17 October 2012

Some Hits Some Misses by Prasanta Choudhury

The mind should dominate the ego

I know the author of this book as a person of few but well-chosen words; the same can be said of this book. Prasanta Choudhury retired from corporate life in 2002 as President of Formica India.
Some Hits Some Misses contains anecdotes from his working life and they cover offbeat incidents, personal insights into human relations from a management perspective, a close-up view of the Indian manufacturing industry in its most difficult phase, and others. It was interesting to note Prasanta’s experience of how common sense fares in a hierarchical establishment.
I found the book very well written – charming, in fact – and carrying important messages not just for managers but all who enjoy life and want to live better. What I liked best was the last section, in which Prasanta goes back to work after his retirement and experiences work life outside the glamour of the corporate world – but also learns a set of ‘today’ skills out of the reach of many of his contemporaries. 
One of the things I did not like was the periodic textbook-like discourses on management. I somehow don’t think it is in Prasanta’s nature to preach; for some reason I believe that he thinks (like I do) that the best lessons come upon one when in a relaxed and receptive frame of mind, such as while listening to a story. Prasanta’s stories have their lessons subtly woven into them and I found the commentary superfluous.
When I asked him about this he said that he had been told that early drafts of the book were too autobiographical and that he had rewritten it with the text-bookish material. He also told me that he had removed full chapters which were autobiographical.
I felt really sorry to hear that, as India gears itself to become one of the world’s most productive manufacturing nations, market demands still foster the creation of masses of rote-learning clones. The true managers, of course, will be the ones who will seek out the autobiographical stories. They are the ones who understand their value, because they have the maturity to absorb the wisdom and insights that can be gathered from someone like Prasanta Choudhury.
Even more than its management lessons, this book’s value to me is as a first-person record of the early days of manufacturing in India. To have mentioned the year in which each incident took place would have increased that value and I felt sorry it wasn’t done.

13 October 2012

Circle of Three by Rohit Gore

Happy Birthday Ria, Aryan, Ranasahab
In this book, three interesting characters, each in a difficult situation and very unhappy, find solace in each others’ company. All are privileged and very ‘today’, and all are writers.  Not only that but their horoscope for the week will always be identical, because they share a birthday. However, they cross generational and gender boundaries, and there's also substantial personality diversity. Some of the subsidiary characters were also quite appealing.
I didn’t care for the title but I did find Circle of Three easy to read, with a gripping plot, lifelike characters and relationships, and even a gratifying moral base. Rohit Gore is a good storyteller. This book is well constructed and I found the ending satisfying without being clichéd.
Books like this make me happy. Like most readers, a no-stress and engaging story is my primary reason to read. Second, I particularly appreciate a story which has recognizable characters and situations from our own environment – until quite recently Indians who read in English did not have that.  Can I dare to hope that fans of Chetan Bhagat will branch out and discover Rohit Gore, whose language is as simple but less affected, whose values and perceptions are straighter and more dignified?

30 August 2012

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

This book is set in a remote army outpost in Afghanistan. Six main characters tell the story. Each one has a different perspective and a different experience of the war, and these arise from very different lives, education, personalities, and thoughts. So the scenery before us is not just desert storms and murderous ambush but also clear skies, cosy families, and the life of the mind – on another continent far away.
A woman stands outside the garrison, pleading that the body of her brother be given to her so that she can give it a decent burial.
Is this a ploy?
Is she really a woman?
Could she really be a cripple, and have dragged herself for miles to come here for her brother’s body?
But the body is to be flown to Kandahar.
Was he really a Talib – or a Mujahid freedom fighter as she says?
Should the body be given to her?
Young men - very young indeed - are making decisions of great consequence. Should they be guided by their feelings, or by the rules? Is there really any such thing as ‘right’ – or ‘wrong’?
Like any Greek tragedy, this book is strewn with love, longing, loss, beautiful music – and an inevitable conclusion.
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is not just a novelist who knows how to grip the reader – he’s also an anthropologist. He depicts living cultures, and lays them side by side for the reader to compare and admire. He makes us wish, even while showing us that it’s impossible, for a happy ending.

