22 July 2014

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

Walls and stories

This review is nearly a year old, and appeared in The Hindu at a time when this blog was being neglected. I enjoyed the book and its lifelike characters. One of the things I could relate to most was that the city in which it is set is sometimes Pune and sometimes Bombay. Neither is named, and the transitions are seamless. The original review appeared here, and the unedited version is below.
This book has two sections. Its narrators, Tanay and Anuja, are brother and sister, and here they present their thoughts and experiences about the events that occurred in their family over a certain period. One day a paying guest arrives. He is different to anyone they have known before and through him they observe new ways of behaving and interacting. Each one establishes, unknown to others in the family, a separate and very intense relationship with him. In the sense of navigating the inner world of an adolescent in the first person, Cobalt Blue may be considered a high-quality ‘coming-of-age’ novel. It also explores the discovery, resulting confusion, and risk-taking activities of homosexual orientation in a hostile environment.
Set in modern times, this book shows us a traditional family and the impact on it of a changing world. People are reading management books, studying information technology, wanting to settle in the United States. Their city is the cultural capital of the state, it has great colleges. To use the word ‘poli’ instead of ‘chapatti’ tells people something about who your ancestors were. The municipal ward’s commissioner is a bigamist; heterosexual live-in relationships are permitted, and if people aren’t precisely proud of these things, at least they know about them.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is the way the family is presented. Despite being a single, tightly-knit and fairly loving unit, each of its members has a life as separate and removed from the others as if there are walls around them. The eldest sibling, Aseem, is a peripheral character. Despite easy compliance with family norms, he is detached and has his own life plans. The two who tell the story are different from each other in interesting ways. Tanay has learned what men do not do: they don’t use face powder, they don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes, on trips they can go behind a tree. The paying guest has made him aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of his secure and comfortable life. He is the kind of guy who tells us, “I dropped the towel. I took a long, clear-eyed look at myself. That I was different was nowhere apparent.”Anuja, on the other hand, reminisces, “When I was young, I did not have a doll’s house or any long-legged foreign dolls. I knew vaguely that my friends had dolls and that they dressed them up and played house for hours on end without getting bored.” She rides a motorcycle with her boyfriend sitting behind. Her idea of fun is a strenuous trek to a fort. In a relationship, she is the one who to ‘propose’, she is the one to betray.
The flow of this book is seamless. When the narrative switches, the two voices are impressively distinct. Tanay rambles back and forth, while Anuja’s diary is crisp and ready for publication. He calls the paying guest’s quarters the ‘tower room’ while to her it is the ‘upstairs room’.  It is difficult to evaluate how well the book has been translated, however, without comparing the two versions. We have an Irani ‘hotel’ and soon after that, an Udipi ‘restaurant’. While ‘hotel’ is a usage accepted in Marathi, it’s debatable whether either word is an adequate idiomatic representation in English. Words like ‘kunku’ and ‘shepu bhaji’ have been left un-translated (and placidly, self-assuredly un-italicised). And yet, the word ‘Aho’ with which a traditional Maharashtrian wife would address her husband, or ‘Aika’ with which she might call his attention, are absent. Perhaps “if you’d care to listen” can be considered adequate to convey the respectful, possessive, bashful nuances inherent in these words carry. 
This book could be read in one sitting, over the course of one enjoyable day. However, the impact of its characters and what we learn from them would last quite a while longer.

20 July 2014

Mrs Ali's Road to Happiness by Farahad Zama

Good, better, best

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is here again. The fourth book in this beautiful, gentle series takes us back to the unhurried streets of Vizag, where we meet our old friends from the previous books, and lose ourselves in the enjoyment of observing the complexities of their lives resolving and spinning out new patterns.
Of the four books, this one develops the motif of the cultural diversity of India, and the way in which Indian politicians work to divide the Hindu and Muslim communities, the most. I admired its realistic situations, boldly described.
I’m thinking about what I enjoyed most about this book and not very sure whether it was the straightforward language, the intrinsic theme of approaching life's problems with common sense, or the evocative descriptions of the beliefs and lifestyles of peaceful, mainstream Islam. Farahad Zama’s formula is getting better and better, and I find myself wishing that more and more people will read this book and be influenced by it.

