Sunday, November 8, 2009

Animal Farm - George Orwell


Although written more than half a century ago, George Orwell’s stories have a remarkable ability of reflecting present day politics and culture, be it 'Animal Farm' or '1984'.

This is the story of Manor Farm – a farm consisting of numerous animals. The animals are overworked and the owner of the farm Mr. Manor is a drunkard who treats the animals cruelly. There is an old boar called Major who has a vision of a rebellion after which there would be no more humans on the farm and the animals would rule themselves.

The animals do manage to overthrow the humans, and have their farm to themselves. After Major’s demise the animals create their own constitution, and code of conduct for the farm. They make Major’s song ‘Beasts of England’ their anthem and define their own commandments. The farm is renamed Animal Farm, and all the animals take enormous pride in managing the affairs of the farm by themselves.

The pigs are the most intellectual of the animals and form the decision makers. Snowball and Napoleon are two most intelligent pigs, and they form the think-tank of the farm, but they have disagreements on every issue. Napoleon gets rid of Snowball from the farm and becomes the sole leader of the farm.

All the other animals are good workers, but not good when it comes to intellectual ability. They cannot differentiate between right and wrong, and are easily manipulated by the pigs for their gains. Napoleon uses violence, deceit and false propaganda in order to gradually transform Animal Farm into a new system of oppression. Old Major’s message is also distorted, and his commandment "All animals are equal" is replaced with "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

Orwell concludes the story with Napoleon’s coterie negotiating with humans on how to manage the affairs of the farm. The animals who are watching this argument realize that it is impossible to tell apart from the pigs and humans, and the rebellion to overthrow humans was in fact a futile effort.

There are several characters among the animals, which represent different sections of society:

Boxer: He is a horse who is loyal and dedicated to his work, and represents the working class of the society. He works hard all his life for the betterment of the farm, but when he is old and no longer useful, he is sent to a slaughterhouse by Napoleon.

Benjamin: He is an old donkey having a pessimistic view of life. His oft repeated words are: "Life will go on as it has always gone on - that is, badly".

Moses: A raven who tells tales of a place in the sky called Sugarcandy Mountain, where he says animals go when they die — but only if they work hard. Napoleon knows that the stories are false, but lets the raven stay on the farm so that the animals have their minds on a bright future and do not have thoughts of rebellion.

The sheep: They have no judgment of their own, and their minds are tuned by Napoleon according to his wishes.

The novel is essentially about the absolute power that Napoleon and the pigs command over the farm and how it corrupts them gradually. They deceive the animals on the farm by making amendments to the commandments in order to justify their actions. Finally, the commandments are abolished and the replaced with the classic line:

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

Animal Farm was greatly inspired by real events that took place during the communist era in Russia, using animals as actual people. Whenever Orwell describes a vision of a society in which the conditions of life are characterized by poverty and oppression, it comes as a surprise to the reader that the situations described are so relevant even to this day. ‘Animal Farm’ is a classic, which tells us about the harsh realities of life and blends the narrative with satirical humor.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Breakfast At Tiffany's - Truman Capote


Breakfast at Tiffany's is a collection of short stories by Truman Capote, and the title story is widely regarded as a literary classic. The story is about the narrator's relationship with his neighbor Holly Golightly, initially beginning from fleeting glimpses on the stairs of their apartment building, to an acquaintance, to a volatile friendship, and finally to unreciprocated love and loss.

However, the real subject of the book is Holly's character, and how her past unfolds. She believes that she is a free spirit, and everyone around her is charmed by her unconventional lifestyle and outspoken personality. Holly is spontaneous and all about just having fun. She lives her life swindling older men of their money.

Her acquaintance with certain shady people lands her in trouble when she is falsely accused of helping a drug lord communicate instructions from jail, and with nothing going for her, she leaves for Brazil in search of a new life instead of staying and proving her innocence.

Holly believes that she cannot find a place where she is at complete peace, and can find contentment only at a store called Tiffany's, where she believes that nothing bad can happen to you there, which explains why the story is named such. Tiffany's makes her feel good; it is her safe haven when the world around her is going crazy.

The novella also contains three of Capote's other short stories:

House of Flowers: The story is about a young girl named Ottilie who is born into a brothel and turns into a respectable married woman by chance. She becomes a wife that never has the approval of her mother-in-law.