23 August 2012

The Inexplicable Unhappiness of Ramu Hajjam by Taj Hassan

Happy unhappy ending
Some weeks ago, Vrunda Juwale called from Sakal Times and asked me to write about the book I was reading at the time. You can read the article by clicking this: The Happiness of Discovering a Literary Gem.
It took me a while to finish the book since I was reading it aloud to my friend Gladys, a two-hour weekly routine on Tuesday mornings. Both of us enjoyed it and the very realistic insider’s view it gave of a world remote from us. Of all its characters the one I found most intriguing was Murli Compounder – once a village boy like Ramu Hajjam’s son Pawan. By a combination of luck, hard work and personal initiative, he rises to a position of security and prominence few villagers have the opportunity to create for themselves. From the acknowledgements at the end of the book we learnt that Ramu Hajjam is a real person Taj Hassan once met, and that the symbolic dreams he has, well told and evocative, are derived from the Jatakas.
When writing the Sakal Times piece I had been nervous about praising it so much because I hadn’t finished reading it yet but luckily it ended well too – a sad, inevitable end but with the same even pace and simple but powerful language it uses right through.
I enjoyed The Inexplicable Unhappiness of Ramu Hajjam so much that I bought copies to give away, including one for my thirteen-year-old nephew who reads and knows quite a lot but lives in the UK and is unlikely to visit an Indian village.
Before I started writing this blog post, I did a google search on Taj Hassan and was disappointed to find the top three links were to three different Taj Hassans on facebook. There was not a single mainstream review of this book. Why is this wonderful writer unknown? Is this very special book going to sink without a trace? I hope not. I did learn from the publisher’s website that Taj Hassan is in the IPS and is presently Joint Commissioner Security, and that he has served in the north-east and has won the president's medal for gallantry.

22 August 2012

Jinnah vs. Gandhi by Roderick Matthews

Twin fathers
This book brings together two of the most deified people in the world, Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Various aspects of the two have been compared, from the most obvious such as their appearance, personal habits, popularity, and leadership techniques, to the consequences of their thoughts and actions and how they shaped the countries which revere them as ‘father’.
We learn (unexpectedly) that the two did indeed have something in common. Ah – of course. Each created his own political world: "Jinnah shaped and mobilized the Muslim community into a new political entity, and Gandhi virtually invented mass politics in India." It's also true that both men died, unhappy, very soon after their countries were born.
But their differences, as we know, were many more. These are neatly drawn out here, with the events and climate of the Indian freedom movement as their backdrop.

A book like this can be controversial, and could even make people (who love these ‘fathers’) passionately angry and do crazy things. It has happened before. So how will we react to hear about Jinnah’s secretive nature, or Gandhi’s peculiar habits? Or to be reminded that Gopal Krishna Gokhale had once praised Jinnah highly, and famously dubbed him, “the best ambassador for Hindu-Muslim unity”? That his first visit to the Punjab in 1936 had been a horrible PR disaster?
But Roderick Matthews has a quite pleasant way of presenting the facts, unbiased and non-judgemental; and with an unmistakable affection and regard for Gandhi, and respect for Jinnah’s intellect.
While he says Gandhi really was a visionary he also says, “The case for Jinnah as a visionary is not strong. If he was a visionary then he was unique in never setting forth or writing down that vision.” On the other hand, Jinnah’s staunch common sense apparently prevented him from being impressed with Gandhi’s methods: he saw no benefit in Indians denying themselves education, and he saw only suffering in the spectacle of poor people burning cheap foreign garments when they were barely able to clothe themselves.
One of the best things about this book is that it demystifies these two men and presents them in an uncomplicated way, stripping away the hype. Here is an example: In 1915, soon after Gandhi returned to Bombay from South Africa, the Gujarati Society held a reception for him. Jinnah, the local dignitary presiding, made welcome address in English. Gandhi replied in Gujarati and, among other things, expressed pleasure that a Mohammedan was chairing the proceedings. This incident has been reported many times and even used as an indication of irreconcilable differences between the two men right from their very first encounter. But Roderick Matthews has taken the trouble to understand the culture of the times, and do a little research, and here is his sensible assessment:
The whole incident was not a clash of titans, but a commonplace outing in polite society. Reading manipulative psychology, power politics, and the destiny of nations in to the affair is uncalled for. Stanley Wolpert is tempted to foresee the rest of the Partition story in the encounter, detecting an early crackling of tension between the two men, a recognition that they were ‘natural enemies’. He also describes Gandhi’s reference to Jinnahs’ ‘minority identity’ in public as ‘a barb’ meaning that it was designed to wound. This is unwarranted. How calling attention to Jinnah’s religion would have helped Gandhi is not clear, nor is it obvious why Gandhi would think it worth any effort to point out to an audience of Bombayites that a man named Mohammed Ali, who was a prominent member of the Muslim League, was a Muslim.
The real story was surely much simpler. There was a friendly reception given for Gandhi and his wife that passed off well. Gandhi was pleased to speak to an audience of Gujaratis in his native land in his native tongue. Everyone was polite to each other and Gandhi took an early step in the promotion of one of his long-term concerns – the use of vernaculars. He was duly welcomed, and the local Bombayites met the celebrity. Nothing was achieved, nothing was decided; everyone went home happy.

