Monday, December 31, 2012

Notable books of 2012

I wrote a post, Review of Reviews in 2012, listing some of the books I read in 2012, and also the whole experience of writing reviews at the pace of one a week. In this post, I will call out what I consider as the best books I read in the year about to go by. These are in the order that I reviewed them in 2012. I had thought this list would comprise twenty books, and with much planning and figurative pats on the literal back I started tweeting this list. As I came to the last book I reviewed this year, I realized I had goofed up with the Twitter posts, and ended with 19 books. Need to go back and correct that.

1. The year started out with a review of the very, very fine "India's Culture and India's Future, by Michael Danino". Not only is it written in an easy going, engaging manner, it is also very well organized, and gives all the hyperbole one has come to expect from books that talk in a positive light about India. The book is short enough to be read in one sitting, and it is a pity it has not found a wider audience.

2.While Michael Lewis' "The Big Short" was also a look at the origins and some of the players in the makings of the financial meltdown of 2008, his latest book, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis", is a travelogue, a disaster tourism travelogue if you will, among countries as they cope with the aftermath of the financial meltdown - and it's not a pretty picture that stares us in the face. Lewis' wit and tombstone humour alleviates what could have been an otherwise a very dirge of a tale.

 3. I forget how, but somehow, somewhere, I learned of an ongoing translation of the Mahabharata - the whole nine yards, mind you, and in this case this would be the whole 80,000 shlokas that form the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata - by economist Dr. Bibek Debroy. I bought the first two volumes (there's a story there too - I ordered the second volume, then realized my mistake, and I could not find a way to cancel that order, and therefore ended up ordering the first volume too). I read them every night till I had finished both, and then was on to the third and fourth volumes. For someone with the gumption to persevere, I believe this is the most approachable translation yet of the entire Mahabharata. It avoids the faux-archaic usage of words like "thee", "thine", "thou", which I have always found to grate on my palate - even when encountered in a Shakespeare play, yes! Short footnotes every now and then help clarify some points. Six volumes have been published thus far, taking us to near the end of the Kurukshetra war, and a further six are planned, including Hari Vamsa and some stories from the epic that have been excised from the Critical Edition. These six volumes are also available as Amazon Kindle e-book editions, so  you can now carry an epic on a phone.
Vol.1Vol.2Vol. 3Vol. 4Vol.5 (12)

4. Perhaps the only way one can tell the history of the subcontinent, or a country in it, like Pakistan, without completely going insane with frustration, is by taking refuge in humour. In "The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power", author Tariq Ali does just that, and the result is an unputdownable mix of information and at times rib-tickling humour, laced with the pickling acid of sarcasm.
KindleFlipkartInfibeamJungleeThis Ya ThatIndiaPlaza

5. How much do we lie? When do we lie? What about when people are looking, and what about when we can get clean away with cheating? "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves, by Dan Ariely" uses results from real-life experiments run by the author and collaborators and others to look at these very pertinent issues. In some ways this book is also somewhat of a sequel to his earlier book, "The Upside of Irrationality", which covered similar ground, but only in passing.
AmazonKindleFlipkartInfibeammy user review on Amazon

6. The skewed gender ratio in much of the developing world, especially India, has been the focus of much hand wringing. "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl" is a simply amazing book on the issue, and uncovers causes you would not have thought of - like colonialism, that instituted so-called land reforms that excluded women from inheriting property, or western institutions and governments that equated a burgeoning population with an increased threat of communism. It forces you to think about the skewed gender ratio in a more informed light. Possibly the best book I read in 2012.
AmazonKindleFlipkartBookAddaLandmarkThisYaThatPowell'sMy review on Amazon

7. This book - "The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie" - is as much about 1975, the year India lost her Fundamental Rights for a year and a half, as it is about 2011 and 2012, that saw India battle an increasingly autocratic government and a spate of corruption scandals. Arun Shourie walks us through debates in Parliament that preceded the passing of  amendments to the Constitution, meant to help one and only one individual - Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister, and the uncivil statements made during the course of those farcical debates.
FlipkartAmazonRupa & comy review on Amazon

8. The only thing more heretical than writing a book trashing Mother Teresa's reputation has to be to write a glowing review of the book. Christopher Hitchens has penned a short polemic, a takedown of sorts, of Mother Teresa, in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Read it as much for the use of the English language as for its sarcasm laden wit against the Mother.
AmazonFlipkartKindlemy review on Amazon

9. I found "After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, by Lesley Hazleton" to be a short and eminently readable introduction to the origins of the Shia - Sunni split in Islam. While the book gets overly melodramatic at places, it is still a stirring and moving account, especially of the adopted son Ali, and that of his son, Hussain. It doesn't quite explain why the Shias and Sunnis should have developed an all-encompassing, visceral hatred of each other as they did, but it provides some pointers for sure.
KindleAmazonFlipkartmy review on Amazon

10. The whole genre of mythological fiction has left me untouched, and the first in this series that I read was proof that this was a genre best left alone. Then Dr. Bibek Debroy recommended I try "Bali and the Ocean of Milk, by Nilanjan P Choudhury", and I did. After reading this book I could not understand why this book did not receive more attention than it did, and why this book was not a blockbuster bestseller. I suspect people went for looks - the looks of the cover - and they found it confusing. The cover hints at a story that is wholly different from what it actually was. I hope the author writes another book; the genre deserves more books such as this.
FlipkartAmazonmy review on Amazon

11. Islamophobia is a term thrown about fast and easy against anyone who writes about the dangers of Islamic fanaticism. Such is the case in India for sure. "Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips" deserves a careful read. It deserves attention and its context is valid even more so in India. There is a tinge of the extreme in the author's book, to be sure, but you have to filter that out. If you do, what is left should be food for thought for everyone. The author brings together several strands of thought, including anti-Zionism, liberal philosophy, judicial activism, and more, to argue that a systemic bias against Judeo-Christian ethos pervades British society. Strong words.

