Thursday, 22 December 2016

Review: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well researched book that covers all the aspects of the argument against British Raj. There are not only nationalistic arguments, but points against social, cultural, moral, technological, political and utilitarian theories that seek to support the British rule.

Shashi tharoor makes no bones about calling out the people who say that British provided us with democracy, and those who say that they were better rulers because of their liberalism. There are some great data and writing that sum up how British imperialism maimed India badly.

The pages about famine and War efforts make for some really grim reading and out to shut anyone up who plays the utilitarian card. This might very well be Shashi tharoor's first classic.

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

A world without Fidel

A world without Fidel


Fidel won't be able to read the thousands of tributes and eulogies that are being written from all over the world. But he has read many eulogies written for him. He has amused himself over the failure of numerous attempts on his life by the world's prime super power, smiling over a cigar on that tiny island. We do not know if he ever saw the viral video 'Castro's last Journey?!' that was released in 2011. But he smiled saying that he has seen news about his own death on the TV and read about it on Twitter.

From Eisenhower who broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba to Barack Obama who tried to renew the relations, Castro has seen 11 US presidents, and opposed them consistently. Just as he looms into our view as one of the greatest personalities of this century, Fidel Castro also remains the most abused and hated "dictator" for many. His death on 25th of November, 2016 has created a vacuum not only for those who admired him, but also to his haters. The ode by Engels in Marx's grave can be slightly modified for Castro, too. "A great leader has ceased his crusade for equality."

After José Martí who fought for the freedom of Cuba, Fidel has been the only leader to rise from Latin America. "Not only in Cuba, in the entire South America, there is no leader who had created a deep impact like Fidel," says The New York Times. It is of the determining moments in this century that a man from a small island with a population of just 11 million, Fidel has risen to become one of the most popular leaders. Starting with Cuba, Fidel has inevitably modified all of Latin America, North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the entire globe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the heart of millions of Leftists shifted to Cuba and started beating from there.

Having become used to doing everything properly, Fidel bid farewell to his people, his partymen and the revolutionary nation at the 7th Cuban communist party Conference that took place in April 2016. The thin old man in his blue tracksuit was shaking. When he spoke, his voice too showed the ravages of age. "I will soon become like all others. Everyone has to meet his end," he said. Before finishing his speech, he made a forceful statement, "But Cuban Communism will definitely live after me."

When Castro met his people after the success of revolution on Jan 8, 1959, he was 32 years old. The regime of Fulgencio Batista, who ruled with the blessings of America, was brought to an end by Fidel Castro. With that, he brought an end to the foreign dominance in Cuba. Intending to create a revolutionary government in it's place, Fidel Castro gave a long speech. With joy and hope gushing, people who couldn't see Castro even after midnight shone bright lights on him. After the speech, pigeons were released to signify that peace had returned. When the one of the flapping pigeons flew and rested on Fidel's shoulders, thousands emotionally chanted "Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!"

Even after five years, Cubans shouted with the same enthusiasm whenever they saw him. When Fidel multiplied the light that was shone on him by his people and reflected it back to his people, Cuba slowly crawled out of the darkness to a bright day. Those who remembered Batista's rule remembered clearly saw what revolution had managed to achieve. The fundamental rights of the people will no longer be suspended. There will no longer be deaths of children due to malnourishment. There will no longer be unemployment and illiteracy. You cannot see children begging on the streets. No more racism. There was no place for extreme poverty or extreme wealth in Castro's Cuba.

The Cubans had known known that this Cuba was definitely possible. That does mean that all their needs would be suddenly fulfilled. This is not an angel story (fairy tale?) to say, "Castro came, and people lived happily ever after." In the midst of hard struggles and opposition, he managed to pull this off. Those who were weakened and angered by the revolution began to oppose the beneficiaries of the revolution. Class struggle sharpened. Castro parceled off the American leeches that were sucking the lifeblood of Cuba. Each returned as a thousand-limbed octopus. Slashing with his sword with one hand, he covered and protected Cuba with the other one.

All things said, shouldn't a man who ruled for half a century, a man who held power longest after the second Elizabeth, called a dictator? Castro has answered this question himself. " I don't know how people call me a dictator and George Bush a democrat. I do not take decisions by myself. I never put myself above the law. But Bush has taken worst decisions without involving anyone else. Even the Roman emperors did not wield power the US presidents do. People like Bush wage wars whenever they wish. I cannot do that. We always discuss things, research them. We take decisions collectively. Not just ministers and ambassadors, I don't even appoint the entry level government servants. Am I the dictator?"

That he never amassed wealth using his power is accepted even by his detractors. Spanish writer Ignacio Ramonet, who spent more than a hundred hours talking with Fidel and compiled his biography, says there are no Cuban coins with Fidel's face, no gigantic statues of him in Cuba. From afternoon, the conversations will extend to evenings and continue well into the nights. Sometimes, at 2 in the morning, he will rush out saying, "Please excuse me, I have an important official meeting," much to the amusement of Ramonet. Ignacio has seen 30 year old assistants sleeping on their feet, while the 80 year Fidel would run.

One of the troubles for those who went to interview Fidel was that you would always get more questions than answers from him. For example, a French journalist was asked incessantly about his country's climate, agriculture, cattle, education, industry policy, literature, and folklore. He will be amazed by those who could't give him this information. "Forgive me, I asked all these because you are journalists. It is fine, but don't you have to know these basic things?" Fidel would ask.