A Diamond Guitar: This is about a man named Mr. Schaeffer serving a lifetime sentence whose life changes with the arrival of a guitar-playing young inmate named Tico Feo. It is a tale of prison friendship.

A Christmas Memory: This is about the special bond between a young boy and an elderly distant female cousin, and the fun memories he has of the Christmas season. It symbolizes a friendship that ends far too premature for the characters.

The stories are vibrant and real, but I felt ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote’s other famous novel is a better book.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D.Salinger


The Catcher in the Rye is a glimpse into few days in the life of a rebellious American teenager, Holden Caulfield. The story is set in the 1950’s, and has been told as a monologue. The character of Holden can be identified with that of any typical teenager; he is at times confused, annoyed and turbulent of adolescent life as any teenager.

Holden goes to school in Pennsylvania. After being expelled from the school for poor performance, Holden lands in New York City and spends time indulging in impulsive spending, erratic behavior, hopping pubs and calling on friends from school.  He spends all the money that his grandmother sent him fiddling away aimlessly, and comes home when his parents are not around to meet his sister Phoebe, the only person with whom he thinks he can have a meaningful conversation.

He plans to travel west to find a job. He conveys his plans to Phoebe, who wants to travel with him but he relents. He finally ends up deciding to come back home and attend another school in fall. It is this period of time of which Holden narrates his experiences. The narration is riddled with sarcasm, and a certain carelessness and arrogance of youth. He might do certain things or act in a certain way for no apparent reason, but just for the 'fun' of it.

The situations in the novel are phrased simplistically, to the extent that one might read it as a lightweight story, but the message that the author tries to put across is not as simple. Holden is a complex character, a teenager driven to erratic behavior. Most of his thoughts, actions, and reactions to everyday issues give a glimpse into the confusing and turbulent times of adolescence.  He describes his habit of impulsive lying as follows:

“I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible.”

One of the most pressing questions one faces while gearing up for adulthood is the dilemma of what to do with one’s life. Even though his manner exhibits carelessness of youth, Holden’s mind wanders deploring the possibilities:

“What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people's cars. I didn't care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody.”

He wants to preserve the innocence of his childhood, and desists wading into the maze of adulthood where innocence and mirth are lost somewhere along the way. He tries to explain this to Phoebe in this passage:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

Holden essentially wants to save those children from the pains of coming to terms with adulthood by being the catcher in the rye.

At a casual first reading, Salinger’s writing appears to be just a story about a confused young man; but digging a little deeper reveals the coming to age story of the boy and dealing with adulthood. The author expects the reader to read between the lines to figure this out. The novel is part of many high school and college curricula, and is among the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 as chosen by Time

Saturday, September 19, 2009

1984 – George Orwell


This intellectual and visionary book by George Orwell is about the dictatorial regime of Big Brother in Britain, set during the year 1984. It is never revealed in the novel if Big Brother is an actual person or a fictitious character. The repressing of dissent and of free thought forms the main theme of Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.

In the novel, the structure of the world had changed to something like this: the world has seen all countries merge into one of the three Superstates namely Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Britain belongs to Oceania where Big Brother reigns supreme; he controls everything from government policy to the people’s thoughts.

About 15 percent of the population is members of the Party, and the rest are common citizens called the Proletarians, or Proles. The Proles believe what Big Brother makes them believe and think what Big Brother makes them think through his continuous propaganda in print and electronic media. They merely exist as entities devoid of any free and independent thought. Every home had telescreens though which every citizen would be under complete surveillance. Any action or thought on behalf of an individual giving rise to suspicion led to investigation and torture.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part talks about the world the way protagonist Winston Smith sees it. Smith’s job involves proofreading old documents and falsifying them to suit the Party’s propaganda. In the second part, he has an illicit affair with a woman called Julia and he is in a state of intellectual rebellion against the party. He joins a brotherhood who are opponents of the party. The brotherhood exposes the truth behind the Party’s slogan:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

In the final part, he is captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally brainwashed into believing the Party’s ideology. Orwell coined many words to describe the philosophy of Big Brother’s regime; some of these are:

Doublethink: The power of holding two contradicting thoughts in one’s mind and simultaneously believing in both of them.
Newspeak: A greatly simplified version of English devoid of any words indicating the concepts of freedom, rebellion, etc.
Thoughtcrime: The crime of thinking about ideas prohibited by the Party’s constitution.