12. Why yet another Ramayana translation? Well, how about an abridged translation, from a scholar who brings empathy and wisdom to the translation? "Valmiki's Ramayana", Translated by Arshia Sattar renewed the epic for me, and also, for the first time, brought me closer to the Baroda Critical Edition. It is however not a soulless abridgment - it has an emotional and devotional core that is preserved in this translation.
AmazonFlipkartmy review on Amazon

13. Why do vaccines scare us? And why do people feed on that fear using pseudo-science, quackery, fear-mongering, to put the lives of millions of children at risk? Without remorse. With a fanatical passion that is resistant to facts and reason. "Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All", by Paul Offit is a fact-laden takedown of the anti-vaccine cult, and is written in a mostly approachable manner for the  lay reader.
AmazonKindleFlipkartPowell'sMy review on Amazon

14. "Time Stops at Shamli, by Ruskin Bond" is the kind of book you would want to read just about anywhere, anyplace. The title story is perhaps the best, while the others are also very, very readable. Some are as short as two pages, while most are four to five pages long. There is a near-total absence of overwrought phrases or adjectives dripping with desperate exertions.
AmazonFlipkartmy review on Amazon

15. What use are children if they cannot be sold to, if useless baubles advertised to them. And what use is childhood if one cannot profit from it. "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture", by Peggy Orenstein is a useful and well-written book on the topic of commercial exploitation of children.
AmazonKindleFlipkartPowell'smy review on Amazon

16. As time goes by, as one gets older, wiser perhaps, appreciation for the Peanutes series and the genius of Charles M Schulz only increases. "Good Ol Charlie Brown, How I Hate Him!" is the first book in the very ambitious project to publish every single Peanuts comic strip, and the evolution of Charlie Brown, his angst, his insecurities are all there for us to see. Truly a great comic strip.
AmazonFlipkartPowellsmy review on Amazon

17. What happens when you yearn for intellectual acknowledgment, but lack the insights to contribute in any meaningful way to the discourse on the impact of technology? "The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov" documents these foibles of putting technology front-and-center - "technology centrism", of trying to seek false equivalence between political and social movements more than two decades ago.

18. Certainly one of the more anticipated books of the year, "How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough" is certainly a good read, but at times accounts of the persons seem to suffocate the underlying message and information that needs to stay on top. Adverse experiences in childhood, too protective a childhood, a lack of focus - all can affect our chances of success, of happiness in life.
AmazonKindleFlipkartPowell'sPublisherreview on Amazon

19. One of the most anticipated books in India in 2012, "Durbar, by Tavleen Singh" is a journalist's retelling of a pivotal 25 year period in India's history, from the imposition of Emergency in 1975 to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The underlying thread that runs through the book is not only the insidious reach of a select clique answerable to no one, but also the hand of Rajiv Gandhi in so many decisions that went bad, and the results of which are still being suffered by this nation.
Kindle, my review on Amazon,

20. There are only so many ways you can retell the Mahabharata. So I thought. Then came "Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, by Amruta Patil", which is a spectacular graphic retelling of the epic. To be accurate, it is only part of the first parva of the epic, the Adi Parva, and is the first in a planned trilogy. Also, it is much more graphics, illustrations than words. And this works just very well with the book. The drawings, color as well as charcoal black-and-white, evoke certain feelings, moods, and invite you to gaze and ponder at the illustrations, adding to the words and drawings what your imagination brings to the pictures. If you like this book, I venture you will return to this book several times. At Rs 799, it is not cheap, but this is a lavishly produced work of art. As for the price - there are always online comparison sites to look for discounts and bargains.
AmazonFlipkartmy review on Amazon

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review of Reviews in 2012

2012 turned out to be a fecund year, for both reading and writing reviews. A goal that came to mind only in the closing months of the year - to write 52 reviews, one for each week of the year - was accomplished, albeit with some effort and a little bit of cheating - some of the books I reviewed were children's books, and some less than thirty pages long. But a review is a review is a review. I don't expect every year to be so fertile, either in terms of reading, or writing reviews - a book a week is a pace difficult to maintain. Even this year, some of the reviews actually took more time to write than it took to read the entire book itself! Surely an admission of incompetence on my part. But, if I were to say a couple of things in my defence - rereading several portions of the book when writing a review only made me appreciate those books more, and secondly, I am not a professional reviewer, nor a full-time reviewer. The philosophy behind writing reviews was to keep my reading honest - if I could not write a review of the book that I liked, then most likely I had not paid enough attention while reading the book. The negative reviews were the ones that took more time to write, and more attention, because the burden was that much greater when criticising than when praising. Weekend nights were the most obvious time when these reviews were written, which was good in a way, because it kept me away from the television and the fake outrage of compromised journalists interspersed with the coldly calculative attempts of advertisers at making me feel inferior so I would go out and buy their wares. So, on to a review of the reviews in the year that was.

To say 2012 was an epic year for me as far as reading goes would be to abuse a pun, especially if you consider that I got started on reading a translation of the epic, Mahabharata, in its unabridged form. I read five volumes (I, II, III, IV, V) of Bibek Debroy's translation of the Mahabharata, and as the year ends, I look forward to the sixth volume. I was hooked with the first volume itself, and the tale only got better with the subsequent volumes. A stupendous effort - the translated work - that requires inestimable energy and patience. There were several other books on Hindu mythology that I read along the way, including 7 Secrets of Vishnu, by Devdutt Pattanaik. Bali and the Ocean of Milk, by Nilanjan P Choudhury was an exceptionally well-written and well-crafted book that deserved far greater attention and success than it actually got. Prince of Ayodhya, by Ashok Banker is a fine start to the Ramayana if you are looking for a modern, highly dramatized retelling of the epic. Valmiki's Ramayana, Translated by Arshia Sattar however is the book to read if you are interested in an abridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Ramayana. The last review, the 52nd, that I wrote, is of Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, by Amruta Patil, an absolutely stupendous graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. 2012 was evidently a year when I read several books on India - religious, mythological, and otherwise, and the very first I reviewed, India's Culture and India's Future, by Michael Danino, deserves to be read by every Indian, or, as I said - by the confused Indian and the misinformed rest.

Although After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, by Lesley Hazleton drips with overwrought sentimentality at points, it is nonetheless a short and compelling read on the Shia-Sunni split in Islam. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, by Christopher Hitchens was a heretical read, in a manner of speaking - an expose of sorts of the Mother herself. Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips, on the other hand, is a passionate and at times shrill cry against the author's perceived radicalization of the city of London. Ignore some of the hyperbole and the book makes for disturbing reading. Again, it has an Indian context that Indians would do well to not ignore. As the state of India careened towards a total lack of governance and chaos, lurching from one scandal to another, The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie was an eloquent reminder of the adage, "history repeats itself - first as a tragedy, then as a farce." Durbar, by Tavleen Singh took the reader through a specific period in Indian history - 1975 to 1991, and the increasing clout of the courtiers of the royal family of India - the Gandhis, and their and their masters' role in almost every single blunder in that period. Across the border, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, by Tariq Ali provided a caustic account of the foibles of the country's - Pakistan - leaders, both political and military.

