Sunday, April 21, 2019

Book Review: Lutyens' Maverick by Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

I have been following Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda on Twitter for many years now. He’s one of the sharpest, most erudite, brilliant, humble and knowledgeable people around. Plus, he’s a voracious reader himself, often tweeting about the books he’s reading and the parts he’s found interesting.

This book is a collection of articles written by Panda over the last few years. It covers the topics of Parliament & Governance, Political Correctness, Economics, Foreign Policy, Law and Citizens & Society. Some of the of sub-topics include A Short History of EVMs, A Quota for Women, Taking Criminals out of Politics, Checks & Balances, The Yakub Memon Frenzy, Aadhaar & Data Security, Sabarimala & Triple Talaq and Hypocrisy on Free Speech.

Panda’s articles are written in a no-holds barred and candid manner. It was a sheer pleasure to read the book and understand his views on the various topics.

Some of the topics/quotes which I found interesting and would like to read up more on:
1. Our Parliament is still plagued by systemic gridlock between the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
2. Overcoming resistance to change is sometimes rooted more in fear and suspicion than in rational considerations.
3. But this isn’t the ‘80s any more, when bank computerization could be put off for more than a decade due to pressure from the unions.
4. Jawaharlal Nehru is reported to have told Jehangir Tata that he considered ‘profit’ to be a dirty word, even in the context of the public sector.
5. A quarter of a century ago, Rajiv Gandhi famously accused the notoriously leaky government machinery of gobbling up 85 per cent of the funds spent on poverty alleviation programmes, leaving only a paltry 15 per cent for the actual beneficiaries.
6. Though historical injustices can never be erased and elements of prejudice against some groups can still be seen, there are also many signs of empowerment, not the least of which is political clout.
7. The use of technologies like Aadhaar are revolutionizing the delivery of services far more efficiently. It could well be that massively ambitious sociopolitical goals may no longer require the kind of massive boondoggles they used to.
8. PM Modi has been seeking transformational change through mega persuasion campaigns instead of by legislation – for example, the exhortation of the ‘Swachh Bharat’ programme, rather than, say, emulating Singapore’s harsh punishments for littering.
9. The government has started penalizing non-performers, and in 2017, modernized bureaucrats’ appraisal system, including – for the first time – peers’ and subordinates’ feedback.
10. It should also not be surprising that dynastic politicians have been among the least enthusiastic users of SM in India.
11. The lack of meritocracy, evidenced by many bright younger Congressmen and women who have been held back for years, has taken a huge toll on its capabilities.
12. Any economy’s fundamental soundness will depend on regularly having to swallow bitter pills that will be unpopular, at least in the short term.
13. Too often we disparage the good because it is not perfect.
14. It needed PM Narendra Modi’s massive electoral successes, not just in the 2014 general election that gave him the numbers in the Lok Sabha, but also in subsequent state elections that, in turn, have been adding to his numbers in the Rajya Sabha, for the GST to become feasible.
15. For a country with the Ashoka Stambh as its national emblem, it has taken India far too long to recollect Kautilya’s mantra of statecraft: sama, dana, bheda, danda (conciliate, compensate, divide, fight).
16. Why are Hindu temples administered by the government when all other religious communities manage their own places of worship?
17. Instead of looking in the rear-view mirror at what has not worked in the past, we would be better served to benchmark what works in most of the world.
18. Finding the balance between an adherence to basic democratic principles and the pressing compulsions for simple, blunt solutions is one of the greatest challenges of modern democracies.
19. I remain an optimist, but one that believes that rather than just hoping for the best, we have to keep attempting to solve lingering problems.
20. It cannot be every individual’s right to impose his version of a religion on others who profess it. Thus, while he may practise religion as he pleases in private, in a religion’s place of worship, the rituals, subject to not harming anyone, must reflect the group consensus.
21. To keep insisting that terrorism has nothing to do with religion after every new jihadi atrocity is no longer tenable.
22. Why should we still have a feudal mindset that our ruling elite be treated differently from the average citizen?
23. Liberalization and economic growth have made available to the hoi polloi what earlier only the exalted could have.
24. In democracies, lasting solutions only emerge from bridging differences, even if that has to wait until power is gained through less temperate means.

Book Review: Draupadi by Saiswaroopa Iyer

India is blessed to be the land of the Mahabharata. The beauty of it is that one can never get bored reading its various interpretations about its various characters. So, when I came to know about this book, I knew I had to read it.

