Thursday, 8 April 2021

Book Review: Oonga by Devashish Makhija


Usually, books are made into movies. In the case of Devashish Makhija’s Oonga, the movie, which premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival in 2013, has been made into a novel.

Oonga the protagonist, an eight year old adivasi boy who adores Lord Ram, is unable to join his friends when they were taken to the city by Hemla didi, their Hindi teacher, to watch a play about Sita’s abduction by Ravana. So, Oonga goes to the city on his own to watch the play Sitaharan, has a number of adventures en route, and returns home safely, smeared in blue paint, like his super hero Rama.  If this gives you the idea that Oonga is a movie for children, by children, you couldn’t be more wrong. Oonga also has paramilitary forces and Naxalites, adivasis living in the forests of central India and a greedy mining company devouring the sacred land. Makhija is a good mixologist and he serves his readers a potent cocktail, one that will leave behind a bitter sweet aftertaste even after it disappears down the gullet.

Oonga is naughty, Oonga is lazy, Oonga is brave, Oonga is curious, Oonga is adorable, Oonga is impish and Makhija has the reader rooting for Oonga from the beginning till the end. One worries for his safety, laughs at his pranks and heave a sigh of relief as he makes it back home to the safety of his mother Oongamma. Almost all characters are as multi-dimensional and interesting as Oonga. There’s Hemla the teacher who tries to teach Hindi to her wards and is tortured by security forces for her pains. Manoranjan the commanding officer, who bullies his two underlings Pradip and Sushil is perfect case study material for anyone who wants to understand how power corrupts so absolutely even in the hands of a not-so-important security officer. Pradip bullies ‘milk-tooth’ Sushil even more than Manoranjan and one can see young Sushil being taken apart and remade in the same mold as Pradip. And then there are Laxmi and Linga, Naxal leaders, totally committed to their cause, who believe that ‘an onslaught of violence can only be countered with an equal and opposite violence’.

The school building where Hemla is detained and tortured by Manoranjan is one which used to host adivasi children from all eight villages in the region. There was a time when they would hang paper flags all around the school where the barbed wire now runs. There was a time when all you could hear from inside those walls were happy songs and a chorus of voices chanting the alphabet. Now, there is deathly silence, like at the bottom of a coal mine.

Why do men like Sushil and Pradip join the para-military forces? In Sushil’s case, his father had been a farmer who’s land a corporation had wanted to acquire. Resistance to the acquisition resulted in a police complaint, an arrest and the ransacking of their hut. ‘And at twelve it hit me that a man as big and healthy and strong and brave as my father could also turn into a slobbering, fucked-up mess when face to face with someone in uniform. The Uniform was everything. What the Uniform said, we had to follow. Where the Uniform took us, we had to go. That’s when I decided I wanted to get into one as soon as possible. I wasn’t going to waste my entire life tilling a field morning to night, only to have it taken away in a heartbeat.’

Do Naxalites solve the problems faced by adivasis? The answer is a resounding No, at least as far as Hemla is concerned. The Naxals couldn’t save Padua and Hemla’s village Pottacheru is the next target. After Hemla escapes from the clutches of Manoranjan who brutalizes her, she runs into the Naxal dalam led by Laxmi and Linga. ‘You went to my village without my permission. And because of you they are in danger now,’, Hemla accuses the Naxals. ‘If any of them die tonight’, Hemla says, ‘that blood will be on your hands’.

Linga has had enough. He cocks his rifle in Hemla’s face, fuming.

Hemla turns to Laxmi. ‘I know you care, Didi’, she says. ‘But by doing things this way you are no different from them. I had a gun pointed at me there. I have a gun pointed at me now.’

Don’t come to the village again. Without you we may still have a chance. With you, we have none.

Makhija's message couldn't be clearer. If only the Naxals stopped muddying the Adivasi waters, the Adivasis would have a fighting chance to find their moorings and lead a humane existence.  

Oonga has the feel of a screenplay, owing to its movie origins, which works well for this story. Makhija writes well, in simple language, with dramatic flourishes and interludes. He switches effortlessly from Oonga’s baby talk to the theatre dialogue for Sitaharan to the Naxals’ and the security forces’ rough and ready speech.  I enjoyed reading Oonga and highly recommend it.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Book Review: “At The Human Edge – The Limits of Human Physiology and Performance”, by Dr. Marcus Ranney


How far can human beings push their physical capabilities? To what extent can the human body adapt and transform itself to cope with the harshness of an extreme environment? What are the cellular changes happening inside a human body as it pursues life to the fullest, whether it be scuba diving in the Indian Ocean or skiing in the French Alps? Dr. Marcus Ranney explores these issues in his path-breaking book At The Human Edge – The Limits of Human Physiology and Performance.

