Thursday, November 20, 2014

Asura Tale Of The Vanquished - Anand Neelakantan

History is made by the victors, the story of the losing side is never told. I picked up Anand Neelkantan's "Asura Tale Of The Vanquished" thinking it would be fun to read Ramayana from Ravana's point of view. But I was sorely disappointed by the book.

Asura Tale Of The Vanquished portrays Ravana as the son of a Brahmin father and Asura mother, unfairly treated by his uncle Kubera who ruled Sri lanka. Inspired by Mahabali, Ravana mobilizes  and inspires people around him to come together to claim the throne  of Sri Lanka.  His ambition, and ruthless warring at one point has his kingdom extending right up to the Himalayas. He, himself is portrayed as mighty and learned King who cared for his people and built a caste-less society. The book personifies Ravana, as a great human being, also is called ‘Dasamukha’ (the man with ten faces) for he had embraced the ten base emotions of life, namely - Anger, Pride, Jealousy, Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Selfishness, Passion, Ambition and Intellect. (Actually my favourite part of the whole book is how Ravana & Mahabali explains the 10 base emotion).

The other principal character of the book Bhadra shows Ravana's ambitious behaviour, uncaring attitude towards common people and debauchery. Bhadra, himself is shown as some one having grievously suffered and lost his entire family at the hands of the Devas supports Ravana in his efforts to establish a powerful Asura Empire. Bhadra is called again and again to do the dirty work which the kings and nobles can't do and when the job is done is promptly cast aside by them. 

The rest of the book follows the is well known mythology of India, Ramayana.  Sita,  is kidnapped (Sita is shown as Ravana's daughter who was removed from the kingdom due to a prophecy on her) Hanuman, burning lanka, the battle and final victory of Ram. 

The portrayal of Ram, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma as mass leaders who achieved a kind of Godhood , thanks to the masses was something I liked. The book talks about the Aryans and Dravidians, calling them Devas and Asuras, and the various societal changes that happen when they overrun and attack each other's kingdoms. Its clearly shown that the Devas or Asuras as conquerors, are identical in the way they ravage the conquered, suffering of the common people and there is nothing Godly about the name "Deva."

Having said this, I want to say that I finished the book just cause I wanted to finish it. The book is too long and could have been edited better. But I would still recommend this book to all Indians with the message "Widen your horizons, don't get hung on religion or culture, how much ever proud our past is, present is what matters" Overall would give the book 2.5/5

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh

Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh is a modern Indian classic. It has been converted into a movie and also is included in the list of must read books for every Indian. From the title itself any Indian can understand that the book deals with the one of the difficult times in Indian history, i.e. the partition of India. I have been planning to read this book for long and I finally grabbed it when I saw it in my office Library.

Khushwant Singh deals with the struggles an ordinary Indian faced at the time of Independence by the way of a smile story based in the fictional village of Mano Majra. An village where the words Partition or Independence doesn't mean much to the Sikhs and Muslims living there. A situation that rapidly changes with the murder of  a hindu moneylender, Ram Lal. 

Khushwant Singh has beautifully explored the various problems India faced at the time of Independence; such as class system, government corruption, and a large population with very little or no education through his various characters. 

An example would be the characters of Aqbal and Juggut. Aqbal, a social worker who is very well educated compared with Juggut, a poor illiterate peasant.  Even when both of them are arrested, Aqbal was treated very well compared to Juggut because education placed them both in two different class levels. Aqbal was a class “A” prisoner who was provided with warm food, good beds, and newspaper to read and write while Juggut a class “C” prisoner whose food was thrown at him.

Similarly, Khushwant Singh explored government corruption through Hukum Chand, a deputy inspector who would knowingly break laws such as having sex with prostitutes or arresting someone without justifiable cause or evidence. Singh  further shows how when passions are aroused, sensible talk or thought is thrown our of the window and mob mentality rises.

The ending of the novel is disappointing when you read it. Its only when you close the book and think do you realise the message Khushwant Singh is conveying: action is never political; it is always personal. Nobody is going to get up and do a thing for anyone else unless it's for someone they love and  it's something that comes from the heart.

This book is an absolute must read for every single person who cares about Hindu-Muslim harmony. If not for the graphic description of death I would suggest making this book a must read for all school children.  The book is meant to make you think of your actions and thoughts to the society at large.  I would give this book a rating of 3.5/5

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. - Edward Luce

In Spite of the Gods is to quote is "an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great-power status in the 21st century". Edward Luce without coming across as patronizing, discusses the many contradictions in India's society; the lopsided growth of the economy; the enduring legacies of leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar; the repercussions of the caste conflicts; the often-peculiar nature of Indian modernity in the new century. What I loved about the book is that its given an un-emotional view of India, A view mostly denied to us because of our own sets of prejudices which have risen as we live inside this beautiful country.