Draupadi, the daughter of Drupada, the princess of Panchala and the wife of the five Pandavas, is a fascinating character. And Saiswaroopa has been able to portray her as a true feminist in her book. She’s shown to be strong-willed, a fierce warrior, brave; at the same time, a loyal wife, a dutiful daughter-in-law and committed to the strange circumstances of her life.

The book takes us through the various stages in Draupadi’s life – from her luxurious stay in the father’s palace to her swayamvara and wedding to the five Pandavas; from their stay in the forest to their one-year stay under disguise; from her humiliation at the hands of the Kauravas to her need for revenge; and finally the war at Kurukshetra.

The book also touches about some of the other characters in the Mahabharata such as Uttara, Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna, Rukmini, and, of course, Krishna. Her relationship with Karna is also portrayed beautifully in the book.

Saiswaroopa’s writing style is quite easy and free-flowing. I could almost visualize the happenings in the book as I was reading it. This is the first book of hers that I have read and I do look forward to reading her earlier books as well.

Some of the quotes that have stayed with me:
• As an emperor, he could have initiated the change in the codes that undermine dharma. The delay in consolidating that victory has taken its toll.
• If only we had realized that dealing with victory was as crucial as dealing with threats!
• I value our history and the achievements of our ancestors. But more important is the effort to be worthy of our ancestors.
• The future generations will respect those who take action. The present has to be saved for a future to exist.
• When we lay claim to what is rightfully ours, we shall stop at nothing. We shall go to any lengths in undoing the damage done till now.
• Those who change loyalties with twisted arguments of dharma and then pretend to take the moral high ground aren’t worth fighting by our side.

Do pick up this book if you are interested in the Mahabharata. It will give you a good perspective on Draupadi – a princess whose destiny was written so very different from others, but who nonetheless rose upto the challenge.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The Library at Night is an ode to libraries worldwide - both old and new - and the author's personal library in a small village in Loire, France. The author finds great comfort in sitting in his own library at night and simply surfing through his books; "to assemble in one place our vicarious experience of the world." The book is also an ode to various books and its readers who grant books immortality - "Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth."

The book describes the library as myth, order, space, power, shadow, shape, chance, workshop, mind, island, survival, oblivion, imagination, identity and home. Some of the libraries described are Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, Le Presbytere, Bodleian Library, Centre Pompidou Library in Paris, Laurentian Library in Florence, etc. Some imaginary libraries are also mentioned such as the library of Captain Nemo, Mr. Casaubon's scholarly library in George Eliot's Middlemarch, murderous, monastic library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, etc.

The author notes, "Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the backs. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime." While comparing paper books with electronic books, Manguel says "leafing through a book or roaming through shelves is an intimate part of the craft of reading and cannot be entirely replaced by scrolling down a screen, any more than real travel can be replaced by travelogues and 3-D gadgets." He describes the joy of a library thus "to be able to enter a place where books are seemingly numberless and available for the asking is a joy in itself."

Manguel also mentions how certain books were banned at certain points of time for various reasons - under the military regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile in the 1970s, poems of Neruda and Nazim Hikmet (communists) and novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Russians) were considered suspicious. In March 2003, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argued that the Harry Potter books "deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly." Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, declared that the public burning of books by authors such as Heinrich Mann, Stefan Zweig, Freud, Zola, Proust, Gide, Helen Keller and H. G. Wells allowed "the soul of the German people again to express itself."

I loved reading about the history of libraries, which is, in essence, a history of the world till date. I also loved reading about the comparison between paper books and electronic books and how the two will continue to co-exist.

My only grudge - the book makes absolutely no mention of any library in India nor any Indian author. It's a little sad considering India has the most number of libraries [] and possibly the largest number of languages in which books are written in a single country. Truly, history that is never recorded is never narrated.

Some quotes that stayed with me:
The illusion of immortality is created by technology.

Like Nature, libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books.

We scorn, wrote Tacitus in the first century, the blindness of those who believe that with an arrogant act even the memory of posterity can be extinguished.

The act of reading is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good.

The Web is an instrument. It is not to blame for our superficial concern with the world in which we live.

We alone, and not our technologies, are responsible for our losses, and we alone are to blame when we deliberately choose oblivion over recollection. The petroglyphs of our common past are fading not because of the arrival of a new technology but because we are no longer moved to read them.