Dr. Ranney, an extra-ordinary human being and a medical doctor, is ideally positioned to write this book. While doing his medical degree at the University College London Medical School, Dr. Ranney joined the University of London Air Squadron and enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Winter training took him to various ski slopes across the European Alps. He worked alongside jet pilots and got to study the effects of extreme g-forces on their physiologies. A few years later Dr. Ranney found himself leading a hundred-strong team to Mt. Everest. The following year, in his final year of medical school, after a brief stint with the helicopter ambulance emergency services in London, Dr. Ranney was introduced to an organisation that supported the International Space Station’s transportation system, which led to  a month long internship in Florida with the medical team at Kennedy Space Centre, NASA. Towards the end of the internship, Dr. Ranney watched Atlantis return to earth and come to a shuddering halt a few hundred metres away from him. Later, while working as a doctor in North London, Dr. Ranney took time out from his job to led a team from Great Britain to participate in an outdoors, winter games festival, held in the northernmost region of Siberia, deep in the arctic circle, during which time he studied the effect of cold weather and extreme physical stress on human bodies.

As a mountaineer climbs up a treacherous mountain, oxygen, the most vital of all life-giving elements, becomes scarer, resulting in shortness of breath. What happens subsequently as the mountaineer presses on? Replace Mount Everest with the South Pole. Hypothermia is the condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius, the temperature needed for the many thousands of normal protein interactions and metabolic processes of our cells. Below 28 degrees Celsius, severe hypothermia ensues and the normal physiological responses of the body no longer function. The heart rate and blood pressure begin to decrease and most cellular processes begin to shut down. An average human being is usually unable to perform any meaningful motor activity and experiences a very drowsy and near comatose mental state. This triggers two very primordial reflexes, one to enter a small, enclosed space and burrow in, and the other, to shed one’s clothes. Dr. Ranney has a detailed explanation for this effect and dear reader, I shall leave it to you to read this exciting book and find out for yourself.

If humans were to undertake a 13-year journey to the ends of the solar system, would it be possible to keep the crew in a state of cryohibernation? This is not as far-fetched as one might imagine and Dr. Ranney tells us about medical student Anna Bagenholm, who, while skiing off-piste, crashed through a frozen river where she was trapped under more than 6 inches of ice for over an hour, and survived to tell the tale. How does the human body react if, when walking across an ice sheet on a frozen lake, one falls through? How stressful is running a marathon to the human body? Could running extreme distances like the marathon be actually dangerous to the human body? What happens when the glycogen stores in the liver and muscles are depleted during a marathon? Do please read this book to find out for yourself.

Just as humans have evolved over the generations to the conditions of Earth’s temperature, pressure and atmosphere, we have also evolved under the influence of its gravity. This constant force acting upon our body has crafted our physiological systems much more than we initially appreciate. Conversely, when we send humans into space where the gravitational component is removed (which we call microgravity instead of zero gravity, as zero gravity is technically impossible) or when we land humans on a terrestrial object like the Moon or Mars where their smaller masses exert a smaller gravitational force relative to Earth’s, changes to the physiological systems of our bodies can be observed, all of which are symptomatic and can have debilitating long-term consequences. Studying these effects and developing ways to combat them are paramount if we are to successfully land man on far away objects involving long sojourns through space and microgravity.

How do human bodies react to the extreme heat and aridity of a desert? Dr. Ranney examines the case of an athlete, one Mauro Prosperi who participated in the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 251 km ultramarathon and having been thrown completely off course by a fierce sandstorm on his fourth day of the race, went for ten straight days without food and water, and survived. Understanding how our bodies react to extreme heat and desert conditions is very important since global warming is a reality and we need to gear up to meet this threat.

When a human being dives into water, the urge to breathe is not because of the need for oxygen. No, it is the body’s need to rid itself of carbon dioxide that's the cause of this drive to breathe. I’d rather not explain more here. Dear reader, please read this wonderful book for yourself and find out.

Dr. Ranney devotes the penultimate chapter of his book to mitochondria. Despite warning us that the chapter on mitochondria is likely to make heavy reading for those who are not science buffs, Dr. Ranney manages to retain the tension and excitement that is characteristic of the entire book. At the end, one is left with no doubt regarding the importance of understanding mitochondria. Damaged and dysfunctional mitochondria have been implicated in a range of human pathologies and the list is steadily growing. Last but not the least, Dr. Ranney examines how much of a role science played when Eliud Kipchoge ran a full marathon in under two hours.

