23 May 2012

Velocity by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander

New mantras for a new age
At first this book made me nervous because it put emphasis on Speed and Acceleration as abilities ‘the new atmosphere’ (the one thrown up by ‘a world gone digital’) requires us to master.
I prefer an unhurried pace of existence and even the thought of being forced to move fast by forces beyond my control makes me giddy. But as I read, there was so much wisdom in its concepts – and so much that struck me as good and true – that I soon became a raving fan. After all, the other two abilities it endorses are Direction and Discipline – my favourites, actually.

I became who I am from reading stuff like I’m OK You’re OK and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Can I call them self-help books? Or would that evoke a great gnashing of teeth by the stakeholders of this one? On the other hand maybe it’s ok: I’ve heard self-help books outperform every other genre many times over in India. What a sweet, earnest and well-intentioned people we are!)

gives us seven laws that
recommend new ways of thinking and behaving. What I liked was that these ‘new ways’ are very often very old ways – stuff we really should have been doing all along in the interests of long-term thinking and sustainability, but somehow forgot.
Along with specifics of new situations that the modern world presents, there is a focus here on ethical, goal-oriented, action-oriented thought and behaviour. In a world of confusing choices, I felt reassured that these were being held up as precepts for success.

For instance:
Wondering which half of your ad spend is wasted? Velocity says, “Wrong question. Try again.” Instead of just interrupting people, serve them and make them feel something. Sorry, but that takes longer than thirty seconds.
Velocity will disproportionately reward organizations and individuals that aim to make a meaningful and enduring contribution. ...
Do the right thing: always play from your heart.
Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.
The line that struck me most was held out as a guide to Design, borrowed from the value system of the Byzantine monks of yore:
Balance, gentleness, absence of haste and clarity of spirit.
And that's when I realised that it was the idea of haste that had worried me to start with, and not the idea of speed.

Another thing I liked about this book is the uncluttered way it’s laid out, which makes reading and absorbing concepts easier than in closely-fitted text. And one of the clever things it does to avoid the monotony of long theoretical passages is to break them up into shorter ones by having each of the co-authors speak alternately.

Buy this book and read it. More important, practice what it teaches – it will work towards bringing you lasting happiness and peace – and making the world a better place too.

22 May 2012

Impeachment by Anjali Deshpande

Easy to read; hard to come to terms with
Sometimes books transport their readers to a time they once knew, and the feeling of a familiar territory overwhelms, becoming even stronger than the plot or style. I felt that way when I read Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury and A Pack of Lies by Urmilla Deshpande, and this book did the same to me too. These books were about places and people I had lived among! I didn’t really want to go back there or anything – but they filled me with nostalgia for a time long gone – like looking through an old family album.
Impeachment is set four years after the event best described as “the Bhopal gas tragedy”. There is a lot of information here about this infamous tragedy; all the complications and ramifications and the terrible deadlock that ensued. It forms an elegant showcase of the sort of mess a third world but wannabe country could get itself into: a country in which industry is somehow viewed as a blessing and industrialists are vested with divine rights. (Employing people is not a necessity of industry but a favour done to them by kindhearted investors.) And here is a government that is part owner of the factory that went amuck – and who disparages its own experts by bowing to the versions of Western scientists (and looking away red-faced when those white scientists confirmed what some Indian doctors had said the day after the leak.)
And in the end, who should be impeached? The politicians and officials whom Carbide financed, who went shopping with their wives in New York at company expense? The inspectors who gave a clean chit to faulty gauges and malfunctioning meters they found, in exchange for hefty fees? The doctors who floated theories that people did not die of the gas, they died because they were already ill and dying, and who was going to miss them anyway?
So this is an important book because it forms a ready-reckoner of a very important but never resolved historical event. But though it is about a serious issue and explores it in painstaking detail, it is also good-quality entertainment. The characters are lifelike and very true to their time: sincere and well-qualified professionals and socially-concerned citizens – but with the level of awareness prevalent then. They participate in events and get embroiled in emotional situations that – and even though these, too are socially relevant and in particular feminist issues which create awareness – keep your interest up all the way. Consider this:
Dear old daddy! She felt like hugging him. He would not even mention the word abortion. He only wanted to be rid of the proof of her actions. Was it her mother’s belated idea of saving the family from disgrace? If there is no proof does that mean the act had not been performed? What hurt him more? The fact that she had slept with a man she was not married to? Or any man who did not want to marry her? Or the idea that there may be more than one man in her life? Or that she was going to have a baby without being married? … Is that what he would have wanted had one of his students been pregnant by him? … How do even highly educated people like him explain their double standards to themselves?
She found it strange that all the commonality of thought and perception was not considered special; only physical intimacy was thought to make a relationship special.
One of the characters in this book is a journalist who tries to give comprehensive and balanced information in her reports about this tragic and horrible event but her editor says, “Save your historical analyses for your memoirs”.
I was tempted to email Anjali Deshpande to ask if that was actually her, and how much of this book arises from her personal experience and knowledge of what happened on that horrible night in Bhopal and the events that followed. But the author blurb in the books says that Anjali Deshpande “manages her world without much discipline, any sense of design or patience, and cultivates the virtues of laziness. She lives in Delhi with her husband and without cats or children.” Though this made me smile, it also intimidated me from getting in touch and I decided to quietly draw my own conclusions.

