Sunday, December 07, 2014

Book Review: The Winner's Curse by Dee Walker

The Winner's Curse is a political thriller about national ID numbers, power and greed. It narrates the story of how a group of IITians use their knowledge and networking to create a governance technology based on national ID numbers and how greed for power leads to their doom.

The story seemed quite interesting and topical. If you have been following current news for the last two-three years, you will be able to link and identify situations and people. UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) was launched in India with such fanfare in Feb-2009 and most of us have already obtained an AADHAAR card. The book also touches on the sensitive and controversial topic of governments spying on its citizens; something that Edward Snowden exposed quite shockingly to the entire world in Jun-2013. Also, the book's characters be it businessmen or politicians are easily identifiable as they seem to be inspired by real-life people.

The book's story moves across New Delhi, Haryana, Dubai, Bangalore, Dharwar and San Jose. It has an equal mix of businessmen (telecom moguls Harsh Mittal & Rajan Khosla), politicians (the Master), Govt. officials (Raghav Badhwar & Aravind Pandey) and activists (Kamal Pandey). There's also the Master's son-in-law Robbie who seems quite similar to a certain famous son-in-law quite in the news these days. Kamal Pandey's middle-class, activist image seems to be inspired by another 'Aam Aadmi'. Savita Bhambi, the influential PR person, reminds us of another PR lady who was in the news quite sometime back.

Though the book's primary plot is setting up a national identity number system and using that to set up a secret surveillance system, the plot does not begin to unravel till almost half the book is over. Also, the author has tried to include too many sub-plots as part of the book; this leads to there being too many characters spread across multiple locations. It tends to get quite confusing at times.

In addition to the primary plot, there is a civil activist who is trying to expose the business-political nexus; there is a mining scam in the state of Karnataka and there is an IIT JEE preparation coaching class.

All the central characters have studied at IIT – the country's premier educational institution. However, each person chooses his/her separate path towards achieving their goals – be it power, money, status or serving the people.

The pace of the book is quite fast befitting a thriller. However, since there are multiple characters, I had to go back and forth several times. Also, the intimate scenes/hints at them seem to have been inserted merely from the point of selling the book; they do not seem to have any connection with the story whatsoever.

I am going with 3/5 for this book for the way in which a topical story is narrated linking together disparate items. I only wish the author had restricted the sub-plots. Also, the editing is very bad; words and entire paragraphs have been repeated.

I was given a review copy of this book by the author.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: God Is A Gamer by Ravi Subramanian

Let me confess, at the outset, that I am a huge fan of Ravi Subramanian's books. His 'The Incredible Banker' remains one of my favourite books till date. I also happened to win an autographed copy of 'Devil In Pinstripes' in one of the contests on Twitter.

The blurb of 'God Is A Gamer' states: What happens when you cross gamer, banker, politician and terrorist with virtual money? From the bestselling author of If God Was a Banker comes the first ever bitcoin thriller. God Is a Gamer is a world where money means nothing, martyrs are villains, predators are prey, assassination is taught by the ancient Greeks, and nothing is as it seems. Moving from Washington's Congress to Delhi's finance ministry, the beaches of Goa to the corporate boardrooms of Mumbai, this is Ravi Subramanian's most gripping novel yet.

The premise of the novel is definitely interesting – a thriller that connects an ATM heist in New York with a website Cotton Trail which enables transactions in bitcoins to the addictive world of online gaming and the workings of multinational banks and the hacking risks they are exposed to. The story connects the murder of a senator in Washington with the suicide (?) of the CEO of a MNC bank in India to a hit-and-run case and laptop users getting burnt due to overheating of their machines. It is quite unusual in the sense that it moves effortlessly across seemingly disparate incidents and distinct locations (Washington, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Ukraine, New York City, Sangamner, Stanford, etc.)