As the Internet and social media invade our private and personal lives more and more, I was glad that I read at least two excellent books on the topic: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, by Eli Pariser and The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. The standout in this category remains The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, that I read in 2011. There are at least three more on my reading list, but I am most likely not going to get to them in the remaining five days of this year.

Both Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl and Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Paul Offit were illuminating reads, "Unnatural Selection" in particular leaves you disturbed at the callous manner in which both Western and Indian governments came to advocate female foeticide, call it sex-selective abortions if you will, as a means of population control. "Deadly Choices" should be read by, or read out, to everyone who thinks that there is any alternative to vaccination in protecting our children from preventable and fatal diseases. How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough on the other hand gives a short if somewhat light on details take on what it is that children need and what they need to avoid to succeed in life.

Lastly, the year was not all about serious, non-fiction, or mythological reading. Apart from several children's books that I read, and Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard AtwaterSleep, Big Bear, Sleep, by Maureen Wright, Will HillenbrandThe Paper Bag Princess, by Robert N. MunschGood Ol Charlie Brown, How I Hate Him! , by Charles M Schulz are some that I could heartily recommend, The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho  was a good though somewhat overrated book. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson is a classic, while the much known The Camel Club, by David Baldacci is good, till the climax, when it sort of falls apart. John Grisham made a return to form with The Litigators, and The Reversal, by Michael Connelly provided a slight change from his usual thrillers. Some of the short stories in Time Stops at Shamli, by Ruskin Bond are a delight to read, and the title story is perhaps one of the best I have read in a long, long time.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Adi Parva, by Amruta Patil

Adi Parva - Churning of the Ocean, via Amruta Patil

5 stars

A spectacular graphic retelling of the Mahabharata. This first in a trilogy will leave you spellbound.
(AmazonFlipkart, my review on Amazon)

If you want to retell the Mahabharata, and want it to stand out from the thousands of retellings over the thousands of years, you have only a few choices. After all, most of what could be said has been said about the epic. However, it is also undeniable that each generation needs a retelling, an adaptation, an interpretation, that it can call its own. You can do a complete translation from the Sanskrit original (from the Critical Edition i.e., since no one really knows what the original is), as is being done by Bibek Debroy for instance. It is is a notable effort, but takes several years to complete, and severely limits the audience, leaving only those few with the gumption to wait and wade through more than six thousand pages of text. The work of a young Samhita Arni stands out for different reasons - the author was not even ten years old when she started writing her interpretation of the epic. 

Adi Parva, by ("via") Amruta Patil is a standout addition to the retellings of the epic, for several reasons. This lavishly produced high quality edition is a marvelous work, for several reasons. This is a graphic book, with the emphasis being more on the drawings than on the text. Each page has at most a two-three lines of text, which leaves you with a full page of charcoal or color illustrations to gaze at.
"It would take several curses ... to bring Karn down on the battlefield."
This story of the Mahabharata comes to us via Amruta Patil, who calls herself the reteller, the sutradhaar. The story itself has its own sutradhaar, Ganga, the river, the goddess. Where and when the sutradhaar makes her appearance in the story, it serves two purposes. One, to provide commentary, insight, a break - if you will, from the story itself. Lurking in the shadows in these charcoal drawings is the second sutradhaar - the cursed Ashwatthama - who will step up, I presume, in the second volume of this retelling. The second purpose of these interregnums is to provide a segue of sorts into a side-story, and there are several the dot the landscape of the epic. Some seem entirely unrelated to the epic, while some serve to add their own raison d'etre to what surely must be a severe case of hyper-causality to several events in the epic.

The snake sacrifice of Janmajeya is one such example. A snake sacrifice to sacrifice all snakes, to get one snake - Takshaka. The cause of this sacrifice is a son's need to avenge his father's murder. The cause of this sacrifice is a mother's anger at, and subsequent curse, of her sons. Ultimately, the sacrifice is as much a reason to avenge Parikshit's death as it is to re-introduce history to a people who had forgotten their own past, and were on their way to repeating it.
"Neither intent nor sacrifices is enough any more, a heavy rope of ritual must yoke the mind and body together."
If you were to take the text in the book, it would probably add up to no more than perhaps thirty pages. Thirty pages out of the story's 250 pages. Which places a heavy burden on the drawings. They are not all drawn in the same style, or from the same palette. Each looks and feels similar and yet very different - and they are sometimes deliberately vague. The vagueness of the drawings evokes a certain mood, and elicits a different emotional response from the reader. Whether it is the blazing red background when Kadru curses her serpent sons, the magnificent black-and-white rendering of Dhruva the pole star, the transformation from full-color to a grayscale palette as Gandhari wears her blindfold for the first time, or Indra's Pearls (Indrajaal) - each pulls you in, to spend time gazing and wondering.
The text serves as a path, while the drawings is the scenery as you walk the path - you are rewarded if you spend some time to take in the scenery as you walk the epic.

A doubly difficult challenge in a book such as this is to find on the one hand, a new narrative even as you must stay true to the story, and on the other hand to retain a consistency, quality and coherence in the illustrations. In the drawings you must avoid the temptation to introduce faux novelty for the sake of breaking the tedium and boredom that could arise from more of the same. Balancing and succeeding requires two different skills, and therefore to succeed at both is a no small feat.

The book ends with Pandu's end, and with Kunti ready to re-enter Hastinapura.

The author acknowledges several debts in this work - including that of her brother, Devdutt Pattanaik, and whose influence can be seen in some places in the book, and of Bibek Debroy, who has thus far brought out six of the planned twelve volumes of the unabridged Mahabharata.

Is this book for children? Will children want to read this book? Should children read this book? These are three different, but related, questions. The answer to the first and third questions is a qualified "no", while the answer to the second question is an unqualified "yes". Let me put it this way - if no more than five or six pages were to be edited or reworded and redrawn, the answer to all three questions would become an unqualified "yes". As a translator of the Mahabharata, unabridged or edited, you do not have the leeway or license to excise the more adult-themed material from the epic. As a reteller, a sutradhaar, it becomes your choice. I can only hope a second edition of this spectacular book will see the author consider making some changes, and therefore opening this epic to the world of children to read it a very new light.