The stories that ultimately reach us are but the reports of the survivors.

There is something about sitting outside in the dark that seems conducive to unfettered conversations.

Alice's bewilderment or Sinbad's curiosity reflect again and again my own emotions.

Electronic text that requires no page can amicably accompany the page that requires no electricity.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: The Man Who Saved India by Hindol Sengupta

I will admit I picked up this book purely basis the interest it generated on Twitter – I had no clue that Sardar Patel was responsible for integrating 500+ princely states into the Indian Union at the time of Independence; I am not sure if it was taught in history at school. Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin considered the feat bigger than Bismarck’s unification of Germany.

Hindol Sengupta must be commended for writing this book and enlightening people who do not know about Sardar Patel. The book is an ode to Mr. Patel – the stellar role he played in the Congress leading up to Independence, the various negotiations he undertook during the same and the sacrifices [both personal and professional] that he made in this journey.

Each of the chapter titles is a statement made by Sardar Patel, ranging from “Gandhi is a Mahatma. I am not.” to “My life’s work is about to be over…do not spoil it.”

The book brings out so many qualities of the Iron Man of India – his pragmatism, his leadership, diplomatic and political skills, his statesmanship, his indomitable spirit, his tenacity and his absolute lack of ego.
Sardar Patel understood better than anyone else that democracy isn’t so much an everyday plebiscite but a daily judgment – the interplay of incessant retribution and reward.

The book brings out the contrast between Patel and Nehru beautifully – the former always had to give up the Congress President position in favour of the latter courtesy Mahatma Gandhi. Lord Mountbatten said, “Patel had his feet on the ground while Nehru had his in the clouds.”
Nehru was a product of the benefits of class and wealth; Patel maintained a frugal lifestyle. Nehru believed that the ideals and virtues of socialism could be used in India to bring about a revolution; Patel was critical of the socialists. He wrote, “It is very easy to organize processions of mill workers flying red flags, but I would like to ask them what purpose is served by such hustle and bustle.” Nehru had to be sent to the villages of India to understand peasant life; Patel came from that real India and did not have to go or be sent anywhere to comprehend it. [Doesn’t it seem familiar to the current political scenario in India?]

As the plague broke out in Ahmedabad in 1917, Patel [who was then the Ahmedabad municipality president] worked almost round the clock with his volunteers to help the victims and their families. He advocated the use of India’s long coast [which is finally being done now, courtesy Nitin Gadkari]. Patel announced the Government would rebuild the Somnath Temple in Gujarat.

It’s a little painful to read how Nehru decided, against Patel’s wishes, to take the Kashmir issue to the United Nations Organization, based on Mountbatten’s advice. It begs to ask what if Nehru had adhered to Patel’s wishes. Or what if, Patel had become the first Prime Minister of India.

Along with Sardar Patel, the book gives a good glimpse into some other important figures of the Indian Independence movement, including Maulana Azad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It makes me now read a bit more about Jinnah [hoping Hindol will do the needful!] The book also gives a good overall view of history and geography during the entire period of time.

It’s only fitting that our current Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi inaugurated the Patel statue on 31-Oct-2018, as a tribute to the Iron Man of India for creating history. After all, hadn’t Mr. Patel himself said, “Why not create history rather than waste time writing it?”

The book is a must-read; I learned so many fascinating tidbits and aspects [cannot possibly post all these as part of the review!]. It will be a book I will definitely keep going back to in the future.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Book Review: The Fadnavis Years by Aashish Chandorkar

I have been following Aashish Chandorkar on Twitter (@c_aashish) for a while now. He is a prolific writer on public policy and comes across as someone who is very well-read and extremely witty. So when he announced this book, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I am a huge admirer of and have been tracking & following Devendra Fadnavis’ work since the time he took over as the Chief Minister (CM) of Maharashtra. To be fair, I had not heard of Fadnavis before he became the CM; I am sure there would be many others like me.