The book is certainly a page-thriller and I finished it in almost one sitting; the chapters are shorter and crisper compared to his earlier novels and make for easier reading. I liked how he has incorporated into the story the tale of how Socrates died; I also liked the way John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' appeared in the narrative. All the characters such as Aditya, Varun, Tanya, Swami, Malvika, Sundeep,etc. were developed quite well with their mannerisms and intricacies told in a detailed fashion. Ravi has quite intelligently given the characters real-life names: Vijay Banga (President, Mastercard International) sounds similar to Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard; Aditya Rao (pioneer in banking in India) sounds similar to Aditya Puri, MD of HDFC Bank; Malvika Sehgal, CEO of New York International Bank could be any of the leading female bank CEOs in India currently – Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma, Kalpana Morparia, etc.

Ravi has done quite a bit of research while writing this book – explaining the intricacies and technicalities of bitcoins (digital currency which not many are familiar with yet) and online gaming (including advertising it on Facebook and the manner in which it generates revenues). However, sometimes it got too technical for me and I had to re-read entire paragraphs to try and understand what was being said.

I felt the author has tried so hard to write about multiple elements that it has become quite a mish-mash. At times, it became quite difficult to keep track of who was who and what role that person had played so far in the story. Combining so many elements into a single story meant that no story really grew on its own; it seemed as if all of them were stretched liberally to connect in the end.

Also, there were quite a few grammatical and spelling errors in the book. For instance on Page 36, the sentence reads as “It was only on her mother's insistence that had she come back to India in the intervening period.” The word deposition is misspelled as depostion on Page 196. On Page 219, the sentence reads as “She couldn't take her eyes of the glittering diamond ring.” Towards the end, it appeared as though the author was in a rush to finish the book – the last chapter seems to be written hurriedly, almost in bullet points-like sentences.

All in all, the book makes a good read but I would not call it one of the author's best works till date. Read it to enlighten yourself about the intricate web of online gaming, bitcoins and banks' security systems.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata

I happened to pick up this book purely by accident while browsing one of the online websites. And I am glad I did. Kolkata is one of those old, charming cities which its inhabitants seem to adore completely, despite the traffic & the pollution. To me, Kolkata conjures up images of the Hooghly bridge and Durga Puja, of the underground metro and the tram, of sandesh and puchkas.

Indrajit Hazra has captured all this and more beautifully in his ode to the lovely city. Hazra discusses the intricacies of the geographical spread of the city (North vs. South), the political scenario – past & present [including the Naxalbari movement], the movie industry, the bookstores & eateries on Park Street and the different communities co-existing peacefully in the city [prominently, the Marwaris who migrated from Rajasthan to Bengal in the 17th century to trade in cotton, opium, salt, cloth and indigo].

Hazra has lived away from Kolkata for the last 15 years. He says he is one of the best people to write a book on the city because “After all, you don't see the Mona Lisa from inside the frame; you have to stand in front of it.”

There are quite a few nuggets of information liberally spread out across the book. For instance, I learnt that the Calcutta Club on Lower Circular Road changed its rules to allow women members only in 2007.

The book is an easy read and, at 145 pages, a quick one. The author's writing style is free-flowing & informal. Since the book speaks about different topics, it is not necessary for one to read it from start to end. Read the book for a different take on the city – a take of an insider, who's now an outsider. And the cover of the book (by Turmeric Design) is stunning - really captures the essence of the city.

On my first, and so far only, visit to Kolkata in March-2010, I took time out to visit the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and Flury's – all of which find mention in the book. I also took a tram ride and visited the oldest banyan tree in the world. Though the book may not be intended as one but you can also use it as a travel guide, bookmarking sights & activities that you may wish to tick off when you visit the city.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

I picked up this book quite by accident; was browsing through Goodreads and came across this title. The book highlights the role women played in helping to end World War II; it is a story of a township set up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, where the workers did not know the true nature of their tasks till the end of the war. The name of the book is a giveaway and I would not want to include any spoilers in this review.

The premise of the book is quite interesting; while most men were away at war (World War II), the book brings forth the untold story of the women – most of them working as chemists, laboratory assistants, administration executives, secretaries, etc. who played quite an important role. These women were recruited from all across USA, made to work in a new town which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement but which ended up becoming permanent, and basically sworn to secrecy about the work they were doing there.

