Saturday, December 22, 2012

Book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This very popular book published in the year 2003 has been with me for sometime. I never got around to reading it. Recently when a friend was all praise for this book and called it a masterpiece, I decided that I must check it out.
The story is set in Afghanistan. Doesn't that country invoke a kind of natural curiosity in everyone? Narrated in the first person, the initial plot revolves around life in Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a boy Amir, the son of a wealthy businessman. The friendship between Amir and Hassan, the son of a servant is an interesting one. Amir is the privileged and self-possessed one, while Hassan is the self-sacrifising and loyal friend. The undercurrents of customs, caste, class, and culture of Afghanistan are also well captured.
Then the Russian invasion takes place and the plot shifts to America, where Amir and his family take asylum. From here, the plot suffers somewhat and the events seem too contrived.  The coincidences seem bewildering and these happen after Amir decides to return to Afghanistan to find redemption for his past  deeds.
The book succeeds in conveying the sad plight of the millions of children caught in the tragedy that was the rule of the Taliban. Khaled Hosseini displays a strong narrative skill and  makes the plot work to inform readers from all over the world about the destruction that a bunch of blind believers can wreak on an entire country and its people.
A preview of The Kite Runner is available at-
http://goo.gl/Dqd1X

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Book: Raga 'n Josh by Sheila Dhar

I have always been curious about Indian classical music. Often wondered about this great  legacy from our  times past. I have received no training in this esoteric art to be able to completely appreciate it, but I have always had a healthy respect for this type of music and its practioners. After all, one can not ignore the fact that classical music is the result of hundreds of years of dedicated labors of so many practitioners. In essence, classical music has come to mean excellence in music.

Before the advent of the omnipresent television channels, when All India Radio ruled the roost, Hindustani or Carnatic music was what they  usaully broadcast towards the end of their morning programs. The start of the alaap would usually be the signal to most people to turn off the radio sets.

After listening to light, popular kind of music for years, only in recent years I have opened my ears to the classical music. The experience has been sort of cathartic! Almost everyday these days I turn to classical to calm the nerves jangled by the noise from the traffic.

When I recently came across this book with the rather quaint title, I was drawn to it. The book definitely threw some light on the history of Hindustani classical music and also on the lives and motivations of some of the luminaries of this genre from the twentieth century. The title of the book is a play on the non-vegetarian dish  "Ragonjosh". As you will find in more than one story in the book, some of our great hindustani musicians were connoisseurs of good food too.

The book written by Sheila Dhar, herself a trained classical musician, breathes music from the first page to the last. Yet, the wonderful way in which the stories are narrated makes the book more than just a book on music. She writes about the time when she was sixteen, when she was asked by her father to receive Bade Ghulam Ali Khan at the station and to escort him and his accompanists to the house of his host, and fetch them to the concert hall after they had refreshed themselves and had their dinner. The hosts happened to be vegetarians. The maestro could not stomach the sight of this unfamiliar food. He exploded: "Do you think I can sing the way I do if I have to feed on grasses swimming in fluids of various kinds? Every note I sing has the aroma of kebabs." Sheila then describes how everyone ran helter-skelter to prepare a meal consisting ofa rich chicken curry.

Writing about music is writing about an experience, and Sheila displays a huge talent in the way she describes music without any jargon or pretentiousness. From Pandith Pran Nath, for example, she learnt to think about ragas in terms of colors. "It was natural for him to dive into the dark depths of early morning ragas like Lalit and Bhairava, where there was no sun. Sometimes we would hear the greys and dusky ochres of twilight ragas like Puriya and Marwa, the midnight blue of magical and mysterious ragas like Malkauns, and even the restrained gold of the majestic and courtly Darbari." 

In Chapter Twenty Four, titled "The New Face of Listening" the author comments about the changing dynamics of the classical music performance and listening. She talks about the perception of silence and how it has changed. Her observations are poignant. "The portrait of a raga" she says, "was thought to consist of unbroken melodic lines drawn on the canvas of silence". According to her, the gradual erosion of silence by ever increasing noise levels is the single important change that has come about in the music world in the last fifty years. 