But Castro had to know everything. Just as he would spend hours discussing America's economic sanctions against Cuba, he'd spend just as much time discussing Cuba's Sugarcane cultivation, the uniforms for school children, and about ancient literature, with the experts in these areas. When asked how he was able to be so enthusiastic about things, Fidel answered, "Books". The accounts of his friends who had seen Fidel's reading habits are awe inspiring. "There is no telling what was important to Fidel and what was not," his friends say. His comrades would decide that a book on hen rearing was no use for Fidel. But when he encountered a discussion on hen rearing in some report, Fidel would send for that book immediately. Wanting to know few things about tropical farming, Fidel consumed nearly 100 books.

His voracious reading was one of the reasons for Castro brushing off America, which was so close in distance to Cuba, and taking up distant Soviet Union's socialism. He did not directly plant Soviet's socialism in Cuba and let it fester. He shaped it in exclusive ways to suit the ambiance of Cuba and introduced it in small measured steps. Even though he had learnt from Marx to Mao, Castro was the reason Cuban socialism had some unique features.

In fact, his plan was not to introduce changes in Cuba. Cuba was an excuse. Even Latin America was not his goal. Like his comrade Che Guevara, he dreamed for the entire world. Starting with Nelson Mandela, Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar cabral, Allende to all the people who had fought for freedom, equality, and social justice were joined by Castro for the this very dream he had about the world. Wherever suppression of people took place, in whatever form, Castro's majestic voice thundered against it. Fidel Castro proved that Socialism was not a paper tiger and proved it both in action and words. He rose above nations, languages, races and proved to be the friend of global proletariat. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo morales are sparks of this fire that gave rise to brightness.

It also made him the prime enemy of the United States. Cuban revolution forced America to give up it's influence over Latin America. Castro didn't stop there. He gave Moral crises to America too. When African Americans in the US were fighting for the civil rights, he gave equal rights to those in Cuba and became the first Cuban leader to give recognition to the struggles of the African american people as a white leader. When he went to the US to attend the UN summit, in September 1960, he stayed at the slums of African Americans in Harlem and caused awkwardness to the white American government.

America, which had uprooted huge Banyans, wanted to break off this small thorn in its side. America's economic war against Cuba started in 1960 against the UN's protests. The US tried to kill Castro 600 times. Several million dollars were spent on attempts to destabilize the government of Cuba. Cubans who disliked Castro and some extremist organisations helped America in this pursuit. At least a civil war with the help of CIA, they avowed. They made predictions about Castro's death and spread rumors about him having deadly diseases. Every year, a story popped up saying Fidel had died. They went as far as claiming that the pigeon which sat on Castro's shoulder in 1959 was a fake.

The reactions of Castro to all this prove to us that he was not some one who could be destroyed by death. He never allowed the formation of Anti-American groups in his country. He never planned to join hands with powers that opposed America and attack it with violence. He never joined such plans clandestinely either. He mourned in solidarity with the American people during the September 11 attacks. At the same time, he vehemently opposed the unjust war waged by George Bush. When the hurricane Katrina ripped through America, Cuba was one of the first countries to extend a helping hand. "My disagreement is with the American government, not American people", Castro was clear. That is what made Cuba possible.

And because of lack of clarity, America has stayed America all this time. "The tyrant Castro is dead", tweeted Donald trump. He has claimed that now Castro is dead, "New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. ", he has waxed eloquent. In reality, not just Trump, none of us have to worry about the future of Cuba. After the retirement of Castro in 2008, his 85 year old brother Raul Castro has taken up the responsibility of Cuba. "I am not afraid for Cuba. The third and fourth generation people are more three or four times more intelligent and knowledgeable than us belonging to the first generation. I believe in them", says Castro.

You don't have to worry about the failure of Cuban revolution either, says Castro. "Revolution won't lose by itself. But we can defeat it, with our mistakes and faults. We do not claim to be people with no mistakes. Ours is an experiment. Anyone can copy this experiment. We do not have a patent on it.", says Castro.

When compared to Trump who says he will build a wall along the Mexico border, will deport the Muslims and illegal immigrants, Cuba is a minuscule country. Even then, Castro says he wants to share. "We are ready to help. We want to help third world countries in educating their people. We want to assist in many other areas. We want to make huge leaps on every front". There is no better way to differentiate between a dictator and a democrat than this.

We are stepping into a world without Fidel Castro. Time has come for us to overcome the sadness and grow our faith and fighting spirit. That is what Fidel will want from us. We should call the pigeon that flew off the shoulders of Castro back.

This is a crude translation of an article by Maruthan gangadharan from Ananda Vikatan. With help from Poo Ko Saravanan and Dharini B.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Review: Half - Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India

Half - Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India Half - Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Vinay Sitapati
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Take half a Lion, add a mouse and fox to make a whole, and dress it with a garland of Ambition, you have made yourself the Prime minister of India from 1991-1996, Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao. P.V. Narasimha rao is mostly known to us as the Prime minister who led the '91 reforms, ended the License quota raj, failed to prevent the destruction of Babri Masjid, led over the biggest stock market scam, and one who opened up Telecom and Satellite TV to private sector. He is also seen as someone who was done a great injustice by the Nehru - Indira Gandhi clan, and denied his rightful position in the history. Someone, who people like to think of as a underdog.

PVNR, Landed Brahmin from Andhra who was a staunch socialist, began his political career with a loss to a Communist Candidate. He would go on to win eight elections after that, and holding every significant post in the Indian political arena, from the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, to the ministries of Law, Justice, Education, Foreign affairs, Culture and many more. He would become a Prime minister of the Indian union and go on to be the first PM to complete five years with a Minority Government.

PVNR started out as a Socialist who implemented land reforms while he was CM and would ultimately be unseated by Indira for the sin, just as swiftly as he was "nominated" for the post. PVNR faced with such situations many times in the future, was always careful. He never spoke against the party High command. And this would later prove to be a boon when Congress wanted someone who was not anathema to the various factions.