Most of these women were quite young and fresh out of college who were quite excited at this prospect since the pay was good and they were hoping that the war would end since most of them had family members aware at war. This motivation was quite essential for them since the living conditions at Oak Ridge were not exactly ideal. They still made the best of their situation and many of them went to marry on their colleagues and settled down with their families there.

The author Denise Kiernan has done a lot of research for writing this book, including interviews with some of the women, who are in their 80s and 90s currently, who worked on the project. She is able to bring out the detailed lives of the women at Oak Ridge, including their work schedules, their homes, their socializing and the lack of avenues for doing that, the tribulations that they had to undergo owing to the secrecy, etc. It is quite shocking to read some of the things that we take for granted at our workplace – exchanging gossip about work, for instance – was absolutely not an option for these women. They could also never know whether or not to trust somebody for they never knew what would get reported back to the authorities.

The book also intersperses the chemical details of the project in between the personal lives of the women including the contribution of German scientists, primary of who were women as well. This was a real eye-opener for me to read about how the women’s role was sidelined and the men took the credit for all of it.

Some parts of the book do feel like repetition which could have been avoided by better editing. And there are some grammatical errors as well. However, all in all, I enjoyed reading the book and going behind the scenes of that one huge, secretive project that changed the world, as it existed before then, forever.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: The Book Thief

I might possibly be one of the last few to read this book so late in the day considering the book has been released in 2005. And with a movie release in 2013, the book's popularity has only soared with the author winning most of the major awards.

To me, what was interesting about the book was the fact that the story offered absolutely nothing new. It centres around World War II in Germany. We all know what that entails.  The rise of the Fuhrer. And the humiliation & persecution of Jews. What the book does, however, is takes this as a base and using Death as a narrator, tells us a love story. The love a girl develops for words & books. The love two pre-teens develop for each other. The love a father has for his daughter. These again, mind you, are not novel themes. But the way Zusak handles them is what makes this book what it is.

The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, is someone who will stay with you for a long time after you have read the book. She is like any other pre-teen would be except for a tiny detail: she is living in Germany during WW-II and placed with a foster family by her mother. A large part of the book deals with the relationships Liesel forges with the various characters in the book: her foster parents, her best friend Rudy, the mayor's wife, and my favourite of all, Max (the Jew her family takes into hiding). Each of them have been narrated in great detail and it is very easy to visualize them as you read along the book.

Zusak's writing is different and unlike any other I have read so far. He writes long sentences. And short ones. There are highlighted & bold sentences in some chapters. And since he uses Death as a narrator, the conversational tone becomes even more interesting. I did get a bit bored with some of the descriptions but that could be because I was keen to reach the end of the book.

The book, in addition to the personal relationships, also handles certain other themes such as death (which is the narrator & thus omnipresent), the travails & hardships of German citizens during the War in terms of lack of jobs & income, how the War was responsible for forming certain relationships & destroying others, guilt (at escaping death, getting some food, etc.)

The book does not purport to be a report or guide on the Holocaust. As I mentioned in the earlier part of the review, it is essentially a love story. And though it is fiction, it could very well be fact. At least, that's what Zusak's narrative made me believe. Go read the book & discover for yourself.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy Mother's Day: Famous Mothers in Bollywood

As most of the world celebrates Mother's Day tomorrow, it is perhaps opportune that I pen down some of my favourite mothers from Bollywood :) When I think of Bollywood mothers, I think of 'aloo ke paranthe' & 'gajar ka halwa'. And the most famous line ever to have been uttered mentioning a mother - 'Mere paas maa hain'.

Reema Lagoo:
Reema Lagoo for our generation is probably what Nirupa Roy was for the previous generation :) I mean, she has been playing mother since forever; she probably played mother for the first time to Juhi Chawla in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and has never looked back since then. From Aashiqui to Vaastav and from Hum Saath Saath Hain to Kal Ho Naa Ho. She has played Salman Khan's mother the maximum number of times. The only thing probably remaining for her now is to play Aamir Khan's mother as well :) My favourite role of hers is in Maine Pyaar Kiya & Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.