Considered George Orwell’s magnum opus, the novel is visionary and tends to get philosophical. It is classic fiction with a fairly basic plot, but the ideology that the author presents is complex, and takes some contemplation and re-read of several passages in order to fully comprehend Orwell’s theories. If you like food for thought, this one is for you. Even though written in 1949, the book surprisingly relates strikingly well to the present times.

‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a term which people are always being reminded of in the novel. This term became popular in general usage as well.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

This book is often defined as the original nonfiction novel on account of the true story, expansive research and outstanding narration on part of Truman Capote. The story is about the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife and two children in the town of Holcomb in western Kansas. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested and sentenced to death later.
The perpetrators of the crime were never a secret in the book, the reader knows all along that Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are the murderers. What is kept under wraps is the manner in which the executions were carried out. The story is pretty simple, but the real beauty of the novel is in its treatment.
How the book was conceived:
The New York Times On November 16, 1959 published an account of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, a small town in western Kansas. This prompted Truman Capote to travel to Holcomb to investigate the murders. The case became such an obsession for him that he remained in Holcomb for six years until the case was finally closed. He interviewed the people of Holcomb, the investigator from Kansas Beurau of Investigation Al Dewey, and poured over police investigation reports and articles. After Dick and Perry were caught and sentenced, he even interviewed their handlers in prison. The result of all this painstaking work was what was known as the original nonfiction novel - In True Blood.
What strikes you as a reader is the superbly vivid and lively description of Holcomb that Capote gives you, considering the fact that none of this is the authors imagination as in a work of fiction. The accounts of every resident of the town, folksy tidbits from the lives of the Clutter family, accounts of prisoners, and every development in the case confirms to reality.
The novel also was amazing in capturing the mind of the criminal, what drives them to the extreme step of taking a life. Capote devotes extensive time defining the characters of Dick and Perry, as well as the human side of them. He describes Perry as being the more sensitive and guilt-ridden of the two on account of the murders. Unlike Dick, his turning reprobate was more a victim of circumstances and upbringing. He shared a complex relation with his family. He describes the murders as follows:
'Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I'd really known them, I guess I'd feel different. I don't think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets in a shooting gallery.'

In his own words, he  defined himself as follows in a diary he kept:
'My acquaintances are many, my friends are few; those who really know me fewer still.'

Overall, Truman Capote is a master of describing different emotions: He presents some beautiful images of rural Kansas, they can be identified with by anyone who has grown up in small towns; heartbreak suffered by Dick and Perry's families; and aboveall the horror of the murders.
Some trivia:
  • Truman Capote's assistant for this book was Harper Lee, the Pulitzer prize winning author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
  • The novel bought some renown to the Clutter family home and the town of Holcomb. People would visit the town just to experience the Holcomb that Capote had so vividly defined. Here is a link to some pictures I found from the time of the investigation to the present. In Cold Blood: A Legacy, in Photos

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Simple Truth - David Baldacci


The Simple Truth was my first David Baldacci book and I enjoyed it to the core. It had all the elements which one could hope for in a fiction - crime & investigation, suspense, chases & gun battles, compelling family drama, and of course, the law. It's a story revolving around the working of the US Supreme Court.

Rufus Harms is a prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned in a Virginia millitary prison. He has endured the tough and cruel life of the millitary prison for a crime he did not commit. Micheal Fiske, a clerk (meaning a young lawyer) with the US Supreme Count is murdered when he happens to inquire into the appeal that came to the Supreme Court from Harms. Sara Evans is another Supreme Court clerk who used to work with Micheal and now teams up with his brother John Fiske to solve the mystery of Micheal's murder and also that of another clerk's.

Meanwhile Rufus with the help of his brother Josh escapes from prison and from there onwards the story moves at breakneck speed. There are people out to kill him for the fear of any information being leaked, but Rufus overrules his brother's idea of escaping to South America, instead opting to stay and get his case heard by someone. There is when John and Sara come in. There are several dangerous twists and surprises along the way for John and Sara in thier investigation. There happen to be several secrets in Harms appeal which some very powerful people do not want to be revealed.

Apart from the fast paced action, the book has good detailed information of the working of the Supreme Court. That important issues may appear or disappear due to personal influence, the power that the clerks and the barely-out-of-college lawyers weild; the way the Judges struggle to barter for votes on the cases they are working on; and some very interesting courtroom arguements are very well etched.

