Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book Review: Chetan Bhagat’s “What Young India Wants”

Chetan Bhagat must be either the most loved and admired or the most hated writer in the Indian sub-continent. Blessed with an amazing ability to connect with India’s youth and excellent marketing and brand-building skills, Bhagat has, to the horror of his detractors, managed to churn out one best-seller after another. An ex-banker who worked in Hong Kong before moving back to India, Bhagat has now come up with his first work of non-fiction, which may be called his ‘take on how to fix India’.

Bhagat’s What Young India Wants is a rambling narrative, totally different from say The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, two young Conservative politicians, which had a step-by-step plan for lifting Britain up from Labour bogs to a Conservative heaven. However, despite the off-the-cuff sounding discourse, I found quite a few good things in What Young India Wants.

For one, Bhagat doesn’t praise everything about India. Rather, he spends more time picking out India’s faults than highlighting its positives. Why is materialistic USA more law abiding than culture-laden India? Bhagat wonders. Why is India unable to punish anyone for say, insider trading? Why is there so much corruption and nepotism in India? Bhagat doesn’t have much admiration for Indian billionaires who he feels owe their success more to their connections than any innovation. Why doesn’t India have real entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg? Despite his own banking background, Bhagat doesn’t make the slightest attempt to butter up to Indian corporates and takes Kingfisher to task for its profligacy.

Bhagat is very much pro-foreign investment in India. Bhagat argues, rightly in my opinion, for foreign direct investment in the retail sector. However he doesn’t hesitate to call for Union Carbide’s head. Bhagat wants export restrictions on agricultural produce to be lifted. Indian farmers ought to have the right to sell their produce wherever it fetches the highest price. BCCI has to be made transparent and Indian cricket needs to be cleaned up.

Bhagat has a few brave ideas, which are not particularly well-fleshed out. In order to bridge the urban-rural divide, he wants to set up student exchanges, whereby students from cities will spend time in villages and vice-versa. How will this be implemented? Well, like many great thinkers, Bhagat doesn’t sweat out the details. Thus when Bhagat wonders ‘why can’t we successfully ban RDX and all such dangerous compounds?’ he doesn’t spell out how the authorities could go about such a task.

Bhagat doesn’t favour any political party. While dicing the 2G scam, Bhagat has a few severe words for the Congress Party, but he also wants that the opposition ‘should not slam the entire Congress party on every occasion and should move from the slander-fest to a solution.’ Bhagat doesn’t think the problem is entirely with politicians. 'The issue is with the Indian electorate, us.’ At one place, Bhagat refers to the slow-suicide path chosen by the BJP, leaving Indians with no credible alternative. Bhagat wants all expensive real estate occupied by government offices to be sold and the offices relocated to less expensive localities. Bhagat is an Anna Hazare fan and wants a strong Lok Pal. Some of Bhagat’s words are pure rhetoric, such as the chapter addressed to Muslims where he urges ‘the Muslims of India to keep the heat on politicians.

Bhagat wants India to cut down its defence expenditure and plough the savings into infrastructure and development. He goes to the extent of saying, ‘I want to ask my fellow Indians, how badly do we want Kashmir? At the cost of making colleges for the young generation in the country?…… We want to talk to Pakistan but more to put them in their place and shove our point of view down their throat. Frankly such defiance may win claps from an audience in a cinema hall, but is no attitude for peace. We may think Pakistan is always wrong and we deserve Kashmir, but when we are in a negotiation, we have to give the other party some room.’ All those who till now thought that Bhagat is a populist who plays to the galleys, please start eating your hats.

Just as Bhagat wants India to negotiate with Pakistan in good faith, he also wants India to take the stand that India will never engage with any military government in power in Pakistan.

Bhagat has a number of good ideas for revamping India’s education system and in general, I found myself in agreement. In particular, Bhagat wants all Indian school children to have access to the English language. He wants the government to change the current policy which requires all educational institutions to be run on a no-profit basis.