Farida Jalal:
Farida Jalal is to Shah Rukh Khan what Reema Lagoo is to Salman Khan; it's as if she has to play a mother in SRK's movies be it Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil Toh Pagal Hain or Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (in which she played SRK's mother while Reema played Kajol's who is engaged to Salman - gotta love Bollywood :)) My favourite role of hers is, of course, in KKHH where she laments that since she doesn't have a daughter-in-law, she cannot exchange gossip with her other friends and accompanies her grand-daughter on a summer camp to ensure her son gets married a second time.

Jaya Bachchan:
True, Jaya Bachchan has not played a mother in as many movies as the first two but I especially enjoyed her role in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham where she played mother to SRK & Hrithik. She also played mother to Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Naa Ho (in which Reema played SRK's mother - told you Reema is the omnipotent mother :))

Dina Pathak, Ratna Pathak Shah & Supriya Pathak:

This mother-daughters trio may not have played mothers in many movies but they appear in my list solely based on that one movie which has struck a chord with me:

Dina - Golmaal (1979) - As Mrs. Srivastava who played Amol Palekar's fake mother & her twin sister as well, she was hilarious in the movie. The way she matched Utpal Dutt's acting prowess in the movie is worth appreciating. Her contribution to Golmaal's popularity cannot be under-estimated.

Ratna - Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008) - As the mother who wanted to protect her only son from his fate as determined by her in-laws' family, Ratna Pathak Shah really stood out in this movie. She was as mad as the role demanded her to be and friendly with her son at the same time.

Supriya - Wake Up Sid (2009) - As the mother of a spoiled brat who didn't respect his parents or want to spend any time with them, I felt Supriya Pathak did a fabulous role. She wanted to learn English so that she could be friends with her only son & was willing to let her son remain with a strange woman so that he could remain happy.

Happy Mother's Day: Famous Mothers In Literature

As most of the world celebrates Mother's Day tomorrow (second Sunday in May), I thought it worthwhile to pen down some of the famous mothers from my favourite novels  :)

Mrs. Bennet - Pride & Prejudice (1813)
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen remains one of my favourite novels till date. And, I would like to believe that, in addition to Elizabeth & Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet (Elizabeth's mother) is partially responsible for the popularity. She is like any other mother, more specifically, Indian mother, whose sole aim in life is to get her daughters married off to wealthy men. She does not like the jokes/witty comments her husband Mr. Bennet makes especially when it comes to pairing off her daughters with suitable men.

Mrs. Rupa Mehra - A Suitable Boy (1993)
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth remains one of the longest novels ever published at ~ 1,400 pages. Mrs. Rupa Mehra is portrayed to be a typical Indian mother interested in marrying off her youngest daughter to 'a suitable boy'. Mrs. Mehra is often nagging & resorts to emotional blackmail throughout the novel to get people to do what she wants them to. At heart, however, she only wants the best for everybody.

In that respect, both Mrs. Bennet & Mrs. Mehra seem to be similar - both wanting the best for their children and nagging them towards it. I wonder sometimes if Vikram Seth modeled the latter on the former but in an Indian context :)

Mrs. Margaret March - Little Women (1868)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott remains another of my favourite novels. And the mother Mrs. March is an epitome of goodness - always wanting to help out others in need, sometimes at the cost of her own family; trusting her daughters' sense over that which society demands; being a good moral example to all those at home.

Which are your favourite mothers in literature? Leave a comment and let me know.

I would like to end with this quote by Erma Bombeck (which is so apt and so very true): When your mother asks, 'Do you want a piece of advice?' it's a mere formality. It doesn't matter if you answer yes or no. You're going to get it anyway.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Review: Kya Dilli Kya Lahore

They Met As Enemies, They Parted As Friends

Let me admit at the outset. This is not a movie I would have normally watched. Surfing the channels the other day I came across the trailer of the movie. As the name suggests, I instantly knew it would be a movie on the India-Pakistan partition. But what really got my attention was when the trailer said 'Gulzar presents'. Surely, I thought to myself, this must be a different kind of movie for Gulzar to have been associated with it.