Understanding how our bodies react when pushed to the edge will help us combat pain, increase tolerance and endurance, as human beings strive to achieve more and more for reasons ranging from glory to greed. Dr. Ranney writes exceedingly well, in simple, but limpid prose, as he effortlessly switches from scientific analysis and descriptions to the narration of extreme human adventures that pushes human endurance to its limits.  

The forward to this book has been written by eighty-five year old Sir Chris Bonnington CVO, CBE, DL, British Explorer, who has inter alia  completed 19 Himalayan expeditions and for a brief period of time held the record of being the oldest person to have summited Everest, at the age of fifty. Jonty Rhodes, former international cricketer who is currently a cricket coach and commentator has a few paragraphs of comments. To top it all, there’s an Afterword by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Director General World Health Organization, who says that ‘many of the world’s health most pressing health problems are not scientific challenges at all; they are challenges of politics, economics, agriculture, energy, commerce and trade.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Cracking the California Bar Exam

I took the California Bar Exam from Mumbai when it was offered online on the 5th and 6th of October 2020. It was my third attempt and I was successful.

In 2015-2016, I used to be employed by an Indian company which had a Californian subsidiary that made investments in California and I had dealings with Californian attorneys. I thought it would be useful to be qualified in California and without a clear idea of how difficult the California Bar Exam is, signed up for the July 2016 exam.

I had qualified as an Indian advocate in 1999 and as an English Solicitor in 2004. I obtained a Certificate of Good Standing from the Law Society, England and Wales, and used it to register with CA Bar. I then proceeded to buy a $100 book through Amazon, the California Bar Tutors Total Preparation Book and read it a few times during my work commute by train from Bandra to VT station, around thirty minutes each way, five days a week. As I read, I realised that this was a book meant for those already familiar with US and CA laws, but I ploughed on. The CA Bar’s website has answers written by top scorers in each bar exam for the past ten odd years and I read through most of them once. I learnt as much by reading those old answers as I did from the California Bar TutorsTotal Preparation Book. The past answers ought to have dented my confidence, since they were way superior to anything I could have written, but for strange reason they didn’t. I thought I could pull it off on the exam day.

Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Community Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Real Property, Torts, Trusts and Wills. Thirteen topics in all, of which the only topics I was familiar and comfortable with were Business Associations (which included corporate law, law of partnerships, agency principles), Contracts, Torts, Professional Responsibility and Trusts. I was totally out of depth in Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and Evidence. I have studied constitutional law at undergrad law school, but was really rusty and US Constitutional Law differs from Indian constitutional law in many ways. Community Property is the set of principles for dividing up property between the husband and wife in case of a divorce and this was a revelation, to say the least!

The California Bar Tutors Total Preparation Book mentions the importance of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion) in the introduction and this concept (and its importance) went totally above my head. I decided to handwrite the exam (instead of taking it on a laptop) since I though it wouldn’t make a huge difference and I didn’t have the time and energy to get my laptop certified and all that.

In July 2016, the CA Bar exam was a three day affair. I landed in SFO just two days before my exam and took the exam at Sacramento. My body clock was twelve and a half hours ahead of Pacific Time. On day one, we had to write three essays in the morning within three hours and a performance test after lunch, also for three hours. On day two, we had the Multistate Bar Exam (“MBE”), two sessions of three hours each, with one hundred multiple choice questions for each session. Day three was a repeat of the first day, with three essays in the morning and a three hour performance test in the afternoon. As may be expected, I flunked. I got a score of 1200 out of 2000, when the required cut off was 1440. I can’t say I was devastated, since I hadn’t invested too much effort or even money, when compared to most other test takers.

I went back to work in Mumbai and kept thinking about doing the CA Bar exam since I had really enjoyed the academic exercise. In the second half of 2018, I decided to take the plunge once more and enrolled for the February 2019 exam, though my job had changed and my work had nothing to do with California. I bought the latest edition of the California Bar Tutors Total Preparation Book and started reading it during my work commute. I also bought a couple of books for the MBE, since I realised that the MBE was a weak spot. I decided to use a laptop this time, since my typing speed is reasonably good and it possibly helped to write more than less.