Bhagat does get a few things totally wrong in my opinion. For example, Bhagat wants India to outsource some of its border security to the United States of America. Now, I am as much a fan of the USA as Bhagat is, but I do think Bhagat’s getting a bit carried away here. Maybe he has something on the lines of the US-Japan security alliance in mind, but even then, I don’t think this is a good idea. There are no free lunches in the business of foreign affairs and defence and if the US were to take responsibility for all or some of India’s borders, it will extract its pound of flesh for such help.

When I reviewed Revolution 2020, I had commented that though Bhagat’s language is not spectacular, the English is good enough to convey the story. Well, the same is the case for this book as well, though I do feel the editing could have been a lot sharper.

As mentioned earlier, this book doesn’t come across as an populist attempt to pander to what India’s youth might want. Bhagat speaks from his heart and he genuinely wants India to change for the better. Somewhere in the middle of this 181-page book, Bhagat gets a bit personal. He talks of a suicide attempt when he was in high school. Please do read this extremely interesting book to find out if Bhagat’s suicide attempt was successful.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Notes from the 3rd Borivali National Park Half Marathon

I had run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January this year and so when I signed up for the 3rd Borivali National Park Half Marathon, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I mean, if I could run 42.195 kilometres, then I ought to be able to effortlessly run 21.0975 kilometres without breaking into a sweat, or so I reasoned. I just hadn’t factored in the terrain at the Borivali National Park (BNP). Two days before the run, someone asked me how much time I expected to take to complete the half- marathon? ‘2:20 or so,’ I casually replied. When I ran the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January, I had taken around that time to cross the half-way mark. Since then, I have trained sporadically, the intermittent nature of my morning runs more on account of my work and other hobbies than due to sloth.

The day of the marathon, I took a cab to the BNP and got there by 5:30 a.m. The marathon was expected to commence at 6:15. There was a huge crowd of runners attired in all sorts of gear, milling around the entrance. Why haven’t these folks gone in? I wondered. I would soon have the answer.

The BNP, now formally named Sanjay Gandhi National Park, allows pass-holders to enter the park from 5:30 a.m. onwards. If you don’t have a pass and need to buy a day ticket, you won’t be allowed entry till 7:30 a.m. The organisers of the BNP Half Marathon had obtained permission for us to enter from 5:30 a.m. onwards, but the chaps manning the gates at the BNP had different plans that morning. We waited and waited for sense to prevail. A few runners left. I got tired of standing around and walked over to the other side of the highway and bought myself a litre of water from a stall which had just opened.

Finally by around 7:00 a.m., it started drizzling and all the runners took shelter under a flyover which is in front of BNP’s entrance. A few minutes later, we were allowed to enter the BNP.

If I had done some research, I would have known that the terrain at the BNP is hilly with elevations between 30 m (98 ft) and 480 m (1,570 ft). For the 21.0975 kilometre run, we were expected to run an uphill course of 5.5 kilometres, return to the starting point and then repeat the same. I wasn’t carrying any water and the only energy supplement I had was half a packet of chocolate balls, which my five year old had discarded. The organisers had promised to make available sufficient water, Gatorade, biscuits, bananas and dates enroute. They were as good as their word and I did not regret my decision to not carry any water.

Once the race started, I forgot my irritation at having had to wait outside and the delay of over 1.5 hours. Nothing really mattered once I was running and was surrounded by scores of other runners. It started raining again. I wished it would rain heavily, but it was at best a heavy drizzle, which would peter out and start again. The BNP is used by many people, especially senior citizens, for their daily constitutionals. Buses ply inside and there are a few cyclists as well. Since it was drizzling and everything was slushy, there were minor traffic jams and the runners had to slow down at times to give way.