Many a time I found myself comparing the author to John Grisham, as they both intersperse thier writing with a liberal dose of legal verbiage, and an arresting story. So if you enjoy reading John Grisham, go for this page turner. It's the bookish equivalent of escapist cinema.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje has a writing style that is unique, poetic and lyrical. The story is set in Italy during the end of World War II. The narration moves back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces from the lives of the characters.

The first half of the novel makes for some dry reading and the back-and-forth narration leaves one a bit confused. I felt it a bit hard getting into the book, but the book picks up pace from the second half and it is not until the end that everything makes sense.

The story revolves around four characters - Hana is a Canadian nurse who lives in the now-abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy. The scars of war are evident in her indifference to life; she has witnessed enough death and grief to become detached. She is very mature for her young age. Caravaggio is an Italian thief and used to be a friend of Hana's father. He was used as a spy by the allied forces during the war. The Germans get to know of him and torture him by cutting off his thumbs. He learns of Hana living in the abandoned Villa and arrives there in search of her.

Kip - Short for Kirpal Singh, an Indian Sikh. He is recruited by the British as a sapper, someone who clears minefields and disposes bombs. Kip stays on in the Villa, and disposes of the bombs in the vicinity of the Villa, which was full of unexploded bombs. He had joined the British army out of loyalty towards them, even though his brother does not trust the West and is strongly anti-British.

The English Patient - He is the title character and arrives under Hana's care at the Villa burnt beyond recognition. All that is known about him is that he is British and was in a plane crash and escaped alive but badly burnt. They just refer to him as 'The English Patient'. He and Kip are good friends and The English Patient's past is revealed later in parts.

Both Caravaggio, who is carrying physical and mental scars due to the war, and The English Patient who is badly burnt, are addicted to morphine, which Hana administers to them. Ondaatje describes four lives, each of them a world on its own, each containing their own fills of love & betrayal, all brought together by the circumstance of the war. The characters and situations are described incredibly well and there are certain passages & conversations which are poetic and one cannot help but appreciate the beauty in the lines.

"...Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Pick this up if you like stories which move at a slow pace and have a leisurely afternoon to spare. It is a beautifully told story, but I must admit it drags at times.

Some trivia about the book:

  • The book won the Booker Prize for fiction and the Canadian Governor General’s award in 1992.
  • The book was adapted into a 1996 movie of the same name. The film was directed by Anthony Minghella and it won 9 Academy Awards.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less - Jeffrey Archer


Suspense and high intrigue form the core of this novel from Jefferey Archer, which happens to be his first. As an afterthought, the movie 'Ocean's Eleven' follows quite a similar theme. The story revolves around Harvey Metcalf, a young Polish man who grows into a millionaire businessman by making his fortunes through his knack of deceiving and defrauding people.

Harvey plots a scheme to make big money when the British Government invites applications for oil exploration in the North Sea. He registers a company called Prospecta Oil and employs David, a young Harvard graduate to work at the firm's London office. The company's directors drop hints to David that they have hit upon large oil deposits, and the company's stock is set to soar. David spreads the word around to a few people, and soon four individuals have invested a collective million dollars in the company and naturally, Harvey dissapears with the money.

Stephen, an Oxford professor, Robin, a physician, Jean-Pierre Lamanns, a French art dealer, and James Brigsley, an English lord, all find themselves swindled by Harvey who has left no legal track leading back to him. Stephen summons the other gentlemen to form a group and they vow to swindle thier money back from Harvey, including expenses for planning and execution (and hence the title). Each of the four play to thier strenghts (professor, doctor, art dealer and a English royal) to come up with convoluted schemes to get back thier money.

Jeffrey Archer is a great storyteller, and the story keeps moving at a fast pace from England to Monte Carlo to Boston. However, the scams executed by Stephen and the others are barely beleivable, and the fact that a man of Harvey's stature would be so naive as to fall into traps laid by amatuers is a bit hard to digest. Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the book is the way that the author drags you in and gets you to believe that these exotic plots can work.

Interesting to note that this book had saved Jeffrey Archer from bankruptcy back in 1976, and he has written many best selling books ever since. This is a good short novel, with lots of suspense and much to admire.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Between the Assassinations - Aravind Adiga


Aravind Adiga's second book, Between the Assassinations is a set of short stories which describe life in Kittur, a fictitious town in coastal Karnataka. The title refers to a period of time between the assasinations of two former Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1991). The stories are set during this time frame, when India yet had to liberalize its economy, and had not seen the economic growth witnessed during the latter half of the nineties.