16 July 2014

Deki:the adventures of a dog and a boy in Tibet by George Schaller

Multidimensional views of life

This is, of course, a story about a boy and his dog. You could also call it an adventure story, or even a ‘coming of age’ novel. These would be apt descriptions, but inadequate. This highly original work can't be slotted into a genre. The gripping story, told in simple, descriptive language, sparse and nutritious as a monk’s diet, is enhanced by evocative charcoal illustrations. As it takes us through the Tibetan landscape and we observe Tibetan culture, this book also offers riddles whose answers might hold the key to the mysteries of the universe and provide insights which guide on how to deal with its complexities. Life is beautiful, but it is stark. Its realities are presented in the perspective of religious beliefs and philosophy. Existence provides for all. 
If you think something is beautiful, it is beautiful.
If there is fear in your heart, you will meet only demons.
We join wandering nomads in their travels; we observe traditional life in a monastery; we even get to see
something of human temptations and depravity in a sacred environment. Patterns of nature intersect with patterns of the imagination. In short, powerful sentences, the drama advances. Harsh climate might give way to demons and guardian spirits. There are past-life connections, and little glimpses into the powers that meditation can confer. The life of instinct which animals lead is another powerful theme.
Beyond all these, this book is something of a Buddhist primer, and the concepts are conveyed through metaphors, through the adventures of its heroes, and sometimes in simple language. 
One treasure and one alone can no robber steal,
The wise man’s wealth lies in good deeds that
Follow ever after him.
To make an effort to keep wealth,
You become afraid to lose it.
Can you possess a sunrise?
Can you own a cloud?

12 July 2014

Thank you, Stephen Covey


Stephen Covey died on 16 July 2012. He was 79 years old, and had led a productive life. His best-known contribution is his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When I read it, sometime in the 1990s, I was charmed by the theory and so influenced by it that I tried my best to practice the Habits it propounded. I felt that the book had changed my life. Nearly two decades later Sunday Mid-day asked if I’d interview him. I was thrilled! It was only a phone interview, but still. He was visiting Bombay and they had been given a 15-minute telephone slot. The interview was fixed for 8pm on 14 January 2009.
As it happened, that was my father’s 75th birthday. The family was celebrating with dinner at what was then the poshest place in Pune, the Chinese (that’s what they still called it back then) restaurant at the Taj Blue Diamond (that’s what they still called it back then). It was quite an exercise because he had advanced Parkinson’s but did not like to use a wheelchair, and would walk with support, shuffling along slowly and drawing gawks.
I had told everyone that I’d have to be excused for 20 minutes. As we entered, I located a quiet spot where I could leave the group and settle to take the call. We were seated well in time. But, just as the interview began, a group of rowdy children began playing, running up and down the staircase and yelling loudly. They yelled right through the interview. When I listened to the recording next morning, I could hear their yells louder than anything Stephen Covey told me. But I did transcribe and file it in time and it appeared that Sunday. What I remember even more than the noisy children was how disappointed I was with Stephen Covey’s replies to my questions. So it was a big surprise when I received a number of compliments over the next few days. It was only much later that I realised why I’d been disappointed. It was because his replies were telling me things I already knew. They were things I’d already learnt: from Stephen Covey himself.
Here’s the article, which appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 18 January 2009.
In 1989, the world was a different place.
The use of commercial email had just been authorised for the first time and Google was still nearly a decade in the future. It was only a privileged few who had begun using cell phones, and global communication was still a cumbersome process. Reality TV had not yet become mainstream.
Connectivity and supply-chain were concepts still in the future, and Japanese management techniques were still on the periphery. India had produced only 2 crowned international beauty queens in all of history. We had not yet emerged as a world technology leader and were still struggling with the License Raj, still looking anxiously to the West for direction in literature, fashion and social values.
It was at this time that Stephen Covey’s new concepts caught the fancy of people round the world, and from the author of a brilliant and useful book he became, almost overnight, one of the great gurus of self help, and a sought-after personal-growth trainer for corporates. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People went from bestseller to bible to cliché.
Many of the most widely accepted concepts of effective management today – including “prioritization”, being “proactive”, achieving “synergy” and “win-win” – stem from Covey’s movement. They continue to be preached and valued, even two decades later in today’s much-changed environment.
This book transcends what it calls “the personality ethic”, something that instructs us on issues like making eye contact, using people’s names while talking to them, and making sure to wish everyone we know on their birthdays. It promotes, instead, “the character ethic” through a set of clearly-defined principles.
To read this book is to enjoy and appreciate it.  To put its principles to work is to experience a new and uplifting energy and clarity.
Today, at 77, Dr. Covey continues to spread his creed through structured workshops all over the world.
Did you draw on any particular religious theory or religious experience to produce this book?
No, I did not. But I studied for my PhD in Religious Education. Each of the seven principles in my book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is based on universal and timeless concepts which every religion preaches. I could see that in these lay the solutions to many of the world’s problems.
Today in this economic downturn, it’s more than ever important to learn to internalise these principles and use them to manage ourselves at an individual level. They can empower groups of people inside our organizations, and we must allow them to permeate the entire culture of our organizations.
Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergize. And always work to sharpen these skills.”
What about the 8th Habit?
It’s about achieving your full potential. It leads you from Effectiveness to Greatness. There are 6 Cancers that inhibit people’s greatness: Cynicism, Criticism, Comparing, Competing, Complaining, Contending, and if we allow them they will consume the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit. We must not let them infect our cultural DNA!
We must learn not to let ourselves feel victimised, or that we are a product of other people’s image of us. When we overcome those cancers, we can build a culture which is positive and cohesive.
Tell me something about the new Stephen Covey on-line community.
It’s a space that’s open to all, but most useful to youngsters. We are trying to use the internet to promote these principles. The 7 Habits and their offshoots are imbibed and practiced through shared learning, goals and journal entries. 
Admirable – but how would you advise us to detach youngsters from television, computer games and social networking sites and interest them in your community?
Parents and teachers must take the initiative. My wife and I have 9 children and 49 grandchildren. The children in our family have grown up involved in various projects, and with rules and discipline. They are only allowed to watch television one hour a day, and watch a football game or a movie only on a weekend.
We have brought them up to avoid comparisons between people. Television is one of the factors that compels us to compare ourselves with other people, and this is something that damages our cultural DNA. The principles of the 7 Habits form a culture.
We are warned more and more about the threat of identify theft. However, the greater identify theft is our cultural DNA; it’s not someone taking your wallet and using your credit cards – that’s very superficial. It’s about the profound identity threat that comes from people being raised in a comparison-based culture.
Do you feel that the new accounting standards laid down by the International Financial Result Standards (IFRS) are adequate to address the needs of the new and changing environment?
The accounting norms we use today were laid down during the industrial revolution. Machines are recorded as assets and people are recorded as expenses. But today in the knowledge age, what you don’t find in the balance sheet of a company can be far more valuable than what you do find.
I think companies can correct this by bringing in cultural change through the 7 Habits. They must bring principles into the organization using a top-down command and control approach.
The subprime mess in the US has created a global mess that’s eroded half the wealth of the rest of the world and the collapse can largely be attributed to personal greed. People in your country have not been listening to you! What are you doing about it? 
When examining the great losses we’re seeing in the global financial crisis, one of the greatest losses we feel is broken trust. But all is not lost. It is a challenging path and a time consuming one, but trust can be re-built and restored.
My organization and I are working hard at many different levels – family, school, organization and government. I have even trained heads of state to work using these principles.
It is these principles that can save the companies.
As you know, we in India have recently been a target of global terrorism. You’re a proponent of fairness, integrity, honesty and human dignity. Can you tell us how we can specifically use these virtues in an environment where terrorism may strike anywhere and at any time?
Yes. We must use the Inside Out approach. We must work first on ourselves, and spread the principles through our circles of influence. We must all work hard to create a world in which people don’t control us, only our principles control us.
Rest In Peace, Dr Covey. And thank you so much.