At one place in the book the author lists the following as the most attractive attrributes of Indian classical music - grace and romanticism, purity and restraint, depth and serenity. I am sure it would not be amiss to use some of these same attributes to describe this beautiful book.

A preview of the book is available on Google Books. Here is the link-
http://goo.gl/7mLec

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Book: A View From The Outside by P. Chidambaram

This collection of articles written by Palaniappan Chidambaram is like a ready-reckoner on indian economy, politics and governance of recent times. These articles were written between 2002-04 as columns for the newspaper Indian Express. Most, if not all the articles, are perfectly relevant even now. As the Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta notes in his foreword, austerity and no-nonsense demeanor always have characterized this impressive politician. So it is with his writing.

The sub-title of the book is "why good economics works for everyone". It is not difficult to see why that subtitle. Everyone knows that Chidambaram is a believer in market economy and the need for a tide of economic growth to lift all boats. He does make a wonderful case for that approach.

In this age of turbulent, chaotic, intolerant politics there is no space for sane and civilized debates on issues of importance. We have become so cynical that nothing ever catches our fancy. Everything looks suspicious and we go looking for the dark clouds even when we see a silver lining. All our idols are turning up with feet of clay. In this enviroment of gloom, a bit of enlightenment on the basic issues and the available options is not a bad idea at all. 

It is interesting that during the time that he wrote these articles Chidambaram was not in the government. It was just as well, that he could take this view as an outsider.

Google Books site provides a sample of this book. Here is the link- http://goo.gl/hzdoO

Here are some of the articles in the book that I found really interesting. The articles are grouped under various heads.

Foreword by Shekhar Gupta - in which Shekhar calls Chidambaram the "most prominent, persistent, committed -and successful of instinctive reformers" in our political system.

Farmers Deserve a Better Deal (Agriculture) August 9, 2002- In this article is Chidambaram's much-debated statement about our attitude to food prices, how we complain loudly about rice, milk or sugar price going up even by 1 rupee whereas we do not hesitate to pay rupees 15 for an ice-cream.

Forex: Too Much of a Good Thing (Foreign Investment) August 25, 2002- Those were still early days in our Foreign Exchange saga, when the Forex was still around 60 billion. The article argues about putting the reserves to good use instead of merely hoarding.

A Tax By Any Other Name (Monetary Policy) April 27, 2003 - An article about inflation. By the logic in that article, Chidambaram should not have been unhappy about the recent RBI's decision not to lower Repo rate.

Building Ethics with a Strong Economy (Ethics and Governance) June 15, 2003 - The grinding poverty and the slow rate of growth witnessed in the first three decades after independence are ascribed  as the reasons for an all-round decline in ethics. The article observes the phenomenon of one standard of honesty when it pertained to money matters and another when it pertained to other aspects of life. In the same article is the famous quote from Indira Gandhi, "Poverty is the greatest polluter".

A Case of Guilty Till Proved Innocent (Ethics and Governance) Feb 15, 2004- An article about Rajiv Gandhi in which Chidambaram laments the mudslinging, calumny and trial by the Press that Rajiv was subjected to, in spite of there being no evidence that an Indian minister or official had received money in the Bofors deal. Rajiv's wit, the warmth and the transparent honesty are recalled in the article. It is ironic, that Chidambaram himself has been in recent times subjected to a relentless trial by the media.

India Lives In Her Villages, And How (Policies and Governance) Oct 06, 2002- The article takes on the votaries of swadeshi and "socialism" who support policies like labour-intensive development and protection against imports. The article calls attention to the fact that an average Indian village is a place with little capital, low technology and limited market access, with limited opportunities for growth.

Neither Civil, Nor Serving (Policies and Governance) August 10, 2003- The article does not object to the larger size of the civil services, but suggests to revise the structure, abolish some categories of jobs, redefine each job, retrain existing personnel and ensure each government servant contributes value.

The Four Imperatives For Faster Growth (Policies and Governance) Oct 19, 2003- The imperatives listed are Education, Electricity, Infrastructure, Investment, Information Technology and International Trade.