The Fadnavis Years is an absolute page-turner of a book; I finished it in almost one sitting. There were many facets of the CM that I came to know about only while reading the book. Aashish’s writing style is easy-to-read, with specific data points thrown in (for the numerically-inclined) coupled with his very witty/sarcastic way of putting across things. This makes the book a great biographical read about the second youngest CM of Maharashtra.
The book takes us through the period from the swearing-in of Fadnavis to the various problems which awaited him to how he went about solving them, equipped with technology, quick decision-making, delegation of powers and monitoring progress via a core group of people known as the ‘War Room’. It ends with a few suggestions on what the CM needs to focus on as we approach the 2019 elections!
Fadnavis took oath as the CM of Maharashtra on 31-Oct-2014 at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and plunged head-long into the political quagmire that awaited him. Today, he is the longest serving non-Congress CM of the state. As is stated in the book, “the brave, positive and pro-merit move by Modi and Shah” of appointing Fadnavis seems to have paid off.
What I did not know and learned from the book was that Fadnavis was a three-time Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). In the 2014 State Elections, the BJP crossed the magic figure of 100 seats for the first time since 1990. This was largely due to the efforts of Fadnavis.
Some of the key initiatives launched/fast-tracked by the CM which the book talks about are: Aaple Sarkar portal, Mumbai Metro, Mumbai Trans Harbour Link, Navi Mumbai airport, Coastal Road, Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway (Samruddhi Corridor), PMRDA, Pune Metro, Pune Ring Road and the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan. I agree with the author when he says “For the first time in many decades, Maharashtra is witnessing such huge and focused investments in changing the urban landscape.” In Mumbai, the rapid pace at which the Metro work is being done is there for all to see.
The Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan has been covered in the media extensively and can be safely said to be Fadnavis’ biggest contribution/legacy. Its success is apparent from the drop in the number of tankers which were deployed in the drought-prone regions from 2016 to 2018. Also, “creating a mass movement out of a government program has been the biggest success of Fadnavis.”
The book also details the investment opportunities Fadnavis brought to the state through his consistent and persistent discussions and the infrastructure provided to industries, including MIHAN SEZ, Aurangabad Industrial City, Amravati Apparel Park, etc.
The book delves into how the politics in Maharashtra has always been intricately linked with control of the agricultural co-operative bodies (district co-operative banks, APMCs and agricultural commodity processing co-operatives, especially in the sugar belt districts), and how Fadnavis went about trying to delink the control one-by-one.
The author gives us a fair sense of the problems/difficulties the CM had to face like the caste protests, farm loan waiver demands, jobs’ reservation stirs, Koregaon Bhima protests, farmers’ long march, etc. According to the author, most the issues stemmed from the fact that “accepting personal irrelevance is never easy in politics”.
Throughout the book, Aashish via several examples, highlights Fadnavis’ vision, foresight, empathy, probity and sense of ownership. He attributes the CM’s success to his gift of the gab, a keen eye for issues of governance and the fact that he is a very social media savvy politician. “The middle class was beginning to like their Chief Minister, who was seen as hardworking in the face of poor odds of succeeding.”
Some of the author’s statements in the book that I really liked:

·         It was the straw which broke the tiger’s back (referring to the effect of the BJP win in Mumbai on the Shiv Sena).
·         Voter expectations often do not wait for an ideal execution environment.
·         As is the wont with the infrastructure projects of Pune, the plan was put on the backburner with deft precision almost immediately.
·         In the presumed-rational world of policy-making, responses to stimuli can be modelled. The control variables behave obediently in social science experiments, while the independent variables determine the course of dependent ones. Real life, however, does not always follow these predictive ones.
·         The wins were pyrrhic, the losses ignoble.
·         It is never easy to manage the individuals who one surpasses to scale a peak, and much more difficult to make them work productively.
·         Merit gets critically assessed every day in politics, surnames stay permanent.
·         Hope is not a strategy, certainly not in politics.

I would heartily recommend the book to anyone wanting to know more about Devendra Fadnavis’ life. It is also a good book for one wanting to know more about politics in Maharashtra. I have one complaint though – I wished the author would have covered more about Fadnavis’ life as an MLA and mayor of Nagpur, which could have given a better background to his ascendancy to the CM position. Maybe he will cover it in his next book, when Fadnavis takes over as the CM of Maharashtra for the second time towards the end of next year!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: The Land of the Wilted Rose

Image result for the land of the wilted

Those who follow the author, Anand Ranganathan, on Twitter know he's one of the smartest and wittiest persons around. His erudite views on almost any topic under the sun are impressive. And he's a scientist!

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I picked it up. The blurb is interesting - it mentions the Indian empire and the small colony of England. The book reimagines colonialism as Indians having taken over England and a few other European countries. It elaborates the insecurities 'white men' go through when they come across 'brown men'; something people in India and other colonies can identify with, I reckon.