04 July 2014

Stupid Cupid by Mamang Dai

Not by its cover

This book is not ‘chick-lit’, as its title indicates. Neither is it a ‘metro read’ as you might anticipate, looking at its cover. The blurb is equally misleading. What we have here is a well-written, intelligent piece of work which could provide several pleasant hours to a spectrum of readers.
Mamang Dai, the book tells us, is a journalist and former civil servant based in Itanagar. And, though Stupid Cupid is very much a Delhi novel, Arunachal Pradesh inhabits it at various levels.
Starting with the intriguing premise of a house converted into a hotel in which rooms might be rented by the hour, this book is not strewn with titillating scenes – or even much promiscuity. Its characters’ actions reflect independent thought and mature choices. We glimpse a little of the lifestyle of Arunachal Pradesh, understand some of the agonies of the beautiful border state, and meet some of its stereotypical characters. On an excursion to the narrator’s village, the eager tourist in me was disappointed not to be lavished with rich descriptions of the flora, fauna and local exotica – though I admired the author’s restraint in not providing it. Adna is a strong woman who lives life on her own terms. To observe her intrinsic vulnerability is to wonder whether such characteristics are shared by other (or all) women. And as we move to the end of the book, we find that the medley of unorthodox relationships has somehow developed into a comfort zone incorporating the feelings of familiarity and affection that prevails in most families. Perhaps life is not so very peculiar, after all.