18 May 2012

Incognito by Lata Gwalani

Glamour, vengeance ... resolution
Here’s a murder mystery that draws you in and keeps you engrossed without providing so much as a dead body.

It arrived yesterday, and though I have a number of books waiting for their turn, was so impressed with its cover, perfect binding, and elegantly-laid-out font that once I started turning its crisp pages, I just kept going till I’d come to the end.
There are four separate stories here and as I raced through them, waiting eagerly to find out how they would link together and provide solutions to the burning question each one raised, I must say I enjoyed the easy visualization of its fast-moving pace. I admired these four Indian women, happy to be acquainted with their independent thoughts and lifestyle and the way they inhabited a new world which did not hem them in as Indian women have been in centuries past. I was a bit surprised at how their giddy-headed emotional attractions were so easily categorized as ‘love’ – but I will admit to ‘loving’ the different locales Lata Gwalani has depicted in authentic detail in her book.
As the story comes to a close, it suddenly takes on a different character and I found the transition rather abrupt. Moving from a racy, event-strewn narrative to a complex, theoretical arena cannot be as simple as changing gears – at least not to me. I was expecting to race through to the end but the last thirty pages held me back and if I didn’t particularly enjoy the ending, I should acknowledge that it was my fault for not giving it the time and attention it probably deserved.

14 May 2012

The Story Catcher by Varsha Seshan

Enchantment - underlaid with common sense
This book has seventeen stories for children and covers a wide range of topics and locales. I was impressed with the scope of imagination here, and found the stories absolutely delightful.
Starting with three tales of enchantment which I felt even very young children would enjoy, The Story Catcher goes on to casually introduce respect for tradition, awareness of the scope of the subconscious mind, the relative nature of problems, the different perspectives of parents and children, and other important concepts of life. These are interspersed with liberal doses of wish fulfilment – and also occasional humour which made me giggle.
One of the themes of this book is the overwhelming childhood preoccupation with winning and losing – and I admired the way three of its interesting and well-written stories developed the importance of level-headed thinking and the right values in these areas.
I also admired this author’s skill in writing for Indian children – creating the kind of global environment they are more used to in the books they read, while occasionally introducing subtle reminders that they are very much at home.

08 May 2012

Between clay and dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Elegant depiction of fading grandeur
Human civilization throws up institutions of culture which grow gradually, gather momentum, and peak as they deliver aesthetic and sensory pleasure. Then historical events intervene, and decline and decay develop. This book is set in an alcove of an Indian city in which such institutions once flourished. Though this private world remained unscathed by the ravaging winds of Partition, the changes that it brought led to its end.
Gohar Jan is a courtesan, celebrated for her beauty and skill, pursued by the wealthy and aristocratic. Ustad Ramzi is a pahalwan, head of his clan and defender of the highest wrestling title in the land. In this book we get a peep into the kind of lives they led, the problems they dealt with as their world faded away, and the lifestyle and emotions that tradition compelled upon them. The crux of the story is in the unlikely relationship they developed.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a wonderful storyteller. His unfussy, pastel prose engrosses you as it tackles even dramatic or painful topics with calm. Here is a sample.

Ustad Ramzi saw Tamami grapple with him for a few minutes. The thought occurred to him that Tamami had missed a few opportunities for takedown, before he realized that Tamami was deliberately prolonging their engagement. The trainees who had not understood it became restless wondering why Tamami was unable to bring down Sher Ali. Another few minutes passed before Tamami finally took down Sher Ali.
“What were you trying to show others? That Sher Ali is your match?” Ustad Ramzi said to Tamami after Gulab Deen had left.
“No Ustad… I was just trying to see what he knew.” Tamami smiled sheepishly.
“Don’t waste time playing with your opponent,” Ustad Ramzi said.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi has used this unhurried and deceptively simple style to good effect while exploring the complex emotions here. Tamami is Ustad Ramzi's brother, much younger, and a classic example of a sulky and inept but adoring inheritor. I enjoyed traversing the layers of the insights into how such a relationship might be exploited. I had been looking forward eagerly to Between Clay and Dust ever since I read the author’s first novel The Story of a Widow, and was happy (and relieved) to find it just as gentle and evocative; a reader’s delight.