ISBN: 9789350294161
Cover Price: Rs. 799.00
Format: 232 x 155 mm/Hardback
Extent: 276  pages
Category: Fiction/Graphic

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep, by Maureen Wright

Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep!, by Maureen Wright, Will Hillenbrand
Sleep, Sweep, Jeep - It's All the Same!
5 stars
(my review on Amazon)
This is a short tale of a big bear's attempts to follow his friend's, Old Man Winter, advice to go to sleep. Winter is approaching, and our big bear needs to sleep. However, if the big bear is hard of hearing, the results can be different, and hilarious. The book is gorgeously illustrated, and when read out to kids, will evoke squeals of laughter from them. The e-book Kindle version is of high quality - the illustrations show no signs of pixellation on a tablet, and if you pinch to zoom on the text, it pops out out, making it easier to read. The story itself is not the point of this book, if one were to choose to crib over the non-existent plot. It is a picture book at its heart, and as such the illustrations are marvelous. The rhyming sentences add a cadence to the story.
A nice book for children to cozy up to. Enjoyable when read out aloud to them, enjoyable for children to see and try and read on their own too.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Indianomix, by Vivek Dehjejia, Rupa Subramaniya

Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya
A Good Freakonomics-Style Book on India Will Have to Wait
3 stars
(AmazonAmazon KindleAmazon UKKindle UKFlipkart
My review on AmazonIndianomix – Wait for the Movie! : Centre Right India)

The trend, the craze, the fashion, that Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist sparked makes it way to an Indian context with this book, but the effects are less than spectacular. A plethora of problems mar what could have been an otherwise successful pop-economics-and-behavioral-psychology book.

Applying economics and blending it with research gleamed from the still nascent field of behavioral economics - in itself a blend of behavioral psychology and economics - to everyday topics can yield fascinating insights that do a better job of explaining how people behave than traditional models that rely on the mythical "rational economic person". It would be an understatement to make the case that we need different, and more rational, models of behavior in the Indian context. As India changes - socially, economically, and politically - providing models of human behavior, in both individual and collective contexts, can help everyone better understand, explain, and perhaps correct undesirable orthodoxy in though.

This book attempts to do just that, but is stymied by several, several factors. When explaining economic concepts, it tends to fall over in talking down to the reader. There is a plethora of phrases like "what economists call a...", "economists are used to ..." - liable to give the reader the impression that he is not supposed to be intelligent enough to know these concepts. When introducing behavioral economics, it sprays basic concepts all over the book, making it very, very difficult for someone who has not already some knowledge of the topic to truly grasp the profoundness of the work of people like Kahnemann and Tversky. When applying these models to Indian problems and behaviors, the arguments put forth are never quite fully fleshed out. Some explanations are simply dropped midway, abruptly. Some are never carried to some logical conclusion. And some are plain wrong. Add to this prose that at times leaves you gasping for semantic clarity, and the result is a miasma of confusion and a picture that never reveals itself.

The section where the book is at its best is when it treads territory pertaining to failures arising out of depletion of cognitive resources. This is a topic that has been covered in other books like "Switch", where willpower is compared to a muscle, albeit a mental muscle. This means that the effort required to suppress our impulses - like resisting a chocolate pie when dieting, can themselves tax and tire our cognitive resources to the extent that we can end up lowering our guard in other areas.
This is of great value when trying to understand why poor, very poor people, indulge in impulse decisions that are very costly. The cognitive restraint required to resists temptations, so very constant and so very tempting, is much greater for the poor than it is for the better off.
"They found that the farmers scored noticeably better after the harvest than before. In other words, their cognitive failures and biases were more pronounced when they were more constrained (and poorer) than when they were less so."
Let us look at some examples of the problems I found with and in the book. Take the example of the QWERTY keyboard and its very sticky ubiquity, despite the so many obvious inefficiencies with its design and the availability, for decades now, of demonstrably better alternatives.
"It turns out that this is what worked best on a typewriter given the position of the metal keys as they struck the paper, not for the ease of the typist,"
Now, this is not strictly correct. The reason that the QWERTY layout was designed was to reduce the incidence of these typewriters jamming. This was especially true of the cheaper typewriters, not so much an issue with the more expensive, and better quality, typewriters. And if you are talking about the QWERTY keyboard, you have to talk about the most popular, relatively speaking, alternative - the DVORAK keyboard - to understand why the QWERTY keyboard has remained to persistently popular. Which the book does not.

One of the cognitive biases that we humans suffer from is "the law of small numbers" - our haste in drawing conclusions from very few observations. The book talks about the probability of getting four heads in a row and how it is fallacious to assume on that basis that the coin is biased - because the chances of a fair coin landing heads four times in succession are 6.25% - not impossibly low by any means. To generalize from randomness is not good. But the example is uninteresting. It's plain boring. As a contrast, look at Leonard Mlodinow's "The Drunkard's Walk", where he writes, "...mathematician George Spencer-Brown, who wrote that in a random series of 10 (to the power 1000007) zeroes and ones, you should expect at least 10 nonoverlapping subsequences of 1 million consecutive zeros. " That does arrest your attention, doesn't it? A million consecutive zeroes is NOT evidence of a biased coin, or a non-random process? Math can amaze us. Even this brilliant Dibert cartoon on randomness brings out the point in a more memorable way than the book's example.

When talking of the differences between autocracies and democracies, the book touches on the topic of the skewed sex-ratio in India being partly the result of the easy and cheap availability to ultrasound machines. These machines made it easy to tell the gender of the foetus, with lethal consequences for the unborn female child. What they fail to mention, and it is incredibly germane to a discussion that includes behavioral economics, is that the government of India actually encouraged the use of these machines and the resulting sex-selective abortions as a means of population control. "Nudges" from the government had unintended consequences. Mara Hvistendahl's excellent book "Unnatural Selection" covers this in some detail, and describes a young doctor's harrowing experience of watching a dog make off with an aborted foetus at the country's most prestigious hospital, AIIMS.