At home in Bandra, my usual jogging course takes me up and down the steep Pala Mala road, as it leads to and from Carter Road. I could therefore justifiably claim that I had done some training on a 'slope'. However, the truth is that I had not fully prepared for running the steep incline at the BNP. I do wish I had prepared myself better, by doing some additional ‘hills’. Despite that, I am happy to say that I ran the first leg of the marathon without any breaks. Towards the end of the first leg, we were faced with a really steep climb of around 300 metres. Like many others, I walked that bit. The return trip was relatively easy since it was mainly downhill. When I started to run the third leg of the race, my lack of preparation became woefully clear. I stopped a few times to take a few deep breaths. I took two ‘walk breaks,’ walking a few hundred metres each time. My back started to hurt.

As I have detailed in this post on running my first (and only) full marathon, I am almost flat-footed and I have a back problem which flares up once in a while. I ignored the back pain and took extra care to land mid-sole. Slowly the back pain disappeared.

Then by around the 14 kilometre mark, I got my second wind. The last leg was relatively easy, especially since I knew that the end was neigh. I was greeted at the finish line with a medal and some refreshments in the form of a banana, a cupcake and a sealed packet of poha. I found out from a couple of very kind volunteers that I had taken 2 hours and 46 minutes to complete the half-marathon.

Post note: Many thanks to Ashok Someshwar who took the photograph which appears above and for giving me permission to post it on this blog.

Book Review: The Edge Of Desire by Tuhin A. Sinha

Tuhin Sinha’s The Edge Of Desire is the story of how Shruti Ranjan, a humiliated woman, enters politics and then has a meteoric rise. Shruti is the wife of an honest IAS officer posted in Bihar. One day, she is raped by the villainous politician-cum-goon, Salim Yadav. Unable to obtain justice, Shruti enters politics in order to avenge the dishonour she suffered. Just as Shruti’s political star goes up, her relationship with her husband breaks down completely. Towards the end of the story, we see Shruti getting divorced, but she never marries charismatic politician Sharad Malviya, the main person responsible for her political ascent.

Just as The Edge Of Desire is the story of a wronged woman, one could also call it a political thriller. Once Shruti wins her election, she is placed in various positions of responsibility, till she becomes the Deputy Minister for Home Affairs. Shrugging off accusations that she is having a relationship with Sharad Malviya though still married to her estranged IAS officer husband, Shruti supports Sharad as he fights the good fight against terrorism and separatism.


Sharad Malviya is right-wing in ideology and impulsive in action. When his only daughter Rhea and Rhea’s American boyfriend are abducted by terrorists, Sharad agrees to swap his daughter for a few jailed terrorists. At the last minute he has a change of heart and orders the accompanying armymen to open fire. Do Rhea and her boyfriend survive? Please read this book to find out.

Since Sharad Malviya is a right winger, one gets the feeling that The Edge Of Desire pushes his ideology, such as when the issue of “love-jihad” waged by Islamic fundamentalists in Kerala crops up. Towards the end we see Sharad the Home Minister getting seven terrorists hanged in quick succession and arranging for the encounter death of under-trial terrorists before Sharad himself dies in a helicopter crash. When the novel begins, Shruti is in jail and one wonders what she could have done to deserve such an end? Did she turn corrupt? No, Shruti is being punished for having arranged the fake encounter in which the under-trial terrorists were killed. In jail, Shruti wishes to be hanged to death, though she believes she saved hundreds of lives by her actions. She thinks ‘our future generations ought to know that seventy-two years after Bhagat Singh was hanged to death, Indian laws and politics are still skewed against those who, in their patriotic zest, dare to tread the extra mile for the country.

The Edge Of Desire is an interesting read and Sinha keeps his reader gripped till the end. However, I have mixed feelings about this book as a whole and am not sure if I should recommend it.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Book Review: “Wings Of Silence” by Shriram Iyer

Wings Of Silence is the story of the Sethi brothers, one of whom is born deaf and the other with oodles of talent, multiple talents. The Sethi have migrated to the United States where the father, war hero Akshay Sethi, works very hard and they lead a middle-class life. The younger brother Saurav is effortlessly good at everything he does, be it in studies or sports. When Saurav takes up tennis, it is inevitable that he should end up playing at the highest levels. On the other hand, hearing-impaired Raj is neglected by his parents, in particular by his father. During his childhood. Saurav wasn’t too proud of Raj who was frequently bullied at school. However things change and Saurav realises that Raj is suffering badly and suffering alone. More importantly Saurav discovers by accident that Raj can run fast and keep at it for a long stretch of time. The discovery provides a ray of light for Raj in the form of an aspiration to run a marathon in the Olympics. It gives him something to look forward to and work towards.