The book has a hagiographic undertone to it. It whitewashes a lot of areas, and when it does criticize him, does it measured sentences which are drowned by the unabashed praise for him. The handling of 1984 riots, and the overconfidence in letting 1922 Babri Masjid destruction are dealt in some detail, however fail to address all the view points. The author seems a bit too eager to claim these as one off mistakes, that were to be seen as mere abberations in a life long career in politics.

His vision as Union Education and Culture Minister, which was renamed as Human resource Development ministry is impressive. He also played the defence ministry round well, and at time held both Law and Information portfolios.

When he was the Prime Minister, he led the fabled economic reforms, carefully placing Manmohan as his fall guy. He also led India's Nuclear program and came very close to testing it in '96. Contrary to popular belief, Ab Vajpayee merely exploded the bomb, which was already ready when he assumed office. Narasimha Rao was also a quick adopter, realising the advantages of capitalism rather quickly, and always made it a point to take businessmen from CCI, the anathema to ASSOCHAM, on his foreign visits. He also opened diplomatic relations with Israel, came to an agreement with China on certain border issues, led the reform of Stock market while being accused of accepting a Crore in Bribe.

PVNR was a polyglot, and could speak fluently in ten languages, 7 of them Indic. He also was and continues to be the only Prime minister who could program in COBOL and BASIC, and used his personal computer extensively. He was a scholar in the true sense of the word. But he was also petty, vile and cunning, and not in the least unambitious. He played the game until the very end and perhaps this book is too kind to him in many ways.

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Friday, 9 September 2016

Review: Spin

Spin Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a brilliant read. The narrative weaves drama and science seamlessly, in a way that I would have not thought was possible. This might even clash with Leviathan Wakes for my most loved SF novel, for its lucidity and the way the characters were shaped. There was a disconnect at times, but it could be pardoned, for this was the single best novel I read in this year, especially in the SF genre. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography

Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography by Usain Bolt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a certain audacity in the way Bolt asserts himself in this biography. I have met some people in my life that are at/near the absolute top of their fields and in a way, they are too humble. When we start to embark on a journey to attain that skill level, we sometimes miss out on the humility. Then there is this rushing towards an excess of it, as our extraordinary lump of tissue sitting atop our neck decides that some failures along the way are due to our lack of humility. While humility or the lack of it can substantially alter our progress in the learning, all other things being equal, humility as is practiced in the post modern world might be disposable. Or that's what Bolt will convince you of. There is a certainty with which he asserts his dominance. He is unapologetic about the fact that he has special talent. He is not overtly humble. He just sails through life with an air of self assuredness. It is perhaps easy to mistake the pain behind this way. He after all, speaks very little of such pain. This is not a must read, but your idea towards the relation between humility, talent and self assertion will definitely change if you do read it.

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Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an exhilarating read.

The plot is extraordinary and makes you feel invested in a way that very things can do. You want to travel along, you want to read just one more page and see what Teddy is up to. Every time there is a twist in the novel, you'll think, "Ha! I know this trick!". And you'll be woefully wrong. Dennis Lehane carves a wonderful thriller and my only regret was that I didn't read it in a single stretch.
Rekindled my interest in thrillers. :D

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Monday, 1 August 2016

Connecting RCC-WiFi in Windows 10, Ubuntu 16.04

Windows 10 users, download this registry entry, double click and add, and restart your system. Don't shutdown, restart.

Ubuntu users, download this file, and from the directory where you have downloaded the file, execute the following commands one by one in a terminal. You will have to connect temporarily to a mobile hotspot to install missing dependencies. So, connect to hotspot, run these commands.

sudo dpkg -i wpasupplicant_2.3-2.3_amd64.deb
sudo apt-get -f install

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Review: Demystifying Kashmir

Demystifying Kashmir Demystifying Kashmir by Navnita Chadha Behera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite being an Indian, I knew very little about Kashmir, when I started this book. I was primed to think of it only in ideological terms, and always viewed it as a problem where if India showed enough rectitude and military might, we will win decisively. And this book has proved me wrong, in so many elegant pages.

The first chapter seeks to bust the myth that Kashmir is a bone of contention on ideological, or religious terms. There are enough evidences to point that at times, Kashmir didn't even figure on the plans of Jinnah, not as a constituent state of Pakistan.Jinnah at many occasions, wanted states to be independent or accede to Pakistan, not because they wanted to or Jinnah himself wanted them, but because he thought that would weaken Indian Union.

The level of detail in this book can be overwhelming, but it can also leave you clueless at times, through references to major events in just passing. This is a decidedly academic work, and seeks to look at political developments only inasmuch as they serve to further the debate on Kashmir.

This book also makes you realize the reality of the situation and introduces the forgotten trio, Ladakh, Jammu, and the PoK, which never figure in the debates about Kashmir. Azad Kashmir and the Northern provinces' treatment by the Pakistan, strip it off any legitimacy to the claim that Pakistan can provide a better governance to the people of Kashmir.

The international angle to this problem is analyzed well and the author doesn't shy away from categorically stating that Pakistan has failed to bleed the Indian state. Without mincing words, she paints Pakistan to be the aggressor it is.