Another potential pitfall with the book is its over-reliance on sole experts. When talking about road safety and accidents, their sole Indian expert in this field seems to be Dinesh Mohan. Nor could they find a psephologist other than Yogendra Yadav, who - while possessing the requisite sartorial skills required of an intellectual, also sports a very sombre and serious beard - it should be noted, is a regular fixture on a cable news channel that has had repeated problems with lapses of ethics and objectivity. When the credibility of an argument is seen to rest on solitary experts, the edifice is on a shaky foundation.

A book that encourages the reader to ask questions is a good thing. But questions about the quality of arguments presented tend to undermine the credibility of the book itself. When such questions start popping up on almost every single page, on almost every single topic, I, as the reader, had to make a serious call on what exactly would the returns on the investment in my time be. After going through approximately two-thirds of the book, I had to stop.

Let me add three more issues I found with the book, and I will stop at that.

The book's intellectual credibility takes a deep, deep dive when it veers into colonialism, and whether it was good or bad for India. One of their premises is that it is difficult to do a strict apples-to-apples comparison in several situations. The issue of the efficacy of seat-belts is one such topic that they cover and the difficulty of doing a credible assessment of its success without having a "credible counter-factual" history to compare with. In simple language, it means having a time machine and running some very interesting "Back to the Future" style experiments. The authors do note that where it is somewhat possible to do such a comparison, albeit on a very isolated and perhaps non-representative manner, between regions under direct British rule and between those under the rule of princely states, the results do suggest that "the regions that were under direct British rule have higher rates of poverty and infant mortality into the present day." Fair enough. But, in the interests of being even-handed, they let loose this thermonuclear of a controversial statement - "But does this tell us that British rule caused India’s economic stagnation, and the country would have prospered otherwise? There’s no way to tell, unless we come up with a plausible and credible counterfactual history."
I am sorry - no, I am not, actually - but this is a complete "Are you effing kidding me?!" I will not say much other than to refer them to Madhushree Mukherjee's excellent book, "Churchill's Secret War", and my equally magnificent review of the book (note the non-self-deprecating sarcasm here).

The authors describe the unfounded optimism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, exhibited towards an increasingly hostile China's aggressive gestures in words and deeds. They quote Pt. Nehru's confession, "With great candour and self-awareness" that "he’d been living in a dream world before the war broke out." They then question whether the great man had suffered from cognitive failures? Yes, perhaps so. But wouldn't it be also reasonable to mention that several people, and not just Vallabhai Patel (not "Sardar" Patel, mind you), had in the decade preceding India's military humiliation warned Panditji, and repeatedly? Arun Shourie's "Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again" uses Panditji's own words and correspondence to document his repeated blindness to the inevitability of coming events. Is it not possible that Panditji did not want India to be militarily prepared because doing so would have contradicted his self-image in the world as an international man of peace? Isn't that a more believable explanation of Panditji's cognitive failings? Whether or not one agrees with it, it certainly merits an inclusion in a book that is supposed to teach us how to think about events like economists?
As an aside, note that noted security expert Brahma Chellaney writes that the Chinese chose their time of attack to coincide with the preoccupation of the West with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 20, 1962. The USA ended its blockade of Cuba on November 20, 1962. Coincidental? Diabolically Chanakyan?

The book, when talking about random events, dwells a bit on Sonia Gandhi's entry and rise in politics. They write, and I quote:
"Even after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on May 21, 1991, she declined to jump into the fray and stayed out of politics for the next decade and a half. It wasn’t until the Congress’s unexpected victory that we’ve talked about, in 2004, that she stepped into public life as the head of the UPA."
Are they serious? Are they serious???
Firstly, a decade and a half from 1991 would take us to 2006, not 2004. Sonia Gandhi had stepped into public life long before 2004.
Sonia Gandhi became the leader of the Congress party in 1998.
She contested elections to the Lok Sabha in 1999.
Even the events surrounding her accession as the leader of the Congress Party is a story most unedifying.
If these were not indications of her "stepping into public life", I wonder what else would qualify.
Perhaps Tavleen Singh's "Durbar" may help them shed light on why she chose not to enter politics in 1991. Journalist Kanchan Gupta also may have some informed opinion to share on the amount of political influence Sonia Gandhi wielded in the years before 1997/8 also.

Writing good English is difficult. Which is why good writers are rare. Good writers in the sciences are even rarer. Which is why an Atul Gawande (read "Better" and "Complications" to know what I am talking about) is so admired. One reason Freakonomics was as big a blockbuster bestseller as it was had to do with its language. Sample this somewhat risque passage from the book:
"The delicate balance between these factors helps explain why, for instance, the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect. ... As for demand? Let's just say that an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice-versa."
In this book, however, you come across instances where you have to think - surely these gaffes could have been avoided. At times the text gets just stops flowing, and gets mired in the prepositional quicksands of grammar, like in the sentence below.
"... if you're not en route to where he needs to go to hand off to the next driver,"
Or you don't know if you are going or you need to 'comma'.
"She was in Cambridge not at the fabled university but taking English language classes at a private college."
Or when the literal collides with slang, and you're not quite sure what to make of the resulting, err, loaf of a sentence.
"What was once a bread basket has become a basket case."
In conclusion, I have to admit to at least a little bit of guilt when writing this review. It's not quite glowing. It's harsh. I am not paid to write reviews, good or bad, scathing or adulatory. I understand the effort it takes to put together a book, especially when it's not someone's full-time job. To then have someone, a blogger, a non-entity, rip it to pieces is harsh. This is one reason I spend more time on the negative reviews - to put forth my point of view that does not make it seem like an armchair pronouncement. In the final analysis, a review is a very subjective pronouncement on a book, biased by the reader's own views, knowledge, cognitive blindspots, and so many other factors.

Kindle Excerpt:

 © 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mr Popper's Penguins

Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard Atwater
(Amazon Kindle, Amazon)
4 stars
A Simple and Fantastical Tale for Children
This is a short, fun, and completely fantastical tale for children. While the book shows its age, unsurprising given that the book was written more than seventy years ago, this book is best enjoyed if read by an adult to a child.