Although I am not a big fan of short stories, Adiga's storytelling makes for some really delightful reading. Comparisons with his more famous 'Man Booker Prize' winning "The White Tiger" are inevitable, and I felt this book was equally enthralling. As is the case with 'The White Tiger', most of the stories deal with crushing poverty, casteism, the innumerable injustices and ironies of Indian life. Each story describes a certain aspect of life - a clash of ideologies, the fury of an underprivileged worker etc.

I could not help comparing the book to many of R K Narayan's stories from another fictitious town Malgudi. I think a major similarity between the two writers is that R K Narayan's stories are simple, delightful tales of everyday life of a common man. 'Between the Assassinations' is similar, the striking difference being that Adiga depicts casteism and excruciating poverty and the gap between haves and have-nots in India in close detail.

Some thought provoking words from Aravind about his books:

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society (Indian). That's what I'm trying to do -- it is not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination."

His books are about self-examination alright, 'brutal' self-examination, if I might add. You will love it if you have liked 'The White Tiger' or even R K Narayan's writings.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton


After reading a lot of non-fiction it was starting to get a bit dry and I wanted to read a fast paced thriller. So I picked up Michael Crichton's 'The Andromeda Strain', and I must say I was not entirely satisfied in terms of what I was looking for. Maybe the movie would have been more interesting, or I am not entirely into thrillers dealing with a heady mix of biology, physics and chemistry. Let me give just a brief inkling of the plot and not play spoilsport in case you may want to read it.

The Andromeda Strain’ refers to a class of virus which is not found on earth, and enters the planet via a satellite probe that was sent to orbit the earth for military purposes. Once exposed to open air, it rapidly kills humans by blood coagulation, based on the chemical composition of the individual’s blood. Project Wildfire comprises of a team of scientists trying to study and neutralize the possible dangers of an alien life form entering the planet. The project's facility has all the technological know how to quarantine and neutralize any extra-terrestrial life forms. There are a few survivors on whom the virus seems to have no effect, and the team of scientists gets to work of studying and testing the strain of virus to discover how it replicates and kills humans. They find its amazing ability to mutate and adapt to the environment. Crichton frequently explains concepts ranging from biology to physics in order for the reader to understand the developments the scientists are making. The novel alternates between being thrilling, informational and fictitious. This is a decent thriller, and you can finish it in one go. I plan on getting my hand on another of Crichton’s books the next time I am bored with non-fiction.

BTW, does the name ‘Michael Crichton’ ring any bells? No? He was the author of the original novel ‘Jurassic Park’. The movie became part of popular culture, and had me spellbound as a kid; it showed Hollywood’s expertise in bringing a plot to life. Later dozens of other movies of similar genre came out and computer graphics became mundane.

The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie in 1971 and a TV series in 2008.

A number of scientific documents are presented to support claims for the strains characteristics. I later came to know that this fabrication of scientific documentation (numbers, charts, etc.) is part of a false document literary technique. This is fiction written about apparently real, but actually fake documents.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

American Pastoral - Philip Roth


'American Pastoral' by Philip Roth is the story of third-generation Jewish-American Seymour "Swede" Levov. A legendary Newark high school athlete and local hero, Swede serves in a military role at the end of WWII and eventually inherits control of his family's Newark glove manufacturing business. Some family strife results from his choices of marrying Dawn, an Irish-American, Catholic former Miss New Jersey, and moving into an old Jersey country farmhouse far outside Newark, but his life mostly resembles a suburban fable of peace and success.

Swede and Dawn have a daughter Merry, who transforms from a delightful child into an angry teenager consumed with violent leftist fanaticism. Roth's protagonist in the novel Nathan Zuckerman was a childhood acquaintance of the Levov family. Decades later, after meeting with Swede and later his brother Jerry, Zuckerman explores the Swede's story, and most of the book is Zuckerman's account of the Swede's disintegrating life during his middle age.

The united States faced some turbulent times during the late 1960's and early 1970's like racial discord, the Vietnam war, the Weathermen and Watergate all of which feature prominently in the novel. The reader needs to have a basic understanding of these historic incidents in order to fully understand Merry's reasons for her extreme views.