The book is extraordinarily enlightening, but is not a panacea about the Kashmir issue. But then, nothing ever is a panacea.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Review: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'India isn’t really a country, It is a sub-continent composed of nationalities, Hindus and Muslims being the two major nations.'
This was Jinnah. He was the man who would be complicit in the partition of India, along with his Indian counterparts, in what would turn out to be one of the bloodiest events in the history of the world. But when reading anything that is related to India, we are taught of eras and empires and kingdoms. Rarely is an individual talked about much in the larger context, as a means of history. One of the reasons might be that it is so vast that even an individual can cover only a fairly small time scale. Perhaps Nehru, if the centerpiece, can tell us a bit about Modern India. But he will be spending much of that time in the northern part of the subcontinent and outside India itself, and very little in the southern parts of it. The geography plays against a single individual influencing anything close to complete cover of India. Perhaps because of this, there has never been history, told in way of individuals. Sunil Khilnani chooses to rectify this.

He admits to the caveats of this approach and doesn't shy away from admitting that his approach might be flawed. He has the thankless job of selecting individuals, often disproportionate number for a particular period, from among thousands of possible candidates. He has to make sure a particular region is not ignored. And to the best of my limited knowledge about India, he has done an excellent job. I must admit I hadn't heard of some people in this book, and heard some very different things about those who I did know a bit about.

Khilnani has no holy cows. There is no mystification of hero worship or glorification. Even Vivekanandha, whom I used to admire to an inordinate amount, is deconstructed with a surgeon's precision. Gandhi is not portrayed as a saint. He is the masterful politician. Mahavira and Buddha get their places too, at the very beginning. Nor do you miss the Bhakti Movement. Interestingly, Manto figures too. As does the unglamorous portrait of Jamsetji Tata. There is a touch of flint stones and flying sparks and there is also a red hot touchstone against which every individual marked is tested.

The 'history' is often woefully short. But this is not a work that is the history of individuals. Much less and much more than that. Eclecticism shines through. From the rebel natured Annie Besant to J. Phule to Jinnah to Manto, there is a collection of rich characters that symbolize the colourfulness of this nation's extraordinary history. Ramanujan is pitted here too. There is a short story, brutally trimmed here, of Manto. A tear rolls down when we read it. There is an euphoria reading pages that detail individuals like Satyajit Ray. Periyar and VOC bat for south India. Jharkhand brings Birsa Munda. Pakistan sends Jinnah and Iqbal. Khilnani does justice to the undertaking and deserves rich laurels.

Must read.

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Review: Stoner

Stoner Stoner by John Edward Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Rarely does a book, seemingly unrelated captures your feeling in words that you wish were your own. Sometimes, when I am reading a book, or staring at the to-read pile at my desk, I feel a thought very similar to the one articulated above. Now that we have gotten it out of the way, let's come to the book.

An american classic, almost two years since the last one. I have since grown averse of the genre. They have a way of doing things to your heart. Today, the sole reason I started this book was to get it off my to-read list. It's been there for months. And I am glad I took it on.

"He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist."

The author captures so many moments in words like this. Some are uttered by characters. Some, are part of the narration. The character building of William Stoner, is like our own character building. Slow exploration, cautious, little surprises at what we find, constantly chiseling away things that we wanted to be, from the things we actually are.

And early on, you feel a little sympathy for him. Soon it morphs into anger at his stupidity in courting Edith. In a very similar vein, Elaine Edith makes you want to empathise and emote for what she is. But it becomes harder and harder. At a point, you could actually feel the grating of her shrill nervous voice, as she engages guests in the house warming party.

Slowly, the novel brings you in, makes you feel welcome. After a while, you're not a guest. You become a member of the family. The characters annoy you, make you feel pity for them and in the end make you feel an invisible agony at being unable to reach out fix things, give a shoulder for them to cry.

WT has an affair. And ironically the affair has some of the best words about love. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

I don't want to say much more than this. There is an odd sense of satisfaction. Of having seen something that was so magnificent. Not by the banal definition of the word. But in the way of something that is limited to just the flawed, human lives.

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Watson was a misogynist and racist. Halley was the one who actually haggled Newton into publishing Principia Mathematica. Robert Hooke was a shameless plagiarist. Wolfgang Pauli's wife ran of with a chemist. Avogadro, of the Avogadro no. fame, was brought to a school by his mother who hitchhiked 4000 miles, to make sure he got an education and died shortly after they got to the school. Henry Cavendish was quite possibly the worst introvert in history. Almost half of Science's discoveries are misattributed, either because the discoverer's were very secretive, or because the ones who got the attribution were more influential in there fields. And the barrage of facts goes on and on like this.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (henceforth known as ASHONE) is one of those books you have to careful to keep at an arm's length, or you'll have to go through an existential crisis, every few chapters. Bill Bryson loves to make statements like this, often without any warning.

“99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.” And this,

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.”

These seem innocuous enough, at the face of it. But by photon, stop putting so much pressure on me. I don't need to be aware of the fact that something that has been successful for 3.8 bn years can and very possibly might end with me. Okay? No. NO.

Everything I have read in this book, every page, taught me something new. I am not sure I will retain a percentage of that in the long run. But oddly enough, while most books ultimately leave you feeling that you know very little, this book massages your ego a bit and makes you feel like you got something out of a book and can, at least for a while, rest on the fact that so much knowledge was shoe horned into you.

“The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”

This is one of those books that will make you rethink many things in your life. Needless to say, if you are open enough to it. ASHONE has it all. Witty writing, Science and well, some Geology. Or does that come under science too?

There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.”

This should be made a compulsory reading in all high schools, as soon as students are capable of handling the language used.

I had in mind a long review, but for some reason, my brain refuses to play along. Perhaps a few days later.