The book starts off a little slowly but then it really picks up pace as it takes us through the arrival of a 17-year-old Maharaja in London and how the 'white men' prepare for it. There are some super descriptions of the various outfits worn by the Indians including Kanjivaram silk saris and dhotis and the delicious food including kakori kababs and bhindi nayantara to be washed down with rasams and lassis. It then tells us how Jack Riley, the mayor of Dover, is punished by being posted as the assistant to the district magistrate of Dhobipur, Uttar Pradesh.

Part 2 of the book has some lovely and vivid descriptions of Mumba Devi, Imperial India's largest city and the world's busiest harbour. Jack is impressed at the Mumba Central station whose 'large marble tiles had a few intonations from the Vedas'. As Jack takes the train to Delhi, the capital of the world, he thought the whole landscape seemed 'so well lit for the benefit of the train passengers so that thy could stand open mouthed and marvel at the splendour of the largest metropolis in the world'.

Though the blurb calls it an allegorical work, a black comedy, I would call it an utopian work - a what-if kind of book which lays before us a mirror image of the British colonialism especially over India. I have several questions about how could we let the British rule over us; this book only aggravates them. My only grouse - the book ends quite abruptly. My only hope - it's Book 1 of The White Mahatma quartet, so maybe the other three books will be published soon.

Some quotes/sentences/references that stayed with me:
Evening winds had brushed past a thousand chimes at a temple entrance.
The cruel fate, as happens more often that not, did intervene.
We forever crave for that thrill, that kick that we get when we admire something for the first time.
And all it took was a century and a half of Indian rule.
Thank the mighty lord Jesus Christ their saviour, and those few who had been lured into conversion, Bhagwaan Sri Krishna.
They were just empty barren lands inhabited by savage people who did not know the difference between a stone and a sculpture.

Last but not the least there's a passing reference to Karna (from the Mahabharata). I am fascinated with Karna for a very long time and his mention was just the icing on the cake.

Read this book to get a sense of the view from the other side. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: One Indian Girl

It is a typical Chetan Bhagat novel – from the viewpoint of a female protagonist. I frankly never understood why people hate Bhagat so much. I felt this book was a light read with a few 'feminist' concepts discussed – career-oriented women, career vs. motherhood, etc. It takes you through NYC, Hong Kong & London with a fair bit of Goa thrown in. It does seem like a movie script but I still felt it is better than most movies these days. This book apparently broke all pre-booking records on Amazon thus reaffirming Bhagat's popularity!

The book's blurb states, “Hi, I am Radhika Mehta and I am getting married this week. I work at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank. Thank you for reading my story. However, let me warn you. You may not like me too much. One, I make a lot of money. Two, I have an opinion on everything. Three, I have had a boyfriend before. Okay, maybe two. Now if I was a guy, you would be okay with all of this. But since I am a girl, these three things don't really make me too likeable, do they?”

It's a story about Radhika and her professional & personal life. She's an ambitious woman who will not stop anything to advance in her career and she's also willing to commit herself to somebody & give the relationship her all. The book is a fast-paced, breezy read with quite a few interesting food for thought. Sample this: Radhika's character thinks to herself, “Why do we need our men to praise and validate us in order for us to feel accomplished?” That's quite true, right? By the way, Radhika keeps talking to herself in her mind throughout the book [I guess so do most of us].

Some thoughts that stuck with me while reading the book – she says sorry to a guy for 'snapping' at him – I wonder how many men would say sorry to a woman for 'snapping'? That's an intrinsically feminine thing, I guess. The book also deals with women's insecurities and asks if women can take compliments. It also talks about a world that has been designed by men where women cannot even rejig office timings, as they want to fly while also have a nest at the same time.

Bhagat also highlights how men mostly seem to have the upper hand in a relationship; when a woman exerts authority/control, she's made to feel guilty & bad about it. Bhagat is qualified to write about women's careers considering he gave up a full-time job more than 10 years ago and is a proud house-husband taking care of his twin sons while his wife works full-time.

There are a whole lot of restaurants that feature in the book including in NYC Harry's Cafe & Steak, Nerai, Whiskey Blue and Dishoom in London.

I am rating this book 3 out of 5 – it's not one of Bhagat's better books (like Five Point Someone or Two States) but it's definitely not as bad as his critics are making it out to be.

I was given a review copy of this book by Rupa Publications in exchange for an honest review.