Ignore the modern movie adaptation of the book, and you will find the story is very simple. There are none of the emotional, unresolved issues that run through every member of the family in the movie. Mr. Popper was a forgetful house painter who must have painted every house in Stillwater, sometimes many times over. When he was not working, which was the winter months, he had all the time to sit in his chair and read about the Antarctic. He even wrote to Admiral Drake, a famous explorer, and to his surprise, one day he found a rather large package arrive by express mail, with a live penguin inside. From there begins the delightful adventure and episodes of slapstick humour when Mr. Popper tries to convince a service man to drill holes in a refrigerator and put a handle inside one, or when he calls City Hall to try and find out if a license is needed to keep a penguin. In the early decades of the twentieth century, it is not that surprising that people would not have heard of penguins. The cute birds are after all found only in Antarctica.

The book is a happy tale, though you do wonder sometimes just how much the penguins would have liked being outside their native home of Antarctica. But then again, you have to remind yourself that this is a seventy five year old book. Mr. Popper is a fairly uni-dimensional man, a quiet man, a good husband and a good father, and most of all, a good penguin keeper. There are no villains in this book, at least none that are downright evil or mean.

The book, in my opinion, given how pervasive digital animation movies have become, may not appeal to older children. That is the reason I said at the beginning of my review that this book may be best enjoyed if read by an adult to young children.

If you buy the e-book version, you also get a short biography of the author, Richard Atwater, and his wife and collaborator, Florence Atwater, along with nine photographs.

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch, Michael Martchenko

The Paper Bag Princess (Annikins)
Robert N. Munsch (Author), Michael Martchenko (Illustrator)
"You Go Girl!!!"
(Amazon, Kindle, Flipkart, Powell's, Goodreads)
5 stars
It is the prince that gets kidnapped by a fiery, fire-spewing dragon. It is the princess that gets to go and try and rescue the prince in distress. The princess has nothing to wear except a paper bag, and hence the title of the book. What happens next is a mix of intelligence, spunk, and a don't-take-nonsense attitude from our young princess. A welcome change from the fairy tales where the princess has nothing to do but pine for the dashing brave prince to rescue the princess.
The book is beautifully illustrated, with a a couple of lines of text for each full-page color illustration. I purchased and read the Kindle e-book version, and on your computer or tablet, the book is a treat to read.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Durbar, by Tavleen Singh

Durbar, by Tavleen Singh

"A Lucid First Draft of History"
5 stars   This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
(Amazon US, Amazon INKindle, Flipkart, Flipkart e-bookmy review on Amazon, Powell's)
This very readable book by Tavleen Singh provides a delectable mix of first-person accounts of some of the pivotal episodes in India's political and social history with just the right amount of seasoning and spice in the form of gossip and an insider's peek at the cloistered club that goes by the book's eponymous title, "Durbar".

The author's first-person account begins with the imposition of Emergency in India, and takes us through to 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. These seventeen odd years, from 1974 to 1991, saw India deprived of its Fundamental Rights, for the first time, a non-Congress government at the center, another first, dynastic succession firmly establish itself, the rise of the Hindu Right and the pandering to the Muslim bloc, two assassinations, multiple internal strifes - in Kashmir and Punjab most prominently, external problems, and more. The shadows cast by these events have been long and dark, and the author feels that the "possibility of an Indian renaissance ... recedes further and further away." (pg xii) This was not always the case. In the first couple of decades after Independence, "India was still a dilapidated, unsure sort of place but it had about it the innocence of a country that believed in its dream of democracy and freedom." [page 10]

In a book as short and as long as this one - some 300 pages long, there are bound to be omissions. I will leave those out, omissions on my part if you will, and focus on some of the highlights of this book. A "public school", or "convent" as it is often called in India, education did not turn the author into a "professional India". Rather, a chance encounter on a train with some young men trying to get fresh with some girls travelling with a young Tavleen Singh left a lifelong impression on her - " saddens me that I never learned Sanskrit. ..This language that is the key to India's civilization.. and her ancient texts was mocked in the little English world in which I grew up." It is a reflection of our unchanging attitudes that half a century of supposed independence has not dented these prejudices.

[Paragraph added Dec 9, 2012]
One of the more remarkable things about this book, and the fact that it will come as a surprise is in itself disappointing, is the author's travel experiences. Of traveling in stone-cold trains without a blanket, of having to sleep in mosquito and bat-infested rooms, of toilets that were too filthy to even sh*t in. Of editors who looked askance at reporters who wanted to travel out of Delhi - they were suspected of basically wanting to push off on a holiday. Of waiting for hours and hours on end, waiting for a story to break. Part of it was of course before the era of cell-phones, of the Internet, of 24x7 cable television, before the advent of social media, and before journalists who didn't like criticism could bludgeon critics into legal silence or get them banned using the might of the government. What is undeniable is that to build your cred as a journalist one had to get down and literally get one's feet dirty travelling the length and breadth of the country. If nothing else, what should come out in this book is the kind of work that needed to be put in to become a journalist who was taken seriously.

The book follows mostly a linear narrative, and the author's extensive first-person experiences form the backbone of the book - whether it was traveling to Kashmir before a rigged and thoroughly discredited election plunged the state into the darkness of insurgency and external-sponsored terrorism, or her fearlessness in Punjab during the 1980s. No, she did not parachute herself into the state, microphone in hand, videographer in tow, and a carefully selected phalanx of protesters to serve as a backdrop. No sir. She met Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, where she realized only later that "I had witnessed the Sant ordering an execution." - a Hindu police constable who had allegedly beaten up a Sikh was called out by name, and who turned up dead, shot, a few days later. After Operation Blue Star, the complete fustercluck of a military operation to clear the holy shrine of the Sikhs of terrorists barricaded there, the borders of the entire state of Punjab were ordered closed, and the city of Amritsar itself under curfew. She and Sandeep made it to Amritsar, carrying a letter from her father, Brigadier Amarjeet Singh, as the sabre to rattle soldiers into letting them pass through every road barricade they came across, and met up with General Brar (Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar, who commanded Operation Blue Star).
Some of the conversation she had went like this:
" "Is the temple badly damaged?"
"Yes. And what is sad is that it needn't have been if we had been allowed to spend a month using military intelligence to find out what was going on. We were forced to depend on those bastards in civilian intelligence and they couldn't even tells us how many entrances there were to the temple."
Had we known how many entrances there were we would never have gone in through the main entrance which was so heavily fortified. We lost more than a hundred men in the first few minutes."" [page 167-68]
Note that "more than a hundred men" were lost in the first few minutes. More than a thousand soldiers of the Indian Army were killed in that operation. That alone should have been cause for an inquiry and consequences, both bureaucratic and political. There were none. The reasons were all too clear.
"What I did find out soon enough was that the general view in Rajiv's circle of friends was that Operation Blue Star had been a resounding success and any criticism of it amounted to treason. It took me a while to discover that the reason for this hyper-sensitivity was that Rajiv and his friends had been personally involved in advising a military assault on the Golden Temple. Mrs Gandhis's 'south Indian advisors' had gone along with the plan, but from all accounts were not the ones who initiated it." [page 172]
There is considerable commentary, based on first-hand accounts, of the Emergency, of the riots at Turkman Gate, of the forced sterilization of the poor - in the name of population control, that allows us a glimpse into an India that was brutalized by an arrogant political dynasty and a pliant bureaucracy. More on that later, but after Emergency was lifted, elections announced, and political opponents freed (Rajmata Vijayraje Scindia for one had been imprisoned in a prison cell meant for prisoners on death row, and several other political prisoners lost their mental balance as a result of the solitary confinement they were subject to), a massive rally organized by the opposition political parties is worth recounting in some detail here.