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Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened 'When Breath Becomes Air' once again, I wanted to read something entirely different from the first time. The first read was in the middle of a night, in my college dorm. It was a race against time and sleep deprivation. Once I had started it, I couldn't stop. I raced through the prologue, and immediately wanted to know the story of this man, one if you had told me orally, I would've dismissed as pseudo-motivating feel-good story of someone who never existed. (I'm stupid that way')

But after reading it for a second time, I feel even more inadequate than the first time. I wanted to see meanings in this book, of mortality, of death, of bravery, of love, of commitment, of hard work. And I found them all. Perhaps, it is my tendency to try to relate to my life, whatever I read, is the source of this feeling of inadequacy. This book is pregnant with emotions and hidden meanings, struggles in every page, and bravery in every word. There is also a lining of honesty that shines through everything else. This is the kind of honesty that can scare you, when you know what it takes to be that honest.

Paul Kalanithi, is so different from the doctors that India, or for that matter, TamilNadu generates. There is no ruthless memorizing and vomiting. There is no counseling. There is only an year of intense coursework and an 18 month cycle of application process. Paul, interestingly, or perhaps obviously, didn't seek out to become a doctor initially. He was aiming to become an English professor, if pressed to given an answer for the question- "What are you going to do with your life?". A double major in English and Biology, it was Walt Whitman, that finally pushed him to Medicine, to know the Physiological- self.

From there, Paul highlights little of the gruesome coursework that is needed. He only mentions them briefly. Throughout his life, he makes unconventional choices, and perhaps that is why he succeeded. Once he gets into Stanford, Paul highlights the transition from a medical student to being a Doctor - A surgeon, in words that make even a layman like me appreciate the gravity of the transition. His discussion of cadavers, and the exploration of the relation between a medical student and his cadaver, is spot on, says my friend who happens to be a Medical Student. Everyone can hack a bone, but then very few can write about it with an air of authority like Paul can.

Paul traces his life, like this, quoting anecdotes, cases and brings us to the point where he is diagnosed with Terminal Cancer. From then on, his decisions take a new dimension of meaning. They are the decisions of a man who is dying and who knows about it in uncomfortable levels of finitude and detail. He declares, at a point, "You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote towards which you can ceaselessly strive". And I haven't read a more precise utterance about perfection and the struggle for it.

Paul was at the prime of his life. He was not an aging man, someone who had enjoyed at least a bit of what life had to offer. He was on the other extreme. Someone who put a stopper on all his pleasures, including having kids, so he could finish his internship of a decade, and finally become a Neurosurgeon-Scientist. And when you find suddenly that everything you have ever worked for, is no more than a mirage, everything that you ever hoped will enjoy in the not so distant future, is now non existent, it is VERY HARD to act like Paul did. The immediate acceptance of what lay in front of him, is something that many of us may not be capable of.

After treatment, with first regime of drugs, he goes back to the OR. He works once again, and fulfills his requirements for graduation. The intermediate time is peppered with so many truisms about mortality, and if you look carefully, love - for life and for the profession.

Paul had a debilitating pain, a strained marriage and a possibly futile decade with him. And when he died, he had the best of marriages, an integrity that rivals everything else in the face of death and a rich legacy, this book and another human being - his daughter Cady. Many of us aren't capable of achieving even one of these things in an entire lifetime, with stable health and a great circle of family and friends. Paul did, and he had Lucy with him, who in the last line, stated poignantly, "I was his wife and witness". Lucy has written the epilogue of this book and her wondrance at the ability to love Paul, in his absence, is one of the best lines about love I have read so far.

Rest in Peace, Paul. Thank you, for this book, for your life.

Old review below.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

I got to this book after a confusing night. I had hours ago, skimme2d through the Bhagavat Gita, and was contemplating the idea that we were nothing but a mere instrument in God's hands. This God person has been a source of much head ache to me recently. I have tried to rationalize, and well, as you guessed, I got nowhere. But not really because God himself is irrational. It is just that there are so many conflicting versions of him, that the only way to believe in him with any degree certainty is to refuse to believe anything except one version. There are more tolerant versions and versions less so. But all of them somehow point to the idea that all we do and act on is just according to God's wish. No other way. And I refused to believe it.

Paul Kalanidhi seems to reaffirm my decision. Perhaps it is too arrogant that a man's struggle with matters beyond my comprehension is mentioned as just a reaffirmation of my decision. But that doesn't take us away from the fact that he fought a magnificent battle.

This book inspired awe, instilled sadness and sowed courage. It is not often you get to see someone fight. Paul fought and he did so magnificently that for a while, everything else is going to seem so trivial. The writing is like a gentle lullaby. Soothing, and it almost succeeds in hiding the pain latent in the words. To fail is something. To be denied the chance to win is something else. When faced with the second, Paul carved his way out. And for that, I think he deserves all the praise I can think of.

His theological musings, as well as the pages on mortality, are so elegant and touching. There is no pseudo parading from a moral high horse. He plays the game, and he isn't afraid to lose. Only if we all could play the game.

Rest in peace Paul. There are not many dead men that I respect like I do you. Rest in peace.

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Review: Burden Of Democracy

Burden Of Democracy Burden Of Democracy by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Indians love to exhort in the fact that India is a nation of contradictions. In fact, it is readily apparent to the outsider, the contradictions that embody the nation state called India. From the very birth of this nation, people have raised hue and cry that it won't survive at all. And they were are all, in their own way, justifiable. But India chose to beat those odds, and for extra points, settled on Democracy as its chosen mode of government.

And it was the most important choice that was ever made. Perhaps, it was, as P.B.Mehta cheekily points out, the result of the British Colony having produced too many lawyers affluent in the Western model of governments. But the choice of Democracy was not intuitive nor was it the result of a revolution as in the case of France or America. It was much a vehicle of social change as it was the result of one.