For the February 2019 administration, the CA Bar exam had been made a two day affair, with a single 90 minute performance test, instead of two performance tests of three hours each, as was the case earlier. Everything else stayed the same. I landed in SFO four days before the exam, which I took in Oakland. My body clock was thirteen and a half hours ahead of Pacific Time. The importance of IRAC still hadn’t sunk in, though I think I did comply with IRAC more than I had in July 2016. I flunked again, scoring 1351 out of 2000, when the required cut off was still 1440.

I forgot about the CA Bar exam and life went back to normal. Until the Covid 19 pandemic hit all of us. I was at home, under lockdown, including three weeks of total quarantine when my neighbour tested positive. For reasons I won’t delve into here, my family was elsewhere and I was alone in my apartment. I had a fair amount of free time on my hands. In April 2020, I decided to give the CA Bar exam my best and final shot, planning to take it in February 2021. 

I subscribed to Adaptibar and started doing around 20 questions every day. When I got a question wrong, I analysed why I had got it wrong and wrote down the explanation. Adaptibar was a revelation and I enjoyed and looked forward to each of my Adaptibar sessions. I understood nuances I had no clue about until then. I re-read the California Bar Tutors Total Preparation Book (which I had saved from my February 2019 attempt, I didn’t buy the latest edition) a few times, as well as all past answers. I bought two outlines from Amazon for around $60 dollars each (word documents emailed to me) purportedly written by US based Ivy League law students, but did not find them to be particularly useful (or better than my California Bar Tutors Total Preparation Book) and ditched them. And finally I hired a tutor based in the US who read two of my old answers from my February 2019 attempt and marked it up for me with his comments. My tutor also marked up a few sample essays I wrote based on old questions. The IRAC penny finally dropped. I spent a lot of time and effort reading up on the black letter law. I relied mainly on the internet for this.

When it was announced that the July 2020 exam would be delayed and offered online, I decided to take it, rather than wait for the February 2021 administration, as I had originally planned. I registered and a month before the exam, began the slow process of switching my body clock to Pacific Standard Time, which would be 12.5 hours behind Indian time. I would stay awake till 3 am Indian time and begin my day at 10 am. I could afford to do this since I was working entirely from home. I upgraded my internet connection. 

CA Bar reduced the cut-off from 1440 to 1390 (out of 2000). I became even more hopeful. However, I had crossed my mid-forties and my biggest weakness was a failing memory. I understood everything I read, but the next day I would struggle to remember what I had read.

The two nights of the exam are a blur at present. From 8:30 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. on day one and till 4:00 a.m. on day two, the essays and multiple choice questions went by in a jiffy as I banged away on my laptop, my webcam recording everything on audio and video. The Facebook groups I had joined had a lot of chatter about how things could go wrong technically, especially the online proctoring, but fortunately, everything went right. On the morning of January 9, 2021, 7:30 a.m. IST, I found out that I had passed. For the October 2020 administration, the pass rate was 60.7%, the highest pass rate in the last 12 years. A search of the pass list published online suggests that only two of the successful candidates logged in from India. There are twenty nine from China though!

I have written this in the hope that my experiences may be of some help to those who take the CA Bar exam in future. I should confess that though I am a foreign attorney and technically not a native English speaker, my education has been entirely in English right from my kindergarten days. I attended one of the best law schools in India and have an LLM from a leading British university. I have worked as a corporate/commercial lawyer since 1998. What worked for me may not work for others.

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel that it makes sense to sign up for a popular crash course like Barbri or Themis or Kaplan. I didn't take any of these, but wish I had done so for my first attempt, in addition to Adaptibar.  The bar exam is not the best time or occasion to reinvent the wheel. 

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – A critique


I re-read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and jotted down a few thoughts regarding this amazing novel, which is set in a village called Umofia in pre-independence, south eastern Nigeria and is considered to be a milestone in African literature.

Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, is Umuofia’s wrestling champion, a man who had defeated "Amalinze The Cat" when he was just eighteen. Okonkwo is tough on himself and tough on those around him, stamping out all weaknesses, beating his wives and children often. Okonkwo’s father Unoka had been a man with a weakness for song and wine and had left behind many debts. Okonkwo is determined to be the exact opposite of his father and works hard to build his wealth entirely on his own. Okonkwo is very successful, until things fall apart for him.