While people today can listen to and watch practiced orators like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, it is easy to forget, especially for people who have become politically conscious only in the last ten of fifteen years or so, that perhaps India's best orator was none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee. He may have become the butt of jokes on account of his prolonged pauses towards the end of his career, but I, for one, who has watched him on television in the 1990s cannot forget the mesmerizing spell he could cast over listeners. So the following excerpt should come as no surprise. It was the second week of January, 1977. Emergency had been lifted a few weeks back by Indira Gandhi and elections announced. Political leaders imprisoned by the Congress government had been freed, and a massive rally had been announced at the Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi. If you have not been to Delhi in the winters, the evenings and nights can get bitterly cold. Add to it rain, and yet, that night in 1977, the crowds waited. The last speaker was to be Atal Behari Vajpayee.
""It was past 9 p.m. and the night had got colder although the rain had stopped." ... [A colleague from the Hindustan Times remarked,] "nobody will leave until Atalji speaks."...
"Because he is the best orator in India. Have you never heard him speak?"
"No. I've only been in journalism since he went to jail."
"Well, you're in for a treat. And to hear him for the first time today will really be something." [pg 60]
He acknowledged the slogans with hands joined in a namaste and a faint smile. Then, raising both arms to silence the crowd and closing his eyes in the manner of a practiced orator, he said, "baad muddat ke mile hain deewane." (बाद मुददत के मिले हैं दीवाने )... He paused. The crowd went wild.
When the applause died he closed his eyes again and allowed himself another long pause before saying, "Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane."(कहने सुनने को बहुत हैं अफ़साने ) ... The cheering was more prolonged, and when it stopped he paused again with his eyes closed before delivering the last line of a verse that he told me later he had composed on the spur of the moment. "Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lain, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane." (ख़ुली हवा में सांस तो ले लें, कब तक रहेगी आज़ादी कौन जाने )
The crowd was now hysterical." [page 60]
He then went on to deliver a speech decrying the excesses of emergency, especially the bundling of the poor like cattle into trucks, taken away to be forcibly sterilized.
"The clapping this remark evoked went on and on and on and it would be only on election day that I would understand why." [pg 61]
The author drops a tantalizing hint that Atal Behari Vajpayee could have become prime minister instead of the rather spartan and strict Morarji Desai. Perhaps India's destiny would have been different, perhaps for the better. As we know, things turned out different. Incidentally, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had admonished Rajiv Gandhi on his incredibly insensitive and appalling statement on the earth shaking when a tree falls, who said that "it is when the earth shakes that trees fall."

And incidentally, when people launch into a harangue on the Yamuna River and its filth, remember that massive numbers of people living in slums in Delhi - lakhs - were forcibly evicted from their homes and forced to live in even more squalid conditions by the Yamuna. Lakhs of these people added to the pollution of the Yamuna. Sanjay Gandhi truly believed in removing the poor and signs of poverty, not really removing poverty. Nameless, faceless, clueless bureaucrats took over the design and planning of Indian cities.

The book is no endless commentary on the political intrigues and escapades of the political class. For instance, the author managed to get permission and time to do an interview of the then Hindi cinema superstar (heck, he is even today, thirty-five years later, the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema).
"By the time he dropped me home at 4 a.m. we had become friends. As for me, I had fallen in love." [pg 108]
Then there is her travel to the Kumbh Mela and the truly heartbreaking sight of seeing little girls at the lost-and-found camp, where she learns that these girls had been deliberately "lost" by parents who did not want girls. Or an even more heartbreaking travel to the drought-stricken district of Kalahandi in Orissa, where entire villages had been wiped out, with people dying a slow death, watching their children dying an even more painful death, distended bellies, vacant eyes, and the existence of a drought being denied by a heartless Chief Minister and a clueless Prime Minister.

But what about Sonia? After all, a disproportionate number of readers are going to pick the book up in the hopes of finding juicy tidbits of gossip on the Empress of India, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Even some of the book's excerpts published on news portals have tended to fixate on those pieces that talk about Sonia Gandhi. Well, the book does have its share of anecdotes about Sonia Gandhi, but Sonia Gandhi is not the object of this book, yet these glimpses provide us with sufficient material to form some sort of an opinion about the politician who would shape India's destiny for a decade, or more. There is also subtext that is there, and words not written that need to be read, between the lines. The author came to become friends with Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, a friendship that did not last more than a decade. The words, or at least some of the words, used are deliberate, and will leave the reader in no doubt that Tavleen Singh is most certainly not a member of the "durbar". Tavleen Singh first noticed Sonia Gandhi, at Mapu's house. Mapu was Arun Singh's brother, and the party had Romi Chopra and Naveen Patnaik, among others. "She was small and slim, with a prominent, sulky mouth and thick brown hair that hung loose down to her waist." [page 20]