The idealism associated with State and Democracy in the beginning days of independence, was very high indeed. But now, it has devolved to a point where

There are very few people you can come across that won't fault the government for whatever issue they have, on in some manner, indirectly imply that the state should be more authoritative and have more punitive powers. And it is not surprising that recently, the Modi government is looked upon to provide exactly that kind of governance. Never mind that India survived only because BJP was kept at bay.

There are various contradictions in India's choice of government. And more to the point, there is no clear consensus on what Democracy actually means. There is the issue of Politics of Inequality, politics of caste, Identity politics, low caste mobilization, and the issue of widespread corruption.

P.B.Mehta examines all of these, claims that India needs a much stronger moral anchor for the Democracy to be better than it is today, quoting the US as an example. He deconstructs the psychology of both lower caste mobilization and also studies why there isn't actually a social reform happening every time an oppressed society is elected to power. The pointer at the fact that there is a goal of power and not equalization or of opportunity to their community, is succinct.

The exploration of the results of India's in-egalitarian society effacing it's individuals and the derivation of the micro politics of corruption based on this injustice, as an effort to prove their worth and to assert their authority, is particularly mind-blowing.

This is the smallest book on my shelf, yet the one that made me think the most. What I have mentioned here is really a miniscule amount of what is contained in the book. It is sure to make you ask uncomfortable questions and at times, merely make your jaw drop in the awe of scholarship of P.B.Mehta.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see if he has written anything on Nationalism.

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Thursday, 14 April 2016

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I forget count. Sometimes, rereads remove the affection bit by bit. Not in this case. I don't see the book itself when I read, but rather the memories of the days when I first read it. And the depth of characters as well as the story, is just fine for the boy who read it first. There are certain series that grow and mature with you. And this is one of them.

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Monday, 11 April 2016

Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads is such a strange place.

It has given me much happiness, of course. I have marveled at the fact that someone halfway across the globe can feel the same way I do about a book and it's characters. Yet, it is sometimes almost painful when someone doesn't like the book you liked and for precisely the same reasons you liked it.
I have not read many books. I am young and in an engineering course to boot, so there is not much time to indulge in leisurely reading. I have read about a book a month for the past two and read three in the february, and 12 in January. You get the idea. I cannot criticize effectively, with neither the academic bent that some goodreaders are gifted with, nor with the reader's review some so eloquently write.

But, what I can do, is concede when a negative reviewer makes a good point and supports it with logical arguments. I can see reason. And that is why I have bumped one star of this review from the initial five. I loved this book. A lot.

Partly because except for one, the characters were all pockmarked with little flaws. What people saw as hypocrisy in Baba, I saw as a flaw, a very human one. There were so many instances I can relate to the characters and their decisions. Not entirely with anyone, but little actions. Like Baba and his chivalry built on a foundation of regret; like Farid's contempt for Amir when he goes back to Afghan. A little of me in Hassan when he says, for you, a thousand times over. And so on.

There is this complaint among the negative reviewers that the author tries to emotionally manipulate the reader without much subtlety. Which is true. Sometimes, it is like things happen to a character just to even things out. Just to make you feel sad. Just so there could be a point made about Afghan culture. I don't know if I should be harsh on the author, for this. He gave me a beautiful book. One with characters I can relate to, one which justified the week's coffee money spent on it. Perhaps I should, so I can get at better things. Perhaps I should not, because it then means I am expecting the author to be perfect, in presenting a story about imperfect characters.

Part of Afghanistan was once a part of India, when Jahangir ruled. A long time ago. I felt like there was this flimsy link, hidden by the ravages of time, yet in someways unbroken, that was tugged by my reading of this book. Or I am imagining. Either way, it is a great story. One I shall cherish.

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Friday, 4 March 2016

Review: Morning Star

Morning Star Morning Star by Pierce Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read only three books in the last month. Which is sad. But two were from this trilogy, so there's that. This book was read during some really testing times for me. And it has grabbed five stars, all deserved ones.

I am not going to comment on individual character or world building here. Suffice it to say they are really good, especially for a first trilogy from an author. The author acknowledges the influence of roman culture and history in this trilogy, so I will not hold that as a grudge against him.

This book started off with some intense violence, sometimes sexual, in the first book. In the process of getting to the third book though, it has matured extraordinarily. I can justify the violence without having to stretch the reasoning to accommodate anything anomalous. Though this is classified as sf, there is nothing that even remotely resembles science in some of the sf elements. I guess it is normal, since this is not Asimov we are talking about. Science took a backseat to the narrative.

And the narrative is very smooth with few bumps, nothing too conspicuous. Darrow makes some mistakes through out the trilogy and it makes the book all the more my favorite. I want my heroes to be human, blood and sweat, gore and pain, mistakes and glories, failures and victories, all in a loosely held package, punctured at places by betrayals, supported by friendships, taught by life, laughed at by the same life. Somehow, that brings the hero closer to me, not because I am arrogant enough to claim to have seen all those things, but because, on a fundamental level, it tells me the hero can fail and it is OK to fail.

Darrow fails, sometimes embarrassingly enough, but he fails gracefully. He takes the beating and rises, humbled by the experience. This book can wrench your heart, make you jubilant and induce you to cry out, "HIC SUNT LEONES" and then look at the ground sheepishly because everyone is looking at you, wondering what fell out of your head.

Another important aspect of the book I liked a lot is the way it chose to portray friendships. Roque's betrayal hurt me as much as it would have hurt Darrow, but it also made me sympathise with him. There was a honour, even in Roque's betrayal. Mustang's friendship and it's later mutation, was a very important anchor in the plot. Characters mature with the plot.

Characters like Sevro, Ragnar, Dancer make you want to wish you had people like that in life. And grateful for the ones you have already. There is a good sprinkling of Twists, good amount of humour, albeit somewhat insipid, but there nonetheless. You end up longing for more. And that is more than what you can ask for.

