March 16, 2023AcornPodcastNitopadeshaBook

Why the powerful must read books

And why citizens must hold the feet of the powerful to the fire

Welcome to Nitin Pai’s cyberspace. You are in the structured section of my domain where I have my blog posts, newspaper columns, updates on my teaching and research, and other things you had always been warned about.

Here’s an edited excerpt from my conversation with Shruti Rajagopalan on The Nitopadesha and other things. You can also listen to Shruti’s Ideas of India podcast on Stitcher, Apple, Spotify, etc.

PAI: See, I think the first purpose of any book, any book, or a book of fables—is to serve as a mirror or a point or a trigger for reflection.


PAI: I think what happens is when people don’t read books, when people go about their lives just doing things, especially when you have—if you’re an ordinary citizen, like you and I, we have people who will disagree with us. If I were to say something, my wife, my kids, my colleagues will raise their hands and say, This is a stupid idea. You shouldn’t be doing this.”

What happens is, when you acquire some kind of political or social power, the number of people who can respond back to you and say that this is a stupid idea declines. Instead, you have the opposite. You have a lot of people who want to say, Boss, you’re right. This is the best thing that’s happened.” You are such a genius. You are so smart. This is such a great idea.” Because that is the way the system works. They want to puff you up because they have their own agenda. It also comes out in one of the stories in this book. How do you guard against this?


PAI: I think reading is one of the best ways to guard against this.


PAI: So the first thing, which anybody who reads this—it could be a person who’s the leader of a country or a legislator or a public official or just a person who is too full of himself or herself. I’m an achiever. I’ve achieved so much. I’m the boss. I’ve got this prize. I’m really smart.” I think any one of us who feels like that at some point would do well to read something like this.

Because what it tells you is that look, hey, look: pause, reflect, see what’s really happening here. Ask yourself the question that, Is this joke really about you? Is this story really about you? Where do you fit in? If you were in that same situation, how would you react?” I think that’s probably one of the best services any book can do to people in power, and especially a book like this, which is meant for people to reflect.

I think it’s meant for both sides. It’s meant for citizens, who must know what to ask and what to demand of people in power and how to behave with people in power, and also for those in power who need to know how to deal with citizens. The Vanaketu story, which you pointed out, it’s like Orwell. It looks like it’s out of Animal Farm,” where one old, corrupt ruler is replaced by a very nice person. And power corrupts absolutely, and then in a matter of time the one very nice person becomes like the same old guy that he just had to replace.

In that story, it’s very clear that you have to hold the leaders’ feet to the fire. If you don’t criticize them, if you don’t give them negative feedback, then it’s going to go into their heads, and then they’re going to do the same old things which other rulers did.

There’s simple things like this: Hold the feet to the fire. Even if this leader is a leader whom you love, even if this person is someone whom you voted for, even if this person is someone whom you think is really the best answer we have, given the circumstances, you are still obliged to criticize that person. Because if you don’t criticize that person, you are not doing your duty—you’re not even serving the interests of your favorite leader. Giving them negative feedback is very important.

Things like this, I think they permeate the book. Sometimes they’re explicit, as you said, and sometimes they’re just between the lines.

To read about more things like this, you can check out my raw notes and my massive archives.

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