Well, I am glad I didn't skip the movie. Sure, it is a movie about the India-Pakistan partition but narrated in a very different & hard-hitting way. The movie has only four characters and is centred, almost entirely, around only two - Vijay Raaz (Rehmat Ali - a Pakistani soldier of Indian origin) and Manu Rishi (Samarth Pratap Shastri - an Indian soldier of Pakistani origin). The movie looks at the Partition from the eyes of these two soldiers - people who have reluctantly shifted their nations but are not entirely happy about it; people who reminisce about their time back home even in front of an enemy soldier; people who question the very idea of Partition.

Their conversations with each other reveal some interesting facets: Essentially, politicians take decisions and the soldiers need to execute these on the ground. The politicians take these decisions based on their hunger for power ('Siyasat ka khel hain saara'). Most times, as in the case of Partition, it may not be a right or humane decision. It seems as if in the greed for power, people forget that there are human beings posted at the borders. The human cost is sadly sacrificed at the altar of politics.

The film is quite topical considering even after 67 years, we are still not able to reconcile with Pakistan and our soldiers die almost daily on the borders. Such loss of life in times of peace is quite cruel. It's easy to empathize with both the soldiers in the movie when they exchange notes on their family and their childhood. Vijay Raaz grows almost misty-eyed describing his home in Chandni Chowk; Manu Rishi becomes nostalgic talking about his Lahore residence.

To say that Vijay Raaz & Manu Rishi have acted brilliantly would be doing injustice to both of them - because they are known to be such wonderful actors. Also, this is Vijay Raaz's directorial debut. Both carry off the film quite well with equal parts light-heartedness & seriousness.

It is a slow film yes and may appear a little bit long to some. But it is well worth it. When we spend hours each weekend on watching mindless movies, surely we can spend ~ 100 minutes to watch this movie. The movie will make you think about the uselessness of war & conflict; it will make you realize the insanity of asking people to change their nations overnight leaving almost everything behind; it will bring home the point that even lonely enemy soldiers need a friendly soul to talk to at the borders.

Go watch the movie. And come back home and say a silent prayer for the thousands of soldiers bravely guarding our borders. They lie awake so that we may sleep peacefully. In some small way, I believe this movie is a dedication to all of them.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kya Dilli Kya Lahore

They Met As Enemies, They Parted As Friends
While surfing channels the other day, I came across the trailer of Kya Dilli Kya Lahore. [You can watch it here:].

My first reaction was that it will be another movie on the India-Pakistan partition saga. The partition which took place in 1947 left behind a lot of unpleasant memories on both sides of the border. Till date, families of those affected by the partition are said to be suffering. Almost overnight, people had to leave their homes & their entire belongings and escape so that they could continue living. Needless to say, any movie based on this event will evoke either sadness or strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

Kya Dilli Kya Lahore, however, promises to be a different movie. Caught in a border cross-fire in 1948, only two soldiers remain alive. As luck would have it, one is an Indian soldier of Pakistani origin while the other is a Pakistani soldier of Indian origin. The film is about their interactions and their attempt at trying to remain alive. It also seeks to emphasize how a single day suddenly made sworn enemies of people who were, till then, leaving peacefully with each other. It stars Vijay Raaz, Manu Rishi & Raj Zutshi.

What specifically caught my eye was the fact that Gulzar had composed lyrics for the movie and was also presenting it. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my admiration & adoration for Gulzar Saab. Go read my posts

Bollywood fans are well aware of how often Gulzar writes about partition and how passionate he is about it. One of the shayaris from the film heard in the trailer is:
Lakeerein hain to rehne do, kisi ne rooth kar gusse main shayad kheech di thi.
Unhi ko ab banao paala aur aao kabaddi khelte hain, lakeerein hain to rehne do. - Sung by Papon (one of my favourite singers) & composed by Sandesh Shandilya

I am looking forward to catch this movie as it releases this weekend. Await my review of it soon.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: The Hunt For Kohinoor

The Hunt For Kohinoor is the second book in the thriller series featuring Mehrunisa Khosa written by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar. The book's blurb reads: "A spine-chilling ninety-six hour hunt through the world's most dangerous terrain where history collides with gunfire - will Mehrunisa get out of this one alive?