The books well written and  for each pattern observed, Luce has relied on interviews (with number of prominent people), events (historical and current), anecdotes, and other observations. His anecdotes and event summaries are to the point and entertaining. 

Edward Luce is the Financial Times chief US commentator, so the book reflects his is journalistic background. The book is more of his opinion rather than the result of any detailed study. But I feel that's fine cause in the end I was looking for an unbiased view of India which I have got from the book. He has touched on many controversial topics like the riots, hindu terrorism, child labor etc in this book which might lead to indigestion in some people. But I feel all Indians should open their eyes and see that India is not perfect yet. 

The point we Indians have to understand which is nicely put by Luce "India isn't on an autopilot to greatness, but it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane." We should know what our strength and weakness are and keep an eye on both. I would recommend this book to all Indians. 

 Overall I feel this is an book backed with extensive research and provides some fascinating insights into the workings of the Indian political and economic system. This book was released in 2006 and like all knows India has changed a lot in last 7 years. So please count for that when reading the book. Overall I give the book an rating of 3/5 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

This is the second book of Malcolm Gladwell I am reading. The first one being Tipping Point in which he had explored how some ideas grow rapidly and become popular. In this Book "Outliers: The Story of Success" Gladwell explores the factors that contribute to success. 

We are all brought up on the romanticized fact that hard-work and determination leads to success. Malcolm counters this by arguing that the factors that lead to success are not so simple but are a combination of opportunity & legacy.

Gladwell looks into the lifes of those who have risen meteorically to the top of their fields, analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common thread. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to dissuade us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. He rightly notes that while IQ is certainly a contributor, it reaches a "point of diminishing returns" after a while: once people score about 130, IQ becomes less important and "intangibles" become more important.

The book, then, focuses on what these "intangibles" are. Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child's birth are important contributors to success, as well as a person's tenacity and agility.

He argues that there is no such thing as a self-made man and that the origins of high achievement lie instead in the circumstances and influences of one's upbringing, combined with excellent timing. The Beatles had Hamburg in 1960-62; Bill Gates had access to an ASR-33 Teletype in 1968. Both put in thousands of hours-Gladwell posits that 10,000 is the magic number-on their craft at a young age, resulting in an above-average head start. 

Reemphasizing his theme, Gladwell continuous to remind the reader that genius is not the only or even the most important thing when determining a person's success.  He takes the example of Christopher Langan, a man who ended up owning a horse farm in rural Missouri despite having an IQ of 195 (Einstein's was 150). Gladwell points out that Langan has not reached a high level of success because of the environment in which he grew up.  Further, Gladwell compares Langan with Oppenheimer, the father of the US atomic bomb. Noting that even if both had the innate natural abilities that should have helped them both succeed in life, Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer's upbringing made a pivotal difference in his life. Oppenheimer grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, was the son of a successful businessman and was afforded a childhood of "concerted cultivation". Malcom argues that these opportunities gave Oppenheimer the chance to develop the practical intelligence necessary for success.

Gladwell advances the notion that the success of students of different cultures or different socio-economic backgrounds is in fact highly correlated to the time students spent in school or in educationally rich environments. How does culture matter? He talks about the discrepancy between how many days per year American children spend in school (180) versus Asian students (280), and how many more social expectaitons Asian students are borne into. This will affect academic and other achievement. Gladwell further explores how culture shape up a person taking the examples of a "Plane Crash" and also from the life of his Mother.

Gladwell is criticized for too often falling prey to fallacious reasoning, inadequate and anecdotally based sampling, and oversimplified analysis. But the way Gladwell has written the book you unconsciously nod with him when you see his arguments. I enjoyed this book and will give it a rating of 4 / 5

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference - Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point is the first book of Malcolm Gladwell.  The book as explores in Gladwell own words "How Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." The examples of such changes in his book include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the steep drop in the New York City crime rate after 1990.

According to Gladwell there are 3 rules of epidemics 
  • The Law of the few
  • The Law of the few according to Gladwell is similar to the 80/20 principle in economics. Few people effect the most change. Gladwell further divides these people into 3 groups. 
    The Connectors a set of people who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions.
    The Mavens or "information specialists" The people collect knowledge and share it with others.
    And the Salesmen these are people with the skills to pursue people about what they are hearing.
    These set of people are those who actually drive a idea to success.
  • The Stickiness Factor
  • This is how the way of presentation of a message improves its retension skill. He takes examples of popular shows like Sesame street which worked upon the stickiness factor and thus enhanced the effective retention of the educational content in the show along with its entertainment value.