Swede's father bemoans the transformation of Newark into a blighted, crime-ridden failure, and urges his son to move the glove factory elsewhere. Even though the plot fades towards a somewhat unsatisfying end, this novel offers strong, memorable characters powered by vivid human emotion. Philip Roth's writing is arduous to comprehend at times for his first time reader, but also is very genuine and well written where dialogue among characters is involved.

Some trivia from wikipedia:

"The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was included in "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels"."

"The film rights to it were later optioned by Paramount Pictures. In 2006, it was one of the runners-up in the "What is the Greatest Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years?" contest held by the New York Times Book Review."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India - Edward Luce


"In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India" By Edward Luce is a collection of memoirs based on discourses and interviews which Edward Luce, the British journalist makes with politicians, religious and business leaders in India. Edward Luce presents the challenges faced by the Indian state while growing as a major world power.

This is in contrast to Fareed Zakaria's 'The Post American World' which also talks about India, but is more focussed on its position in world economy and its future effect on it. Edward Luce talks about what conspires at the grassroots level in politics, administration, and in the lives of people in the country.

The narration would probably astound most westeners of the intricacies involved in Indian administration, caste politics and general way of life. The complexities of vote bank politics as practised by all political parties in India, more so in the cow-belt regions of UP and Bihar are deciphered. What makes regional politicians and political outfits having no agenda succeed and how state machinery and administration works in the region is well explained, although the author's political opinion hints to be biased at times. Some of the facts would hit hard as new revelations even to Indians, mainly those who have had no exposure to the functioning of government in rural areas.

There are varied theories about how the caste system was conceived (Vedas, Manusmriti..etc), but there is little meaning or sense in continuing with the system in modern times. Its only significance in today's age is to be a tool for politicians and feudal lords to exploit people of thier rights, and divide them in order to stay in power. It makes us no different from fundamentalists who promote extremism across the world. It is our excessive obsession with religion and caste that has become the biggest hurdle to development. Is there a lesson for us to learn in it from China? Again, this being a sesitive topic, every Indian has varied and passionate personal opinions.

Another important point mentioned: Indians have the habit of counting thier chicken before they hatch. India is a rising power indeed, but they Indians like to beleive they are already a superpower, whereas it has several challenges to address in order to get there. This is a characteristic evident in our nature.

Some excerpts:

"India, as the writer V.S. Naipaul said, has become a land of a million mutinies, some are mutinies of lower orders against the upper orders; there are also mutinies of upper orders (and some lower orders) against Muslims; and there are mutinies of both lower orders against each other and upper ordersagainst each other. But India is also a land of unexpected alliances: between enemies of enemies, between Muslims and lower castes, and between people who disdained each other yesterday and may tomorrow do so again."

"India has a way of confounding you and still making you laugh about it"

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Day of the Jackal - Frederick Forsyth


Frederick Forsyth's first work of fiction, 'The day of the Jackal' is a suspense thriller belonging to the spy fiction genre. Forsyth keeps the reader glued to the plot by building up the suspense piece-by-piece, brilliantly aided by his gift of amalgamation of fact with fiction. His immaculate research and knowledge of the background of his plot is evident as he touches upon concepts ranging from the functioning of police, detective and spy agencies around the world to the general niceties of protocol and life of civilians and diplomats.

The story is set in the 1960's, and deals with one among the numerous plots to assasinate the then President of France, General Charles De Gaulle. As with 'The Odessa File', the plot begins with a background of OAS, the French underground militant organization and thier reasons and justifications to assasinate the President of France. The plan is to hire a professional hit man to do the job, and one of the best in the business, codenamed 'The Jackal' is hired.

The story is divided into three parts. 'Anatomy of a Plot' deals with the Jackal preparing a sketch of his scheme. During 'Anatomy of a Manhunt', the French secret service agency gets wind of the plot and launches a worldwide manhunt coordinating with spy agencies of several countries.

Since an operation of such magnitude would require immaculate planning apart from being skilled in intrigue, the 'Anatomy of a Plot' is more interesting from a reader's point of view as it explains the conception and design of the plot by the assasin. This is where the Jackal proves to be a true professional in planning out the entire operation to perfection.