One morning on her way to work, Mehrunisa gets a call that will change her life forever. The truth about her missing father is at her fingertips - but it will take her on the most desperate chase of her lifetime.

A chase that will pit her against hardened jihadis plotting the deadliest terror attack on India, that will test her mettle against history's deep secrets, that will teach her that the price of love can mean bloodied hands ...

The Hunt For Kohinoor hurtles from icy Kashmir to snow-clad Hindukush, from the sinister corridors of a military hospital to the warrens of Peshawar, even as the clock counts down to the impending catastrophe."

The book is a historical thriller popularized by the likes of Dan Brown and Ashwin Sanghi. The book brings together an art curator, the Indian military, RAW agents and jihadis in a mission intended to create panic amongst the Indian population. Mehrunisa, an art curator, is summoned asked to go to Pakistan to find out a secret. And she has 96 hours to finish this life-threatening mission.

How she goes about it, whose help does she elicit, is she finally successful and at what price form the rest of the book.

The author's style of writing is evocative especially when she describes the various landscapes her protagonist travels in search of the secret. And she has done a lot of homework when it comes to narrating the history of a particular place or incident or event mentioned in the book. So, it is not just a passing mention but a detailed description that accompanies it.

And though we know what the ending will be, the book turned out to be a page turner.

On the downside, I personally felt the book had a lot of characters so it became difficult to keep track of them individually. And each of them had a background story leading up to where they were currently. That led to some confusion for me while reading the book.

On the whole, the book is an enjoyable read. I would rate it 3 on 5.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy of the book by Westland.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Book Review: Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita

The book is an autobiographical account of the author, a Kashmiri Pandit (KP) living in Kashmir, who, along with his family, was forced to flee the Valley in 1990s. The book's blurb reads: "Rahul Pandita was fourteen years old when he was forced to leave his home in Srinagar along with his family, who were Kashmiri Pandits; the Hindu minority within a Muslim-majority Kashmir that was becoming increasingly agitated with the cries of 'Azadi' from India. The heartbreaking story of Kashmir has so far been told through the prism of the brutality of the Indian state, and the pro-independence demands of separatists. But there is another part of the story that has remained unrecorded and buried. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is the unspoken chapter in the story of Kashmir, in which it was purged of the Kashmiri Pandit community in a violent ethnic cleansing backed by Islamist militants. Hundreds of people were tortured and killed, and about 3,50,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes and spend the rest of their lives in exile in their own country. Rahul Pandita has written a deeply personal, powerful and unforgettable story of history, home and loss."

While all of us living in India are vaguely familiar with the Kashmir issue [as we refer to it], the issue of the KP exodus is not discussed much or referred to. I, in fact, was not even aware about it, till this book came out. Rahul has brought this issue out in the open and is fighting an almost lonely battle assisted by Sanjay Tickoo and Ashok Pandita. He is keeping a record of each and every Kashmiri Pandit killed in the Valley.

In the book, the author paints a very vivid and beautiful picture of Kashmir and his home, which his father built painstakingly and which had 22 rooms [which his mother never forgot to mention to others]. His house had fruit orchards in the veranda and he enjoyed a life like any other. Until that fateful day on January 19, 1990, when the KPs were ordered to either flee their homes, convert or be prepared to die. And the killings were usually barbaric in their form. It was not just that. KP women were raped, children killed and their houses looted as well.

You cannot not be affected while reading this book. Rahul's writing style is such that, for a long time, I had a feeling that there was someone behind me, poring over my shoulder. Such are his descriptions of the accounts of people hiding in their own homes from the separatists. The movement became so powerful that even friends and neighbours turned against these KPs.

For the last 24 years, these people have been living away from their homes - they literally had to flee taking with them only bare minimum possessions. And the relief camps provided by the Government only made mockery of their pain. It is surprising, however, that no central/state authority was willing to step in and stop it at that point in time.

Personally, I cannot imagine being asked to leave my house without knowing whether I shall be able to see it again. Rahul brings out this anguish well in the book - you are able to empathize with him while feeling your blood boiling at the same time.