20 August 2012

Celebrate Eid (by various authors)

Eid Mubarak
This book has stories, information about the festival of Eid, and ‘fun activities’ – things to make and do – for children.
The seven short stories present a range of events, situations, and feelings related to Eid. In one, a boarding school boy finds himself running an important race during Ramzan without any sehri. Another child confronts his fear of Mathematics with the help of a little fish, and his festival day turns out to be special in different ways. One story deals with a religious riot, and another with the separation of families and loss of loved ones at Partition. In the story I enjoyed most, Letters to Abba by Anu Kumar, a young girl writes to her father in a remote border outpost. These simple and affectionate letters weave in complex emotions and insights of imminent adulthood.
The factual information, written by Sulaiman Ahmad, is broken down into six sections which give the significance of the festival, what makes the moon important, and the rituals and practices of Eid. There is also information about the minor differences in the way Eid is celebrated in India, in contrast to other countries.
This book is well written and easy to read – though there are parts that are more formal than others, and this could have been evened out. Between the stories and essays, the feeling of Ramzan is skilfully depicted: its focus on virtue and abstinence, the importance of sharing with those less fortunate than one, and the rising anticipation which culminates in the joyous celebration of Eid.

12 August 2012

Bhimayana by Srividya Natarajan & S. Anand

Jai Bhim
This graphic biography offers incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The story is by Srividya Natarajan and S.Anand, and the art by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. I pounced on it, attracted as much by the beautiful cover as its theme.
The incidents described in this book are ones specific to Ambedkar’s experiences of rejection and humiliation because he was 'Untouchable', and his subsequent work in developing awareness among others of the community. The historic march on Chavadar tank in 1927 in Mahad, for instance, was a peaceful move in which Ambedkar led three thousand Dalits from nearby villages to drink water from the village tank, a full four years after the Bombay Legislative Council decreed that Untouchables should be allowed to use all public water bodies, wells, roads, and schools built and run with public funds. Why is this event not taught as part of history in schools; why is it not a part of public memory? I only knew of it from Narendra Jadhav’s poignant memoir about his parents, Outcaste. But I had no idea that Ambedkar had faced terrible discrimination not just from upper-caste Hindus but from other communities too – even Parsis! It didn’t matter that he had studied and practiced law in England, and had returned to India after earning a doctorate after four years in Columbia University. He was from an Untouchable family, so was prevented from drinking water (else it would be polluted for other castes), and could not find a place to live in because no one wanted him anywhere near.
This book also uses newspaper clippings from recent times to show that though urban middle-class Indians might imagine caste discrimination to be a thing of ancient history – it is still very much a part of life in India.
With such an emotional subject, it’s not easy to present facts in an objective way and I admire the way this book does so. However, though I loved the quality of its art I found it a bit too lavish. This made it difficult for me to just look at a page and admire its beauty; instead I found myself making an effort to look closely at the details.