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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Review: Nehru and Bose

Nehru and Bose Nehru and Bose by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I need a few days of cud-chewing before I can say anything. But, as it stands now, let me categorically state that those people who claim to fight on behalf of Nehru and Bose, are ill-guided. There may not have been a deep friendship between Nehru and Bose, but there never was so much enmity that fighting after this many years can be justified. It is not just stupid to think that Nehru and Bose were enemies, it is also very dangerous. Both men realized at the time that they played a very big role in much bigger game. True, Bose sometimes thought that Nehru was working against him. But the issue is so much more nuanced than Nehru and Bose were enemies.

P.S. I don't understand the low ratings. This is a brilliantly written book that delivers on the promise. Man, people can be really miserly when acknowledging scholarship.

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Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm Animal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mild spoilers ahead.

"Four legs good, two legs bad".

So goes the condensed maxim of the Seven Commandments of Animalism. And for some reason, this is the most loved feature of the book, for me. We have a certain passion and lust for evocative, ornamental prose. People have won wars, captured governments, and become billionaires, all on account of their ability to somehow stir the metaphorical loins of the reader, through their writings. And it is very easy, for us as readers, to get lost in the beauty of the prose, that we'll fail in our most important duty of all - making sure to taste some salt every few pages. We forget to question the correctness, we become children at a candy machine. Nothing exists except the candy and our tongues that can savour them. Too often we get carried and become unflinching devotees of our favorite authors, that we never question them, just because their words can appeal to a deeper being in us, than the others.

I have been convinced of outrageous things by hagiographies. And I know of many such people who have been subjected to the same injustice. We are tricked, so to speak, by the language.

But here is where Animal farm and George Orwell shine. They don't have ornamental phrases. They don't have evocative prose. They have simple words. Simple words that hammer on you stronger and harder than any intricate stringing together of letters can.

As I was reading, I was thinking of the Soviet. I didn't know that Orwell actually wanted to draw a parallel to communism and socialism. But it was very apparent. From the start of the book, I wanted to find a hidden message. I discovered invented many such meanings. The characters, Major, SnowBall, Squealer, Boxer, Benjamin, all had different meanings to me. I could easily trace the similarities to some person I have encountered and interacted with. Sometimes they are people. Sometimes leaders. Sometimes nations and governments.

Orwell doesn't preach. He just sows the idea there, and lets the reader to grow it, nurture it, and ultimately reap the rewards. By the end of the book, you are very aware of the reaping, little attention do you pay to the source of the seeds. Therein lies the success of the book.

Recently a Dalit (Historically Oppressed community) Student committed suicide in an Indian university. The union HRD minister decided to say that it was not a Dalit issue. (it was). Suddenly I was reminded of a not-so-subtle version of Squealer. I could draw similar parallel to too many leaders of the nation I am living in. Whether I am to rejoice at the fact that Orwell enabled me to do this or to be sad that there are actually people like this, I do not know.

The book succeeded at the message it wanted to get across. But how does it fare as an innocuous novel, with no hidden didactic agendas? How will a reader from a world without socialism and communism enjoy this?

“Neither novels or their readers benefit from any attempts to divine whether any facts hide
inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.” -John Greene.

Amazingly, Orwell fits the novel to this definition too.

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Saturday, 9 January 2016

Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Updated on 10th of January, 2016.

Minor spoilers, but nothing that will compromise the enjoyment of reading the novel in the author's words.

This is perhaps the first novel I have read entirely at the Anna Centenary Library. ACL is one of Asia's largest libraries, and famously received a 2,794 page long invoice from Cambridge university press, for books worth 1.3 million GBP. And it's in walking distance from my hostel.

1984 is not a novel about 1984. It is a novel about every year that follows it, and every passing year has one mission: Vindicate George Orwell and his predictions. And you'll be pleased to know humanity is tirelessly doing just that.

Let's come to the book. I have tried to get through this novel at the formative years of my reading. I have always stopped it in the first 30 or so pages. I am actually kind of happy that I did so.
Why? Because, until you achieve a certain maturity, the books you read are like those childhood stories your parents tell you. You have a vague but sure memory of enjoying the time immensely, but you don't always know what it was about. And a novel as this, is too good to be used as expendable in such manner.

Now, I can read with much more patience, can understand much more that when I started out, and more importantly, I know much more about state sponsored mass surveillance, which is the crux of this novel.

I am a computer engineering UG student. And there is no doubt that today, computers aid the most massive surveillance, in all of humanity's really long history. And we seldom know about it, much less care, for the surveillance agencies are very good at being invisible. It is only partly funny that the NSA was expanded to 'No Such Agency' in the initial years.

In my field, we often hear news of such surveillance measures, at a much higher frequency than in the general mainstream media. The technologies involved interest us. And in such news, there is almost always at least one person commenting with the adjective Orwellian. I was familiar with the word, but never bothered enough to force myself through the book. Until I read Sabah's review, that is.

George Orwell writes about a world, where the state is in a perpetual state of war, with the remaining two states in the world. Oh, and the state has superior surveillance, geared towards making sure people believe in and wholesomely contribute to the war. There are other motives, but I don't want to spoil the plot for you, in case you haven't read it yet. This following quote shall suffice, until I reread and comment on the writing of George Orwell, rather than summarizing the story poorly, insulting my own intelligence and the author's.