Certain incidents/sentences in the book stayed with me. At one place, the author quotes the poet Paash's lines, 'Sabse khatarnaaq hota hai/humare sapnon ka mar jaana'. Elsewhere, he feels, 'Kashmir is memory, an overdose of nostalgia.' Still elsewhere, when he returns to his house to find it occupied by somebody else, 'A man knocking at his own door, finding someone else opening it, and then seeking permission to enter his own house.' Rahul also speaks about how his cousin Ravi [with whom he was very close] was killed and the effect that had on Ravi's parents.

It is not an easy book to read. At several places, you will be shocked and saddened to read the treatment meted out to Kashmiri Pandits in their own land for absolutely no fault of their own. And, even when the book ends, parts of it will continue to occupy your mind - how some people were naive enough to believe they could go back to their homes and were killed as a result; how, when a majority decides to take matters into their own hands, no responsible person can really do anything and how, at the end of the day, being asked to leave your home has to be among one of the worst things anybody could be asked to do.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Review: Legacy - Letters from eminent parents to their daughters by Sudha Menon

This is one of the most unique books I have ever read. Why? Because it is a compilation of letters written by eminent [read: businessmen & industrialists primarily] parents to their daughters. The book was released in 2013; at an opportune time perhaps for India which is currently grappling with how to protect its daughters. And it is fascinating to realize that, in this day and age of e-mails and watsapp messages, these individuals have actually taken time out of their busy schedule to write these letters.

The book's blurb reads: "They say a daughter may outgrow your lap, but she will never outgrow your heart. In Legacy, noted journalist and author Sudha Menon brings forth a rare collection of personal and evocative letters from parents to their daughters. Through their fearless approach to life, love, and overcoming obstacles, these icons from the world of business, arts, films, food, and sports share with us their experience and wisdom as they pass them on to their daughters. Deeply moving and thought provoking, Legacy is a remarkable collection of life lessons that will delight and inspire at the same time."

The book features letters written by 18 persons - Ajay Piramal, Amit Chandra, Capt. Gopinath, Chanda Kochhar, Deep Anand, Ganesh Natarajan, Jatin Das, Kishore Biyani, K.V. Kamath, Mallika Sarabhai, Narayana Murthy, Pradeep Bhargava, Prakash Padukone, P.P. Chhabria, Renuka Ramnath, Sanjeev Kapoor, Shaheen Mistri and Zia Mody.

Most of the letters have common themes running through them - the virtues of following certain values such as compassion and gratitude, the belief in a higher force, the willingness to give back to society and to live one's life only by one's passion.

I enjoyed reading the letters written by the mothers more, maybe because they did not expect their daughters to take a backseat in their careers for the sake of the family or to sacrifice for the family. That was the most disappointing part for me. These men who are leaders in their individual capacities and head such big organizations have such limited and traditional thinking even in these times! And if they expect their daughters to take a backseat, how can we ever expect them to be empathetic to the problems of women employees in their companies?

Sample Ajay Piramal's advice to his daughter Nandini: "But let me caution you that if a marriage has to succeed, you will have to sacrifice more than your husband." K.V. Kamath's letter is confusing. At one place he says, "Often in the world, women who are homemakers are not given the same place in society that a working woman is given." At another, however, "Your mother has a strong mind of her own but she has chosen to take on a supportive role in our family." Narayana Murthy tells his daughter: "The world admires a woman who brings a sense of balance to all the three responsibilities - being a loving wife, a caring mother and a competent career woman."

In contrast, the letters written by Renuka and Zia stood out. Renuka tells her daughter Ramya that it is important for her not to forget and give up her identity and to never stop living short of her own full potential. Zia exhorts her three daughters to live their lives with dignity and self-respect; she also highlights why it is important for women to have careers of their own - both to fulfill their intellectual needs and to keep them financially independent.

Almost all these leaders have had humble beginnings which led them to appreciate the value of hard work and money. Most of them are grateful to their parents for imbibing in them values and traits which have helped them become what they are today.

The book also has interesting little tidbits which are revealed through the individual letters. For instance, when Renuka joined VJTI in 1978, she was only the 4th girl in the institute's 99-year-old history. Nandita Das' father Jatin owns over 6,500 pankhas (fans) and is on the way to setting up a dedicated fan museum in Delhi.