The book was also made into a movie 'The Day of the Jackal' in 1973, directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Edward Fox as 'The Jackal'. Following are some interesting notes on the cultural impact the book had made, as found on Wikipedia:

"The method for acquiring a false identity and UK passport detailed in the book is often referred to as the "Day of the Jackal fraud" and remains a well known security loophole in the UK. The technique was most recently used by John Darwin to obtain a new passport after he faked his own death in a canoeing accident."

"Would-be assassin Vladimir Arutinian, who attempted to kill US President George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to the country of Georgia, was an obsessive reader of the novel and kept an annotated version of it during his planning for the assassination."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria


The Post-American World deals with bygone, current and predicted world trends. It gives one a historian's, and an economist's view of the rise and fall of nations, political and regional undercurrents and the issues confronting the world at large. The book begins by putting forth the notion that major acts of terrorism have been on the decline, and more terrorist organizations and their activities are being subdued than ever before.

Zakaria analyzes the rise of the Asian giants, the elephant and the dragon, explaining why the set of challenges India and China face are different from each other although being two of the oldest civilizations on the planet. How the system of government and age old ethos played a part in the rise of these nations has been explained in good detail, and predictions based on a study of world economy backed by statistical data have been made on the rise of China as a superpower in the future, and of India as a major world player.

Even with the gross neglect of infrastructure and development in most regions of the country and people are taken for a ride by rulers in India, the system itself is stable.

".....the messy politics of coalitions - someone, somewhere can always block a proposed reform - and you have a recipe for slow movement, one step forward and three-quarters of a step back. It is the price of democracy."

China, on the other hand can force reforms with grater authority as it has been doing, since its system of government can subjugate protests and dis approvals, thereby concentrating all its efforts on development and reform.

The book moves on to the Old Blighty and the United States, on how the balance of power shifted from England to America. The effect of the world wars took a toll on all countries, but mostly on Great Britain which had to relinquish the reins of being the world's only superpower to the United States. Gradually Britain's control of its colonies began to wane and this was the point where many of the colonies gained independence.

Finally, the pillars of American might, Universities, industry, economy, defense and social life and what makes them tick are delved upon. One profound difference among American and foreign methods of learning has been explained as follows.

"While American system is too lax on rigor and memorization-whether in math or poetry-it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.

It is surely this quality that goes some way in explaining why America produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers. In America, people are allowed to be bold, challenge authority, fail, and pick themselves up.
"

Even though the educational system faces a lot of flak for being not competitive enough, the quality mentioned above makes it much superior to any other educational system.

Fareed Zakaria
produces a well researched and excellent analysis of modern world issues and trends.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Not About the Bike - Lance Armstrong


Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour De France, reveals in this stirring memoir his life as a cancer survivor and his resurgence in the aftermath of the treatment. The narrative has been rendered from an athlete's point of view about how the game has as much to do with the constitution of the mind as with the physical training of the body.

As Armstrong survived cancer and came back to competitive racing, he notes that his illness had taken away about 15 pounds of his body weight, which made it easier for him to climb the Alps then ever before. Every adversity, however appalling, brings along some element which leaves its stamp somewhere on the soul, it changes something in us for good. And it makes sure that however high we might fly in life, we are never too far from being cut back to size and fall back to zero. As Armstrong says, its definitely not about the bike. Its about the will to keep fighting, to rise every time we fall.

A very inspirational book.

A couple of standout quotes from the book:

"Why did I ride when I had cancer? Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that its absolutely cleansing. You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain. At least for a while you have a kind of hall pass, and don't have to brood on your problems; you can shut everything else out, because the effort and subsequent fatigue are absolute."

"Once someone asked me, what pleasure I took in riding for so long. "Pleasure?" I said. "I don't understand the question." I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain."

I guess this one from the movie Rocky Balboa sums it up:

"You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth


A racy and fast paced thriller set in the aftermath of the holocaust and the events that followed as a result of it. The setting of the story is among the real events that tool place during and after the holocaust, and most of the characters are real people as well.

What works in favor of the book is the balance that Forsyth strikes between fact and fiction. The driving element of the story is fictitious, but the establishment of characters and events is very well researched and the background of the plot gels very well with the story. Readers get to know about the horrors of the holocaust, as well as many political and geographical subplots which were actively taking place during the 1960's, and enjoy a good thriller at the same time.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif


A witty, satirical tale of the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of former Pakistani President Zia-Ul-Haq. The ISI, millitary generals, CIA operatives, American ambassadors and God form an intriguing part of this tale. Entertaining and funny

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry


The setting for the story is Mumbai during the turbulent state of internal emergency of 1975, and how different lives were affected by it. Although the political scenario takes a backseat in the narration, it remains the element which drives the story forward, defining the paths of the character’s fortunes behind the scenes.