Is Anyone Listening to Mr Stiglitz (Policies and Governance) Jan 18, 2004 - Attention is drawn to the Nobel laureate Joseph Stigliz's quote on globalization. Stiglitz said globalization was good as it had the potential to enrich everyone in the world including the poor. He also warned that the management of globalization needed to be rethought and the policies imposed on the developing countries needed to be radically rethought. Chidambaram applies that quote from Stiglitz to the economic reforms undertaken in India and warns that unless economic reforms enrich everyone in India, particularly the poor, more and more people will lose faith in it. Lots of statistics are also  provided in the article. The investments in agriculture in the period Chidambaram was in the government are compared to the investment during the years he was out of it.

People and the Rule of Law (Policies and Governance) Feb 22, 2004- In this hard hitting article (excerpted from a speech delivered in Nehru Centre, Mumbai) on the state of democracy in India, the author calls to question the political parties and civil servants forefeiting the trust of the people, the urban voters showing apathy about the electoral process, history-sheeters, accused, undertrials and accused persons becoming legislators. The article ends with the rather resigned observation "we have miles to go before we can call ourselves a civil society under the rule of law".

Try To Sit, He'll Tax Your Seat (Taxation) Nov 17, 2002 - The author comments on the report by the Task Force on Direct Taxes headed by Vijay Kelkar. Some of Kelkar's recommendations are criticized as they are seen as resulting in further complication of the tax structure and narrowing of the tax base.

Wake Upto The State of States (Politics and Governance) May 18, 2003 - Argues why it is not a bad idea to heed to the demand of a bifurcation or trifurcation of a state based on size, population and geographical characteristics. Interestingly, in Dec 2009 the statement made by Chidambaram as Home Minister on the issue of Telangana led to a controversy over the division of Andhra Pradesh. The issue still remains unresolved.

An Uneven Tale of Two People's Republics (Politics and Governance) June 29, 2003- Whenever one is talking about economic development in India, a comparison to China is inevitable. This comparison appears in several other articles in this book too. In this article, it is argued that India missed the bus to a faster development as we did not open up our economy at the time China did at the end of 1970s. The article takes objection to the excuse that is often cited for India's poor performance, that India is a democracy. Chidambaram argues that the problem is not with the institutions of democracy, namely the elections, the elected parliament or legislature, a free press and so on. He questions the quality and effectiveness of these institutions and says that the poor quality of the institutions is the real reason for poor performance. The article concludes with a hope- "A true democracy, with all its institutions in robust health, may actually accelerate growth and take India past China."

In the introduction to the section named Politics, Chidambaram states that the section is purely political and that he was implacably opposed to the basic tenets of the BJP as he felt that any liberal democrat would be opposed to the BJP.

Why Modi Is Too Mythical To Be Real (Politics) Dec 08, 2002- The belligerently argued article expresses the view that Modi was enacting a dangerous role in liberal democracy. A liberal democracy must celebrate diversity, encourage pluralism and respect differences. The article reminds the readers that it is not an accident that the developed countries of the world have embraced liberal democracy as the political basis of their nation states.

Chidambaram exhorts the reader in his introduction to the book, to go on and read the articles and feel free to agree or disagree, and says that it is the reader's right. What is indisputable at the end of reading this book is, whether one agrees or disagrees with the arguments the author is making, one is bound to end up with a better understanding of the problems underlying the Indian economy and politics.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book: I Too Had a Dream by Verghese Kurien

This is the story of one of India's most illustrious sons. Verghese Kurien, who passed away last month, is widely known as the Father of White Revolution. As most people in our country, I too had always heard of this man being referred to as the Milkman of India and so on, but never really had a clear idea about what exactly he did that prompted such exalted status. That was till I read this book.

The book, the autobiography of Mr Kurien as told to Gouri Salvi, wonderfully captures the life and achievements of a man who dedicated himself to the service of the farmers of our country. Born in a prominent family in Kerala, Kurien completed his early education in Kerala and Madras before embarking on higher studies in the US. What starts as an obligatory stint in the government service for Kurien in return of the sponsorship of his foreign education, ends up as a lifelong involvement for him with the dairy farmers of Gujarat.