Akshay Sethi doesn’t support his son Raj in his Olympic endeavour and so Saurav takes matters into his own hands, at the cost of upsetting his parents. Raj is finally all set to take part in the Moscow Olympics when the US announces a boycott of the games. It looks as if Raj will not get to run in the Olympics, but then one has to factor in the resourceful Saurav Sethi.

Written in simple and good English, Wings Of Silence is an entertaining read.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Ever since I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the story of how Thomas Cromwell helped Henry the VIII break up with Rome and divorce his first wife Katherine, executing Cardinal Thomas More in the process, I have been keenly looking forward to the follow up book.

Bring Up The Bodies
is the story of how Henry gets tired of Anne Boleyn and finally has her executed for treason – she was suspected of having been unfaithful to him. Henry is desperate for a heir through a legitimate wife – his illegitimate son Fitzroy won’t do. Henry had divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she could not give him a son. Anne Boleyn, his second wife, gives him a few children, all of whom die, except for Elizabeth, which doesn’t satisfy Henry. Even if Henry hadn’t suspected Anne of infidelity, he was bound to divorce her and marry the plain Jane Seymour. It is interesting to note that one of the men with whom Anne has an affair (or rather sex with) is her own brother George Boleyn. The logic is simple. Anne needs to give Henry a male heir to retain her position as the queen of England. A child fathered by her brother could resemble the father and not raise as many eyebrows as one whose father is outside the Boleyn family.

Anne Boleyn is not the main character of Bring Up The Bodies, though the entire story revolves around her downfall and execution. As in the case of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell steals the limelight. Mantel does not deviate from the character she had created in Wolf Hall. Cromwell continues to be a man of multiple talents, who eventually gets what he wants. Mantel’s writing is flawless, at the same booker prize standard as Wolf Hall. She writes in the present tense and somehow that makes this story set in the 16th century sound so much more authentic. Her frequent use of ‘he’ while talking of Cromwell gives our man an omniscient touch.

How authentic are Mantel’s characters, in particular Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell? In her author’s note, Mantel tells us that ‘I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.’ So, how good is Mantel’s offer? As far as Anne Boleyn goes, she fits the most popular stereotype. Mercurial, temperamental and intelligent, Anne expects to receive a reprieve till the last moment when a swordsman specially brought in from France hacks off her head. However, I did have a problem with Mantel’s Cromwell.

Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son who spent much of his youth .in continental Europe, fought in wars, educated himself, worked for Italian trading houses and then returned to England. He is a lawyer. He is also Secretary to the King, Master of the Rolls, Chancellor of Cambridge University and deputy to the King in his role as the head of the new Anglican church which has been created. In addition to all this, he runs a number of his own businesses, which seems to involve lending money (at interest), dealing in land and other property. In this book, we see him spend most of his walking hours talking to various people. He is either advising the King or chatting with people like Eustache Chapuys, the Holy Roman E mperor’s ambassador or Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador, or his friend Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury or his son Gregory or other members of his household, as a Rafe Sadler his clerk. We never see him work on his personal dealings or accept a bribe, though Mantel tells us that like every other official of those times, he always takes a cut.

Until the tide turns against Anne Boleyn, we do not see Cromwell do anything to set the King against Anne, though he nurses a grudge against her for what she did to Cardinal Wolsey, his former boss. Once the King indicates that Anne is to be deposed, Cromwell goes around collecting evidence against her, effortlessly getting her ladies in waiting, including her sister-in—law and cousin, to snitch on her. Anne cuckolded Henry with many men, including Cromwell’s friend Thomas Wyatt. Unsurprising, Cromwell doesn’t collect evidence against Wyatt. Torture is not used while collecting evidence, except in the case of Mark Smeaton and even with Mark, threats rather than actual torture is used.