  • The power of Context
  • According to Gladwell Humans are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they are. For example, efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes city-wide. This is like the Open window theory
Malcolm Gladwell also discusses what he dubs the rule of 150, which states that the maximum number of individuals in a society or group that someone can have real social relationships with is 150. Anything more than this no the relationships lose its strength. 

The book is a very interesting read. Easy to follow. I give this book a rating of 4/5.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children is considered to be Salman Rushdie's masterpiece; it won the Booker Prize, and then, in 1993, it won the 'Booker of Bookers', ie the best book to have won the Booker Prize in the first 25 years of the award.

The plot is amazing. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, India achieved her independence. 1001 children were born in the hour from 12a.m to 1a.m, These children had magical powers, the potency of which increased the closer the child was born to midnight.

The chief protagonist of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. He was born with telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose with an extremely sensitive sense of smell.  Other  characters with notable gifts are Shiva "of the Knees", Saleem's nemesis, and Parvati, called "Parvati-the-witch,".

The book begins with the story of the Sinai family, particularly with events leading up to India's Independence and Partition. Saleem is born precisely at midnight, August 15, 1947, therefore, exactly as old as the independent republic of India.

Saleem with his Telepathic powers, assembles a Midnight Children's Conference, a conference of lall children born in India between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. Salman portray the conderence as a reflective of the issues faced by India in its early statehood majorly the cultural, linguistic, religious, caste and political differences facing the nation.

Meanwhile, Saleem's family begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. The story moves forward with each of the wars, playing an important role in moving the plot forward for Saleem's life is inter-connected very much with the story of India. The story end with the Indira Gandhi-proclaimed Emergency. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi's overreach during the Emergency as well as a personal lust for power. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of this young nation.

Midnight's Children is not at all a fast read. The prose is dense and initially frustrating  with repeated instances of the narrator rambling ahead to a point that he feels is important--but then, before revealing anything of importance, deciding that things ought to come in their proper order.

But I understand why this book got the 'Booker of Bookers'. Its Beautifully written, The primary characters are intriguing and unforgettable. Salman Rushdie's ability to tie the story to history and his ability to overlap events, religions, and mysticism is amazing. The details created vivid images: beautiful Kashmirian landscapes, putrid slums and titillating love scenes.Midnight's Children is littered with politics, religion, and "real-world" events from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and the sub-continent.

I loved the book, but I feel its not for everyone. Its not for anyone looking for a light read while lying on the bed. But this book is a must for any serious Literature fans. I give it a rating of 3.5 / 5.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Made In America - Sam Walton

Walmart - The giant retailer almost everyone knows about. I have not yet entered a Walmart yet but with all the hype about FDI in retail going on I felt it would be good to read about the company which is like the King of Retail. In this book Made In America - Sam Walton offers many invaluable recommendations for business men and entrepreneurs.  Walton does a nice job of telling a clear, concise story about how he built the business of Walmart.

Sam Walton is the guy who made Walmart happen. He build up the Walmart empire from a single store. He started building the empire first by learning the tricks of the trade a store by store. The business model he created is simple: always offer the lowest price possible, and depend on higher sales volume to generate the profit. We all know that Walmart is famous for its logistical superiority, in both a distribution system and computer-aided controls. As the company grew, it was able to use its power to force suppliers to sell at ever-lower prices. Its stores spread slowly, always supported by the distribution system.

Sam Walton comes off as this humble guy from rural USA who made it big by his hard work. In this auto-biography we are shown the same. But personally I felt at times Sam Walton never took what is said by critics properly and brushed it off. I agree with Walton that Walmart was built with really good intentions but  not everything born of Walmart's rise to dominance is an unmitigated good. Walmart has done a lot of positive things for American consumers. But Walton refuses to contemplate the impact of his company's power, forcing conditions on suppliers which can bring them to their knees. But this aspect of Walmart has captured me, how it has been able to shift the power away from the manufactures into the retailers hands. Another thing I felt is Walton doesn't actually listen to his employees (or "associates). He views unions as bad influences rather than legitimate players and potential allies. 

I give the book 2.5/5. Walton appears to believe in his own myth and he presents it well: his tone is down home, expresses a genuine humility, and believes in small-town values. I agree there are many who see things differently. I suppose that that the absolute confidence in the system he created is part of his entrepreneurial genius, but it is also a clear statement on its limits. I would highly recommended this book to those who would like to understand the motivations behind Walmart being what it is today and a great business story to boot.