Talking about the circumstances that led to his involvement with the dairy farmers of Kaira district in Gujarat, Kurien recalls the influence of Tribhuvandas Patel. Recalling how he was convinced to stay back and contribute with his professional skills to operate and manage the dairy for the farmers,  Kurien says- " I saw that when you work merely for your own profit, the pleasure is transitory; but if you work for others, there is a deeper sense of fulfilment and if things are handled well, the money, too, is more than adequate."

In the book Kurien often talks of combining the power of the farmers with professional management. He talks about building 'true foundation for better sharing, fuller cooperation'. After successfully building brand Amul for the farmers of Kaira at Anand, Kurien is approached by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The PM wnats him to replicate the model through the other parts of the country. That is the project we often hear being referred to as the Operation Flood.

Kurien says he opted to remain an employee of farmers all his life because he felt that he had the best job that he could ever get. The idea of working for a large number of farmers eventually for him translates itself into the concept of working for social good. In his career Kurien demonstrates a keen business sense too, that results in a better bargain for his masters - the farmers. 

In the late 1960s, when there is a glut of milk products in the developed world, Kurien and others at the NDDB come up with a program to utilise the surplus commodities from Europe to generate funds required to finance the Rs 650 crore for Operation Flood. He says- " In every crisis, if you look carefully, you will spot an opportunity. My insistence on finding and seizing that opportunity has often been a source of annoyance for many of my colleagues becausse it means that unlike most people, I never try to sidestep a crisis. Rather, the more monstrous the crisis, the more I am tempted to rush at it, grasp it by the horns and manoeuvre it until it gives me what I want!"

His confrontations with the bureaucrats are numerous. Just as there are those bureaucrats who obstruct and delay, there are also those who see the merit in his proposals and go out of their way to help him. When he sends the  proposal to the government in Delhi explaining how Anand could be replicated in the rest of the country, the proposal initially gathers dust in the office of an officer at the Planning Commission. Only after Kurien speaks to the then Home Secretary about it, the proposal moves forward. The project eventually resulted in the creation of a huge cooperative structure to involve more than a crore of dairy farmers. The farmers getting to be members of cooperatives, cooperative unions and federations, and owning dairy plants!

This book came out in 2005 and interestingly in 2006 Mr Kurien was forced to resign from the chairmanship of NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) that he had founded and remained the chairman of for three decades! In the chapter named "Post Script" in this book, Kurien talks about the shift in NDDB's policies. He doesnt apporve of NDDB's decision to register a company called Mother Dairy Fruits and Vegetable Private Ltd. He objects to the decision to corporatize the NDDB and to float a company to compete with the dairy cooperatives. He writes - "I have fought against the efforts to undermine the interests of our farmers by vested interests - be they those of unscrupulous politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen or institutions - for all my life, and I will continue to do so unless someone shows me a better way of serving our nation's producers to become productive members of our society."

Kurien's dream clearly, as underscored throughout the book, was to see that the farmers of India had a level playing field to compete with other forms of businesses. He laid his trust on the power of cooperatives to enable the farmers to achieve that. He regretted the fact that not all cooperatives were run as genuine cooperatives, like Amul, and also that they were not given a level playing field.

Rest in peace, Mr Kurien!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzerald

The debut novel of the celebrated American writer F. Scott Fitzerald. After reading and re-reading The Great Gatsby and savouring the stylish prose of Scott, it was not difficult to decide to give this book a try.

Well, This Side of Paradise is true to its title. Leaves you just short of the paradise of a satisfying read! The witticisms are there. Flashes of engaging prose too. Yet, overall, the story isn't too free flowing. It feels like an assortment of different episodes and not quite seamless. Or, perhaps, it was for me a case of very high expectations from an author leading to a somewhat disappointing read. The Great Gatsby was an amazing book. Stylish, sophisticated just like the protagonist in the novel, Jay Gatsby.