Cromwell’s only weakness seems to be his son Gregory, his only surviving child. Once when his son Gregory is all set to joust and it looks as if he might come up against the King, we see Cromwelll requesting the King to go easy on Gregory. Towards the end when Gregory is reluctant to watch Anne’s beheading, Cromwell is gentle with him, saying ‘I will be beside you to show that you can. You need not look. When the soul passes, we kneel, and we drop our eyes and pray.’ Cromwell’s household staff includes a number of boys and men who would otherwise have nowhere to go. Many orphans are cared for and brought up in his home. Cromwell comes across as a man who is kind to the needy and helpless as long as he can express his kindness without going too much out of his way.

Cromwell never loses his temper. Cromwell can hold his drink, but we never see him drink to excess. A widower, there are no women in Cromwell’s life, no prostitutes or concubines or mistresses, though towards the end we are told that Cromwell might remarry some time in the future. Once the King loses his temper with Cromwell, in front of a number of people. A few days later, when Henry wants to patch up with Cromwell, Cromwell shows some pride and plays hard to get for just a little bit. This incident had me thinking. Would a man like Cromwell whose position and wealth depended entirely on Henry’s patronage, display tough love to Henry? Does it all add up?

Would a hard drinking Cromwell with half-a-dozen concubines in tow have sounded more authentic than the paragon of virtue Mantel presents us with? Would Bring Up The Bodies be just as enjoyable if the protagonist wasn’t so likeable? Shouldn’t Cromwell be shown as a man who is nasty to his underlings, expecting, nay demanding from them, as much if not more that what he gives Henry? But then, Mantel's Cromwell is never servile towards Henry as one might expect him to be. Would a man like Cromwell have a son as sweet and innocent as Gregory is made out to be? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it cannot be denied that Bring Up The Bodies is yet another masterpiece from a writer from whom her fans have come to expect nothing less.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The CBI should apologise to the Talwars and compensate them

I was shocked to read this report which says that The CBI sleuths had created, for some "specific purpose", an email ID in the name of slain domestic help Hemraj to interact with dentist couple Rajesh and Nupur Talwar during the probe of Aarushi-Hemraj murder case, the agency said on Thursday.

The CBI, which had earlier denied that email id '' was used to call Talwars for questioning, is now saying that the ID was created for some "specific purpose" which they refused to explain.

"I am told by the concerned officers that the email ID was created to interact with Talwars for some specific purpose during the investigation," CBI spokesperson Dharini Mishra said in New Delhi. She refused to elaborate on this saying the matter is sub-judice.

I’m pretty sure the CBI doesn’t have a half-decent excuse for this action, which can only be termed as mental torture. Maybe the concerned officers thought they were waging psycho-warfare on the accused! There can be no justification for behaviour of this nature. I used to be under the impression that the CBI subscribed to a higher standard of behaviour than state police departments, that they understood the law in letter and spirit. I was wrong! The CBI should be forced to apologise to the Talwars who deserve compensation.

14 year old Aarushi Talwar was found murdered in August 2008. A few days later, the family’s live-in manservant Hemraj was also found murdered. Soon the police arrested Aarushi’s parents Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, both of whom are doctors. The police theory is that Aarushi was having some sort of affair with Hemraj and her murder was an act of honour killing by her parents. The only evidence against the Talwars is circumstantial. The CBI which took over the investigation from the Noida police claims that the initial investigation was sloppy and evidence was destroyed.

Some time in January 2011, Rajesh Talwar was attacked outside a courthouse by a young man with a cleaver. The attacker was apparently upset that the Talwars hadn’t been convicted.

I believe the Talwars are innocent. I find it inconceivable that they would have murdered their only child solely because they caught her having sex with Hemraj.

In this country, every one is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Even if the CBI believes the Talwars are guilty of the two murders, if it is incapable of proving their guilt in a court of law, it should stop hounding the Talwars and should let them go free.