Things Fall Apart is set in the set 19th century and Nigeria still has witch doctors, black magic and tribes. The beauty of Achebe’s writing is that he does not make any apologies for the customs of his Igbo people. The various sub-tribes of Igbo are what they are and the reader has no option but to accept them without any changes to suit modern day values and form his/her own private judgement. Halfway through the tale, Okonkwo is selected by the elders of Umofia to take care of Ikemefuna, a boy offered to the clan as an offering, along with a virgin, for the murder of an Umuofian woman by Ikemefuna's father. Ikemefuna lives in Okonkwo's household and Okonkwo grows fond of him, although Okonkwo hides his feelings for the boy. Ikemefuna looks up to Okonkwo as a second father. Three years after Ikemefuna joined Okonkwo’s household, the Oracle of Umuofia decides that Ikemefuna must be killed as a punishment for his father’s actions. Though resisting the Oracle is never on the table, Okonkwo could have refused to play an active role in Ikemefuna’s killing, but Okonkwo voluntarily strikes the killing blow. Afterwards he is sick for a couple of days, but recovers quickly.

Fate deals Okonkwo a blow below the belt when his gun explodes accidentally at a funeral and kills the son of the man being buried. Okonkwo and his family are exiled from Umofia for seven years.

When Christian missionaries infiltrate the villages and overturn the ways of the Clan, Okonkwo wants to resist. However, the rest of the village doesn’t stand with him the way he wants and when a few join forces, it is too little and too late. The ways of the Christians, when seen in the cold light of the day, are more rational and logical than that of those who respect the spirits of the forests and the Oracle, but Achebe’s narration is such that one has nothing but respect for the old ways, though he does not embellish them.  Towards the end, there is acceleration as things fall apart even faster and Okankwo commits suicide rather than be punished further by white men.

A classic, this is definitely one of the best novels I have read it my entire life. To top it all, the opening paragraph of this celebrated novel is supposed to be the one of best opening paragraphs for a novel.  


Saturday, 26 December 2020

Book Review: Excess Baggage, by Richa S. Mukherjee


Shedding excess baggage is an arduous task, one most people don’t even take on. Both the Punjabis, Smita and Anviksha, have plenty of excess baggage. Anviksha has survived two marriages and has a tendency to speak frankly, something which doesn’t go down well with everyone. If frankness doesn’t drive home the point, she is capable of slamming the hand that touches her offensively, even if the hand belongs to a relatively senior colleague. She also holds modern views on social issues, which seem to be at odds with her mother’s, though Smita Punjabi is also a divorcee.

When things get really bad in Mumbai, both at home and at work, Anviksha decides to take a solo travel holiday. True to form, Smita Punjabi decides to tag along with her daughter and Anviksha is unable to shake her mother off. The mother-daughter duo travel cheaply (on Ethiopian Airways), stay with friends and family in London and Amsterdam and have adventures which would put Tom Sawyer in the shade.

Mukherjee is extremely good with her description of Smita and Anviksha and the rest of their circle, including Mutton the Shih Tzu. In simple but elegant prose, each character is allowed to breathe and flower in a manner that conveys the essence of the person. In the case of Smita, the transformation as she sheds her excess baggage is almost extreme. Smita doesn’t travel light since she carries with her the desire and ability to feed those in her vicinity with tasty Sindhi fare. For Smita, carrying lots of cooked food when travelling is not just about penny pinching, rather, it defines her personality. As she sheds her baggage, she learns, innovates and transforms. Still one is surprised when Smita starts taking up cudgels on behalf of Anviksha during family arguments around Anviksha's lifestyle and freedom of choice and one continues to be surprised as Smita’s views become increasingly progressive. Smita ‘understands’ two Dutch sisters who are veterans of the sex trade. In the Chotramani household in Amsterdam, she gulps once as she is introduced to a gay couple, but her shock subsides soon enough and she calmly offers mithai to Mr. and Mrs. Ravi.

Since Anviksha is single, Mukherjee keeps her reader guessing about the book’s ending. Anviksha is on talking terms with Rudra, her first ex. She takes time to fully get over handsome hunk Ranvijay, her second ex. Aakash makes his appearance right at the start and it is clear that Anviksha likes him a lot, thought we do not know the full depth of Anviksha's feelings for Aakash till the end. We know that it is unlikely to be Ranvijay, though he is the most handsome of the three and the richest. As part of her journey, Anviksha becomes more and more tolerant of Rudra and his weaknesses, even as she falls in love with Aakash. To complicate things further, towards the end of the novel, Smita and Anviksha run into a close, but long-lost family member in Amsterdam. No, I’d rather not give the story away. Please do read Excess Baggage to find out for yourself how this excellent novel ends. Highly recommended.