Rohinton Mistry gives an absorbing narration of the lives of the poor and the ill effects of the caste system in the villages. The delineation of the underprivileged reminds one of another great book, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which also leaves an indelible effect on the readers mind in describing poverty and destitution.

The book takes us through the mechanics of a system which is corrupt to the rot, and spares no thought for the helpless. Be it a new government policy being implemented, strikes, riots, or just a bad monsoon, it is the poor and underprivileged man who has to bear the brunt. A Fine Balance tells us about the lives of common people, and how their lives are affected by the state of political developments in the country, and at the same time how they are also intertwined.

There are aspects in the lives of all the characters which one could identify with, for example Maneck Kolah's thoughts about visiting his parents, where they would miss him while he is away and could not live with him in peace either, and before you realize the times have changed.

Some portions in the story about the life of lower caste families in the villages, and also the concluding sections of the novel make for some tragic reading, and leave one with a heavy heart and make us feel for the characters. One cannot help feeling that but for endemic greed and corruption, so many lives could have prospered.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

India after Gandhi


Young India will definitely find this very informative, as Mr. Guha correctly points out, history taught in schools in India ends with the independence of India. It was enlightening to know the way the land was ruled under the Maharajas and the British Empire, the factors that led to partition and the mayhem created as a result of it.

Enlightening to know that to build a secular and democratic India from the remains of British Raj was a most difficult objective to attain, with as many as 502 princely states. It was an incredible job indeed by Sardar Patel and civil servant Mr. V.P. Menon, to form states based on linguistic lines, some as diverse as could be from others, and integrating them into one nation. The origins and effects of insurgency and trouble in Kashmir and Punjab have been described in detail, along with Naxalism in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.

Writing this book must have called for enormous and painstaking research. The details into specific events in the nation’s history about half a century ago have been noted with specific dates. Moreover, uprisings and events of significance which took place in each state are described in detail. Incredible research!

A sad part of the country’s fate lies in the fact that all the good leaders have disappeared. Interesting to read about men of the likes of Sardar Patel, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Morarji Desai, and in days when India was considered a country of poverty, famines, and fanatics. These and many other men and women of values were at the helm of affairs in regional and national politics and in other roles during the early years of the country’s birth, but gradually faded into oblivion and what remains now are mostly self centered politicians, many of who come from criminal backgrounds. It makes one wonder as to why the country does not make real leaders anymore.

Mr Guha takes us into the minds of the leaders at the helm of the country, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai etc; people who helped form the course of the nation’s path, to modern day politics of the early 21st century. Facts about people and policies are backed up with demographic statistics.

One excerpt from the book that stands out:

Through most of its history as an independent nation, India has heard altogether different tunes being sung. After every communal riot, it was said that India would break up into many fragments. After every failure of the monsoon, it was predicted that mass starvation and famine would follow. And after every death and killing of a major leader, it was forecast that India would abandon democracy and become a dictatorship.

Even though considered by many as flawed, the notion that the country still stands as one nation, unifying innumerable diversities is a spectacular phenomenon, unlike Europe or Africa where the regional differences have led to breaking up of continents into independent countries.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The White Tiger


Aravind Adiga tells a compelling story, but what appeals more is the insight he gives into the other India, the one which we see or hear about daily, but care not how it works under the hood. As part of the story, several incidents are narrated which educate the reader of how the feudal system in rural India exploits the poor, which is no different from the way the poor are treated in the cities.

The story takes us through the bustling life in the cities of Delhi and Bangalore, seen through the eyes of a man from the village. Though he has come up in life by not entirely honest means, he describes himself as an entrepreneur, citing that most people in prominent positions do the same to get to the top. It’s the story of a self made businessman who comes up in life from nowhere, all through his deft observations of his environment and acumen.

Balram has a habit of causing himself physical pain for acts committed which he believes should be eliminated - for an uneducated villager, that's remarkable. Shows the desire in him to grow out of his mold - maybe that's where entrepreneurial spirit begins.

It’s an entertaining and informative read.