And yes, the Talwars should be compensated for the mental agony they were subjected to by the CBI.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: Govinda by Krishna Udayasankar

I just finished reading Book 1 of Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles and liked it enough to start writing this review immediately. Like any other Indian, I’m familiar with the Mahabharata, my knowledge having being acquired through numerous Amar Chitra Katha comics and some prescribed study while at school. I’ve always thought that the Mahabharata is a lot more exciting than the Ramayana. In any event, it is a lot more fascinating than the Greek epics. There are various versions of the Mahabharata and I should confess that I am not expert enough to know of the various types and the differences between them. However, I do know that Udayasankar’s version cannot be the mainstream one.

To start with, the main characters are not divine. They are just ordinary men who performed exceptional tasks in extraordinary circumstances, invoking gods such as Rudra or Hara. Maybe future generations elevated them to the status of Gods as their legends grew. The women in Mahabharata, especially Panchali, are not the supine creatures they are made out to be, in the mainstream narration of the Mahabharata. Panchali especially is her own boss and comes across as a powerful personality, intelligent, brave and of course very beautiful. Udayasankar uses lesser known names for many of her characters. Arjun is always called Partha. Yudhistir is Dharma, Dhuryodhan is called Syoddhan, Kunti is Pritha, not even once is she called Kunti, and Krishna, the hero of Book One, is Govinda Shauri or just plain Govinda. Some of the names are spelt in a manner which I assume is closer to the language which may have been spoken during Vedic times. Panchali’s brothers Dhrishtadyuman and Shikhandi are called Dhrstydymn and Shikandin. Shikandin is not a half-man-half-woman. Rather he is a brave and fearless warrior who is misunderstood by many, including his own father.

As Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles starts rolling, the most powerful state in Aryavarta is Jarasandha’s Magadha. The Kurus are vassals of Jarasandha as are a number of neighbouring states. Dharma and his four brothers stay in Hastinapura, more as guests of their Kuru cousins than as princes of the realm. Govinda (Krishna) is a cow-herd who somehow managed to become the ruler of Mathura, but had to abandon it and take refuge in glorious Dwaraka. As the story progresses, we see Govinda plan, plot, scheme and pilot the Pandava brothers into Indr-prasta and work towards making Dharma the Emperor of all of Aryavarta. The question remains: why does Govinda do all that? What’s in it for him? Is it solely on account of his hatred for the Firewrights?

The Firewrights are an ancient order of scientists and inventors who wear mixed colours. On one hand, their inventions and advancements have contributed towards progress in Aryavarta. Most, if not all the advanced weapons, such as those used by Partha to destroy the Kandava forest, originated from the Firewrights. However, the Firewrights can also be evil and in any event, Govinda seems to be determined to destroy them. The rivalry and fighting between the Firewrights and the Firstborn dynasty is a thread which runs through this book and as Book One comes to an end, stays alive to continue into Book Two.

Udayasankar rolls out her tale at an even pace and at least once, when Partha wins the archery contest and Panchali’s hand, I caught myself wishing that she would devote more time and space for such events. However, on the whole, the gentle pace works rather well, since we need to remember that legends were created over a period of time. As I have said earlier, there are no Gods or miracles in Udayasankar’s Chronicle. For example, the fight between Bhim and Emperor Jarasandha is just a wrestling match between two very strong men who have agreed to fight until one of them dies, rather than one where Bhim keeps tearing Jarasandha apart, only for the latter to come alive, until Bhim dumps two halves of Jarasandha's torn body poles apart.

Udayasankar writes very well, her language simple and elegant, with a gentle lyrical touch and a whiff of antiquity, as would befit such an ancient tale. All her characters are coloured in grey, rather than as entirely good or bad human beings. This goes not only for Dharma, but even for Govinda, who Panchali (like thousands of other women) secretly pines for. Similarly Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) is not such a bad guy! Panchali is definitely a feminist who after some initial docility puts her foot down and starts doing as she pleases. I am not going to explain these in detail and give away the story – please do read this excellent book and find out for yourselves.