos underwear as I type, but…’. However, Vadukut need have no such worry. He lives and works out of London. And maybe that’s just why and how he can afford to write such a book: the safety of distance and objectivity. If he had been here, he would have had to do a waapsi of the signing amount he got for this book, at the very least.
Which brings you to a question of your own: wonder if this book will have a series too? Given its intention and quality, there should be. So, dare I predict the names of books two and three? ‘God Save the Sceptical Patriot’ and ‘Who Let the Sceptical Patriot Out?’ Bring them on.
If interested, check out Sidin’s blog here, where he writes with the nom de plume, Domain Maximus: Whatay