26 July 2012

The edge of desire by Tuhin Sinha

The sheen of an underbelly
Not since The White Tiger has a book gripped me in this particular way, engaging me with both its plot and language, and overcoming me with a sinking feeling at the false image so many of us live with of life in India.
What do we know of kala azar, a chronic and potentially fatal parasitic disease transmitted by sand-fly that afflicts thousands in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar? That in India only one of fifty rape cases is reported; that only one of five reported are convicted? That being an illegal migrant is a privilege because it offers certain dubious opportunities to officers of the state administration? That the so-called tribals who support the 'Naxal' movement, who are not even aware of modern techniques of agriculture, can somehow handle modern ammunition?
These are some of the issues that this fast-paced and well-written book offers, along with a range of information about India, from the early politics of Kashmir to the qualities of the god Krishna, to our vapid and rather pointless method of celebrating Independence Day.
What I liked best about this book is that it is written by a man, and the voice of his heroine – her thoughts, feelings and actions – are so very authentic. Shruti starts off as a journalist and in this book, as she evolves first into a politician and then into a convict, we get to see her suffer deceit in a committed relationship, then rape by a group of strangers, then frustration in what started off as a promising marriage. When finally a complicated situation seems likely to bring her happiness at last – that disintegrates too.
What I did not like was that the quality deteriorated towards the end, starting with an unlikely and clumsily-described event between Shruti and a younger woman, after which it became rather weak and sketchy.

06 July 2012

The storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattarcharya

Under a starlit sky
This is not the usual beginning-middle-end type of story. It is told by a traditional storyteller of Marrakesh, sitting in the town square, the Jemaa. With a changing audience every night, the storyteller takes up his narrative from a different point. Members of the audience often add to it, joining in with their own observations and anecdotes.
While I enjoyed almost everything about this book, I didn’t care much for the storyteller’s story as a piece of entertainment. I found it useful from an anthropological point of view and a great device to work in all kinds of things about the history, geography, family relationships and various other aspects of the culture of the region – but the two strangers themselves are pasteboard and rather annoying in some ways. They are tourists, a loving couple, the woman French and beautiful, and the man may or may not be an Indian - at one point I wondered whether he was actually a cameo appearance by the author himself. However, we learn very little about them and more about almost everything else the storyteller tells of – including his own family, and the story-telling tradition he has inherited from his father.
This book shows us different aspects of this multi-layered society and what I found most fascinating was the women we get a glimpse of. As children, the storyteller and his brothers are vaccinated by a woman doctor - the leader of a medical team visiting their remote village. On the square we see not just a beggar woman and a witch woman but housewives too. And yet, we are also witness to the public molestation of the beautiful stranger on the square

You can’t blame the men for what happened next. A woman like that isn’t worthy of respect. She was dancing like an animal in the dusty earth. She’d advanced into the middle of the circle by this time. Now she stopped a few times before some of the men as if challenging them. She was stoking their fire, taunting them to let themselves go.
What we learn from the storyteller is how difficult it is to arrive at a version of the truth because each person’s perception varies so much and depends not just on their different views – but also on the way in which they present these views.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the descriptions of the Jemaa which bring it alive with all its different characters, colourful wares, and powerful traditional music.

02 June 2012

The Accused by John Grisham

The admirer
For a blog that claims to be about south Asian books, it seems to me John Grisham is sadly over-represented. Still, it must be said that Theodore Boone is back, even more likable than before if such a thing is possible, and in this book it is he who is the hunted. Who is after cute little Theo? This time it’s his slightly-dodgy though always loyal and loving uncle Ike who spots the gap and gives direction to the chase.

This children’s book (‘Not since Nancy Drew has a nosy, crime-obsessed kid been so hard to resist’ – New York Times) is great fun and what’s particularly good about it is that it uses the law as backdrop to subtly showcase the often blurry distinction between right and wrong.What I didn't care for is that delusional ways of thinking are presented as normal - but with no caveat that normative and normal are not always the same.