The unseen and candid photographs of some of the parents with their daughters at the end of the book is a nice touch.

Trivia: Of the 25 daughters referred to in the book, the names of 13 (50%) being with 'A' :)

I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me a deeper understanding of the background of each individual and made me appreciate them more. Often what we read in the media is only the surface; through this book, Sudha has been able to scratch beneath the surface. There were so many things which I did not know about most of the parents; these came out in the letters they wrote.

Maybe, Sudha could have ended with a letter to her daughter Nayantara :) And, I hope, she's planning Part II because I already have a wishlist of people whom I want to see writing to their daughters - Anand Mahindra, Adi Godrej, Manmohan Shetty, Shiv Nadar, Nandan Nilekani, Gulzar, Amitabh Bachchan, Aditya Puri, Anu Aga, Pritish Nandy, Mukesh Ambani, Kumar Mangalam Birla - to name a few!!!

Go read Legacy - it is one of those books which will give you a glimpse into the personal lives of these leaders in their own words - what drives them on a daily basis and what are their hopes and aspirations for their daughters. It is a no-holds barred account for which Sudha must definitely be applauded.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

This is a very unique book in the sense that most of its contents were already known to the world much before its publication. The protagonist and author of the book – Malala – was shot by the Taliban in Oct-2012. Barely a year later, Malala was speaking at the UN and was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 16.

The book’s blurb reads: “I come from a country which was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday. When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday 9 October 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price. Shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, she was not expected to survive. Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, and of Malala parents’ fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons. It will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world. ‘Who is Malala’? the gunman demanded. I am Malala and this is my story.”

The book is a very brave and uninhibited narrative of Malala’s fight for education and why she was targeted by the Taliban. In it, Malala paints a very vivid picture of the Swat Valley; its lakes and mountains; its lovely orchards. Though Pakistan has always been troubled by terrorism in one form or the other, the Swat Valley was largely peaceful.

She had a very normal life growing up like any other youngster. Malala reveals that she is fond of Justin Bieber and watching the Twilight movies with her friends. She likes reading books of Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen. She loved going on school picnics and enjoying the delicious picnic lunch.

However, her routine life changed when the Taliban entered the valley. Malala takes us through a terrifying account of how slowly and gradually their life took a turn the worse. They could no longer go shopping at the bazaars as they used to; women could not be seen out in the open without a male relative accompanying them; sources of entertainment such as DVDs and TV channels were destroyed.

Amidst all this, Malala had always been a vocal and active supporter of girls’ education. She never missed a chance at any public forum to drive home the importance of educating girls and the folly of discontinuing the same. Naturally, this enraged the Taliban who had by then also started destroying schools.

The book has a very Anne Frank-like feel to it; Anne, too, was caught in the crossfire of war and had to discontinue her routine life. Throughout the book, Malala’s courage and sheer determination shine through. And credit should also be given to her parents – her dad who was the founder of several schools and a strong believer in girls’ education and her mother, who though uneducated herself, never barred Malala from going to school or speaking her mind.

After she was shot, while the whole world thought she would die, Malala fought back bravely at a hospital in UK, without her family [who joined her later] to recover fully. Once recovered, she continues to fight for the cause of education, this time, on a much larger and global scale.

What affected me the most while reading the book was Malala’s response to the whole thing. Once threatened, she could easily have been cowed down and decided to toe the line. She was, after all, a normal teenager like any of us. Nothing in her past suggested her future would turn out the way it did. But, she chose to retaliate; she chose to question and she chose to refuse. While doing so, she inspired millions around the world. While reminding us that she still is a teenager. Recuperating in the hospital, she thinks, on seeing Angelina Jolie’s message to her, how she must inform her friends about it.

Malala’s story is a story of courage; it is a story of hope; and it is a story of how the willpower of a single girl living in a remote village can have global and far-reaching consequences. Read the book to get inspired; read it to get depressed and saddened. But, above all, read it to realize how each one of us has an innate power to rebel against the evil forces. It is only when we decide to tap into that power that we can work wonders.