Top critical review
Great topic with lots of potential - could be better executed
25 August 2016
The author Ms. Kang should be commended on picking up a very interesting topic and shaping the narrative as a series of biographical sketches. This is a topic with immense potential which in better hands could have resulted in a classic. What we have, however, is a book that is an interesting breezy read for the chatterati...i.e., you should read it for fun and conversation but not for illumination.
First the positives:
(1) 5 stars for coming up with the topic.
(2) The quality of writing, including the choice of words and grammer, is very good. (It is increasingly important to commend the quality of writing in books by Indian authors, where unfortunately Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi style pedestrian writing has set the norm.)
(3) The book is very readable. You will finish it in 2-3 hours. Ms. Kang's writing is lucid and easy to absorb. She also brings out the persona of people she has spoken to. I hope she writes more (but ups her game).
Now the missed opportunities:
(1) The book horribly suffers from the elitist closed-mind syndrome. And worse, I am sure the author believes it is rationalism. Even for a non-believer like me, it is offensive to see that there is no attempt made to understand what exactly is the magic that the followers of each of these godmen/woman see which prompts them to become disciples and acolytes. In several cases the author names people with extensive modern education and a global cosmopolitan upbringing who have left their earlier lives to become followers of a guru. She further knows that many such have not been prompted by a personal trauma to latch on to a comforting presence. But astonishingly the author betrays no curiosity or objectivity in trying to identify what each of these gurus have - beyond their wiliness, cultivated connections, and willingness to pander to your needs.
To me this indicated the author's deep-seated need to be seen as a rationalist, but merely ends up showing her as conceited. This is exactly the outlook why rationalism gets a bad name today.
(2) There is a cop-out right upfront where the author says: "We decided what the book wouldn't be. Not a piece of investigative journalism; definitely not an exercise in PR." and "Nor is it a work of scholarship." This indicates a fear to step over invisible sensitive lines (understandable) but also an approach so informed by marketing numbers that it serves a tepid simplistic unanalytical fare. It begs the question: why bother?
And while the author says "the book neither debunks nor celebrates the subjects", in fact it does that in good measure. Mostly overtly and sometimes as a subtext it betrays the author's belief that all gurus - except the one non-guru Morari Bapu - are charlatans and out to get the gullible. She clearly less critical when the guru is more suave and extra-confident (e.g. Jaggi Vasudev) versus when she/he is rustic and simple (Ramdev or Amritanandmayi).
(3) Little attempt has been made to understand the profiles of (i) the guru's entourage, and (ii) the followers. Stray factoids are used to insinuate that those 'managing' access to the guru are inflated egotistic dead planets reflecting in their star's glory. The followers are invariably painted as the groupies or misguided people with means looking for easy answers to their existential angst. After reading the book you are no wiser as to why the followers choose to follow, what the guru has which an ordinary local pandit or yoga teacher does not, or what does a day in life of a guru look like (which may require minders, managers, and mediators).
Overall, full marks for thinking of the topic. Commendation for the effort, but as her teacher might say: Needs work to reach her full potential.