The friendship between the author and Sonia Gandhi, that lasted for about a decade, did see moments of closeness and tenderness, in which Sonia Gandhi went out of her way to arrange an interview with Rajiv Gandhi, to help a desperate Tavleen Singh keep her job. The interview made her boss, M.J. Akbar, even more irritated with the author, for reasons that become all too clear later. Sonia Gandhi would often provide the author with Rahul Gandhi's clothes, or clothes gifted to Rahul, for her son, Aatish Taseer - a close and personal friendship. The friendship frayed beyond repair after Tavleen Singh worked on a profile on Sonia Gandhi, after Rajiv Gandhi had become Prime Minister, that was published in India Today, and which though "balanced", did ask some questions about Sonia Gandhi's influence on Rajiv Gandhi and the fact that she controlled access to Rajiv Gandhi and his coterie. This relationship did not revive even after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, an event that saw no other politician lose his or her life - much is said and still left unsaid by the author here.
"Sonia, her daughter and other ladies of the family sat in white saris on the floor. Sonia's dark brown hair was tied back and covered with her cotton sari and her face was carefully made up. Even the lower eyelashes she painted on to make her eyes look bigger were in place. I reached out and held her hand, but she pretended to greet someone else. When our eyes met, she looked at me as if I were a total stranger." [pg 7 - after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination]
And let us not forget that the author makes it clear just how the cozy and close the relationship was between Sonia Gandhi and the infamous Ottavio Quattrochi:
"Then there were the foreign friends with whom Sonia seemed most comfortable and relaxed. Ottavio and Maria Quattrochi were the ones who were nearly always invited where Rajiv and Sonia went. ... Sonia's parents stayed with them when they came to Delhi." [page 23]
The author does not explain, or attempt to explain, how Sonia Gandhi's absolute contempt for politics could be reconciled with her late decision to not only enter politics herself, but also push her son and her daughter into politics.
"I would rather my children begged in the streets than went into politics." - Sonia Gandhi. [page 102]
Perhaps the most scathing pieces in the book are reserved for those who form part of this incestuous clique of power-brokers, the power-wielders, and the plain power-hungry. This power circle resides in Delhi, and operates out of Delhi.
"It is my conviction that the dynasty's real power comes from the support they get from the bureaucracy in Delhi. High officials in India are famous for the disdain with which they treat the representatives of the people but put almost any of them in the presence of a member of the Gandhi family and they behave like humble employees. ... If they ever make it to the inner circles of the court around the family, their obsequiousness knows no bounds... ... but on the edge of their courts have always lurked senior bureaucrats dripping with servility they rarely show anyone else. The most sycophantic are those who went to Oxford and Cambridge and who appear to have developed from this British experience a genetic memory of serving colonial masters." [page 97]
Just how servile the Delhi bureaucracy could get is best described in the behavior of a senior bureaucrat that she leaves unnamed, and who "... lived in a particularly beautiful colonial bungalow on Aurangzeb Road" and who, at a party, came up to Akbar Ahmed (and Tavleen Singh) "with an obsequious smile on his face, and bowed deeply before Akbar, who looked embarrassed and unsure of how to react." [page 97]

Perhaps the only thing that has changed in the thirty intervening years, for the worse, is that the media has got itself entwined, comfortably and willingly so, with this durbar.

This book is also a compilation of the ineptness, cluelessness, and painful missteps of Rajiv Gandhi. Whether it was Kashmir, or Punjab, or Sri Lanka, or Nepal, or the famine in Kalahandi, or the scandal of the Bofors deal, or even foisting on the nation remarkably irritable characters like Mani Shankar Aiyar - the gentleman who went to Pakistan and referred to Hafiz Saeed as "Hafiz saab" in a TV interview. "Hafiz Saab", of course, being the gentlemanly terrorist mastermind behind the Mumbai terrorists attack of November 26, 2010 - or the pandering to the Muslim fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case and then the banning of Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses", or the equally disastrous attempt at balancing one bad act with another inexplicable act of idiocy - this time by allowing the gates of the locked temple at Ayodhya to be opened. If there are lamentations on the rise of the so-called "Hindutva" right, its path begins from these actions of Rajiv Gandhi.

And what about the conspiracies? The unsaid conspiracies? You won't find much by way of conspiracy theories being bandied around in this book. So, I took it upon myself to dig, and to read between the lines, and to see gossamer threads of conspiracies and spin from them an entire fabric of paranoia. When Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in 1981, his friend Madhavrao Scindia survived. "The first thing I heard, from either Vasundhra or Madhavrao himself, was that the only reason the young Maharaja of Gwalior had not been on the plane with Sanjay was that he was late that morning." [page 126] Why was Madhavrao late? Who was he meeting that he got delayed? Was the delay arranged by someone? And it is a remarkable coincidence, or probability, or otherwise, that the titular Maharaja of Gwalior would die in a plane crash, some thirty years later. Another tidbit is no more than a passing mention that after Indira Gandhi had been shot, Sonia Gandhi took her mother-in-law in her own Ambassador car to the hospital. Not in the designated ambulance, because the driver had gone off for a cup of tea. After Indira Gandhi's assassination, the author was interviewed, no - questioned is the more appropriate word here - by some bureaucrat from the Intelligence Bureau(?) The author stepped outside her office, only to run into Sonia Gandhi, in her white ambassador.

This book is fast-paced, lucidly narrated, and well-organized chapters. It provides a fascinating glimpse into what was undoubtedly a pivotal period in Independent India's history. It is a most laudable first draft of history.

And a special mention of the publisher, Hachette (@HachetteIndia). Call it sloppiness, call it cost-cutting, call it anything for that matter - it doesn't really matter - but for some reason, they think non-fiction books without indexes are the way to go. They did this with Shishir Gupta's "Indian Mujahideen" - an email requesting an online or PDF version of an index from them has been unanswered for over a year now, and no - I am no longer holding my breath for either a response or an index, and they have done the same with this book.


So, for example, if I were to ask you if Bal Thackeray finds a mention in the book, would you know the answer? And if I were to tell you the answer is "yes", would you which page? And if I told you, it's on page 142, would you know in what context? It is in a statement made by Sant Bhindranwale. Or how many times? Once. Or if I were to ask you if Barkha Dutt (of the Nira Radia 2010 scandal, where she was caught on tape in conversation(s) with Nira Radia, a corporate lobbyist, to allegedly fix cabinet ministerial berths in the UPA government), finds a mention in the book, the answer would be yes. Of course, without an index, you have to take my word for it, or read the book. Producing an index takes time, effort, and therefore money, not to mention a commitment to certain publishing standards.

Kindle Excerpt:

Classification : Biography & Memoir
Pub Date : Nov 15, 2012
Imprint : Hachette India
Page Extent : 324
Binding : HB
ISBN : 9789350094440
Price : 599

Political and Incorrect

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.