The fact that Scott was only twenty-three when he wrote This Side of Paradise is something that says a lot about the talent of this great writer. It is also interesting that the book is autobiographical to a large extent.

Amory Blaine, the protagonist of this novel is someone who even at a very young age is convinced that a great destiny awaits him. He goes thro' boarding school and attends Princeton University. Princeton campus life forms a substantial part of the novel. The rest of the book deals with Amory's egotistical escapades, failed affairs and off beat and interesting views on life in general.

This paragraph towards the very end of this 268-page book, kind of captures the story of Amory Blaine rather well -

"There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth - yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams..."

There are several interesting quotes from the novel that have been compiled at the following location-
http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2520849-this-side-of-paradise

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

“We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our life. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it’s gone forever.” ― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

A few months back I read my first Murakami novel What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/26/sportandleisure). It was a thoroughy enjoyable read. When I came across this other work Sputnik Sweetheart recently I had no hesitation in giving it a try.

Murakami did not disappoint. There is a certain charm that is unique to his style. The books read like a long monologue at once simple and profound. He is a master in the use of everyday metaphors to elucidate his points of view. The language is so clear and unpretentious that one easily falls in step with the pace of this writer who incidentally is a serious long-distance runner.

Sputnik Sweetheart is the poignant story of a woman in her twenties, Sumire, who falls in love with another woman seventeen years her senior. There is also K, the narrator, who is Sumire's best friend and he is a primary school teacher. In the hands of an accomplished writer the story becomes a mere vehicle to explore the human psyche. Murakami has a deft touch and succeeds in creating a mood that is sad and touching.

There are several interesting quotes from the novel that have been compiled at the following location-
http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1813695-sp-toniku-no-koibito

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chariots of Desire!

Last weekend I parted with Sail, my car of nine-years and brought home Duster, my
next ride. There is excitement of the brand new car certainly, but also a sense of
loss and parting from the companion that carried me for so many kilometers ( one
hundred thousand, to be exact!).

"Achtung Baby!" was the catch phrase that GM employed to draw attention (achtung in
German means "attention") when they launched Opel Corsa model in India. Well, I dont
think it drew much achtung, going by the number of the models that were sold.
Nevertheless, my Opel Corsa Sail served me just great and my respect for German
engineering has grown with every passing year. The solidity, the fit and finish, the
finesse, the power under the hood on call, I can go on and on. The only obvious
negative in my Sail was the lack of adequate ground clearance that resulted in
unpleasant scrapes and thuds at the innumberable potholes and road humps that dot our
roads. I could live with that as the overall ride quality sufficiently compensated me
for that one drawback.

Some of the best moments in my journey on the Sail have been on the highway (from
Bangalore to Hassan) and the road beyond to Chickamagalur where it was literally a
happy happy sail each and every time. It was always a struggle to resist rather than
gain the acceleration that would border on the risky on our roads. What a car! The
"strong and the silent" type! You would hardly hear a purr but it would hog the road
like a hungry lion.

The other quality I recall with fondness, was the rock solid body frame. In the nine
years, at least on three occassions I was in situations where I expected the impacts
on the Sail body to cost me dear in terms of repair. Once a school bus rammed
the Sail on the right fender, the second time a bike guy hit the rare right door and
the thid time an Innova stopped abruptly resulting in my Sail backending him. In all
three instances it was nothing more than very minor dents on the Sail. The car must
have come with heavy-guage steel for body frame.

I was very happy with the quality of service that I got from the GM dealers too.It
was a car I could trust to carry me for long distances without landing me in trouble.
On one occassion I drove about 800 kms on a single day as I had to attend a cousin's
wedding back home in Chickamagalur district and be back in Bangalore to attend office
the next day. It was a breeze. Driving my Sail never tired me.

Well, absence does make the heart grow fonder, but... I always did celebrate the
"presence" of my Sail too. Sadly, partings are inevitabe in life. The departure of my
beloved Sail has taken some wind out of my sails but I guess it is time to dust
myself off and reclaim the road with the Duster!