Josef Wirsching (1903-1967) was a German cinematographer credited with changing “the future of Indian filmmaking” to quote his grandson Georg Wirsching. His filmography starts with The Light of Asia (1926) and includes many superhits including Pakeezah (1972), one of Hindi cinema’s most loved films. With his graceful filming of Indian heroines and his ability to adapt German Expressionism to Indian melodrama, he was a part of the Indian movement in film making that sought to blend regional aesthetics with the European avant-garde and let nationalism find an expression in modernism. With the publication of Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema, edited by Debashree Mukherjee, film buffs and historians of Indian cinema find another reason to hold him in awe. He was not just a cinematographer but also an archivist, someone with a sense of history in the making. 

South Asia is bound by a strong cultural currency. It is not uncommon to find restaurants run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the diaspora marketed as serving “Indian” cuisine, freely expressing shared roots and ways of life. It is also not uncommon to find citizens of the three nations to welcome each other into their homes and endear them with great hospitality. Given this healthy cultural exchange, what is unusual is their common perception of each other’s political orientation as antithetical to theirs. In Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Century, historian Joya Chatterji investigates whether the region’s nation building practices are really all that different from each other’s.

Seemingly small and, thereby, homogenous, Nepal is a nation-state fraught with problems common to almost all of South Asia: ethnic diversity that leads to tensions between the various groups, painful identity politics with the aim of securing group rights, debates about who originated in an area that has come to be defined by migration over centuries, border conflicts, corruption, and environmental policies that create conflicts between humans and other species (dilemmas in which wildlife all too often takes precedence over human rights). And yet, it is the images of the snow-capped Himalayas, the abode of the Lord Shiva, and Sherpas and Gorkhas as quintessentially Nepali that come to mind when one thinks of Nepal.

Given that Buddhist thought is widely circulated in popular culture (in reference to mindfulness, wisdom, productivity, and spirituality), it is not surprising that Buddha’s story, or the Buddha himself, has come to be the subject of storytelling aimed at the larger audience. Advait Kottary’s debut novel Siddhartha: The Boy Who Became the Buddha reconstructs the Buddha’s story to present a version of how perhaps the most well-known spiritual quest in the world might have unfolded. 

Common sense has it that corruption is a quid pro quo practiced by individuals who disregard their institutional duties and responsibilities in favor of personal gain. However, this is a relatively recent definition or association that came to be enshrined in establishments bureaucratic in nature (as opposed to monarchical or feudal systems that existed previously) from the mid-18th century to mid-19th century when allegations against and among East India Company’s officials reached the British Parliament.

In everyday usage, the “Middle East” is generally taken to mean the region that runs more or less from Egypt to Syria to Iraq and the Gulf. It has, especially in recent decades, come to overlay the issues of oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism (Islamic or political). Conventional wisdom has it that the word came into use with the fall of the Ottoman Empire as, among other things, a replacement for the less precise and less useful “Near East”. In other words, the general perception is that the expression is either self-evident or that it emerged thanks to a sort of natural evolution in terminology.

India and China share a physical border. Indeed, that is the element of their proximity that stands out the most thanks to the 1962 war, briefly revisited in the form of border skirmishes in 2020. But the two great nations also share common ground in veneration of the Buddha and trade exchanges that span centuries. The Chinese learned about the message of the Buddha from India and, to their immense credit, they also preserved it through translations of the ancient Buddhist texts whose records did not survive in India. This history of healthy spiritual and commercial exchange has more recently been shadowed by increasing distrust and even contempt. Politics and commerce is not however the only way in which two countries have interacted.