Let's look at surveillance first. Big brother is watching you, can be, and ought to have been a reassuring phrase. Don't worry baby, your big brother is watching you [over] is enough to calm anybody's nerves about anything worrying at all. Except, in this case, it is not. State surveillance agencies have a habit of using something akin to this familial tie (Brother) to legitimize their peeping at us, constantly. Usually, it is patriotism. Patriotism is such a primal feeling that even beings of logic and extra ordinary reasoning fail to see reason when they imbibe patriotic words. It is something that has the power to bring people together, something that can validate humans killing each other, spying on each other, and much worse things, because, in the beautiful words of Macaulay,

[...]And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

Orwell succeeds in painting an extraordinarily vivid picture of a society that has been convinced that they need to be at war. The constant flooding of information about victories in battle, the war being closer to the end than it ever was. The daily two minute hate was replicated in the real world by almost every country that was at war with another. People were told about terrible weapons of mass extinction, bio-weapons and what not. Iraq war springs to mind. [Green Zone is a movie you might want to watch, if you enjoyed 1984]

Politicians invoking patriotic feelings to aid war is not actually a terribly new thing. We have been doing that for a very long time. It is always some hidden army that will strike us someday, and can be prevented only if we preemptively strike them. The Americans, have great experience in this, convincing their own citizenry that they are the big brother of the world, somehow tasked with bringing peace in the world, and always make sure they engage in war with people for far flimsier reasons than they have a right to.

Once you convince them you need to be at war with the rest of the world, the next thing to do is warring with your own citizens. Here, almost every single country in the world is at fault. Mass surveillance enables this. The telescreens are modern day CCTV cameras. You are being watched constantly, and your every move given an adversarial meaning.

People often wonder why you need to be worried about being watched if you have nothing to hide. Such people, can watch this Video of the immensely talented John Oliver interviewing Snowden. It will be frightening how Snowden has been painted a traitor, and reminds us of a much more subtler version of the Thought Police.

Winston writing in a diary and fearing he might be executed for that is not entirely devoid of real world counterparts. State or terrorist execution of bloggers is a news we are all too familiar with.

Such things are made possible only because of mass surveillance. And we have a myriad of three letter and four letter agencies doing their job 24x7. Snowden revelations, the PRISM program, Wikileaks, are very small apertures through which we can look into the scary world of Big Brother. We have computers that have become extensions of our bodies and minds. And in essence, knowing your computer is knowing you.

How? A computer records everything it does. Usually it is for our own convenience. Just like to keep some things close to us, than the others. It helps to remember what websites you researched yesterday, without taking up the memory space needed for it. It helps to remember the song you recently heard, since you may decide you like and want to play it again tomorrow. But, it also helps people who want to watch you because, in essence, your computer is like a detailed journal of your thoughts, tastes and leanings. And that is why governments want to put back doors in our computers.

Some succeed without spooking people. Some, like Kazakhstan, just pass a law and make it impossible not to be watched. [Source.] There is a very real possibility that you have not heard about this. Convinced yet? So yes, we have mass surveillance and mass hypnosis happening right amongst us.

So, the question here is not whether George predicted all the minute details for us. It is that he predicted the broad plans, and gave us convincing reasons to believe in that predictions.

How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished?

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

And when memory failed and written records were falsified – when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.

Orwell manages to tell us all this, and not once do you find it implausible. He isn't too keen on propaganda or advancing his own ideas. The things that happen is his novel, happen here too, albeit for different reasons than stated in the novel. But they do happen and with an alarming similarity to the fiction.

And we have it happening, with an exponentially subtle manner. It is almost to believe in it, even if the truth is staring right in our face.

People often tell you the novel is depressing. It is not. If anything, it is like reading a prophecy that is coming to fulfillment around you. But it need not scare us. You know why? For every Winston that submits to the Big brother, we have a Snowden that breaks the Big brother's nose. All we need to do is not to let ourselves believe that anything at all can be a valid excuse to constantly watching us.

The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.

Orwell has written perhaps the most accessible account on Surveillance. And he has done that with chilling accuracy and inviting simplicity.
Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the first novel I have read entirely at the Anna Centenary Library. ACL is one of Asia's largest libraries, and famously received a 2,794 page long invoice from Cambridge university press, for books worth 1.3 million GBP. And it's in walking distance from my hostel.

Let's come to the book. I have tried to get through this novel at the formative years of my reading. I have always stopped it in the first 30 or so pages. I am actually kind of happy that I did so. Now, I can read with much more patience, can understand much more that when I started out, and more importantly, I know much more about state sponsored mass surveillance, which is the crux of this novel.

I am a computer engineering UG student. And there is no doubt that today, computers aid the most massive surveillance, in all of humanity's really long history. And we seldom know about it, much less care, for the surveillance agencies are very good at being invisible. It is only partly funny that the NSA was expanded to 'No Such Agency' in the initial years.

In my field, we often hear news of such surveillance measures, at a much higher frequency than in the general mainstream media. The technologies involved interest us. And in such news, there is almost always at least one person commenting with the adjective Orwellian. I was familiar with the word, but never bothered enough to force myself through the book. Until I read Sabah's review, that is.

George Orwell writes about a world, where the state is in a perpetual state of war, with the remaining two states in the world. Oh, and the state has superior surveillance, geared towards making sure people believe in and wholesomely contribute to the war. There are other motives, but I don't want to spoil the plot for you, in case you haven't read it yet. This following quote shall suffice, until I reread and comment on the writing of George Orwell, rather than summarizing the story poorly, insulting my own intelligence and the author's.

"It's a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.'s idea originally, of course," he added as an afterthought.

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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Review: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse by Ben Yagoda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining read.

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Review: The Stars, Like Dust

The Stars, Like Dust The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a part of trying to read the entire Foundation Universe, starting from the early ones.

It is always humbling to see someone grow up, struggling through the growing pains and teething problems. It is doubly so when the person involved is a genius like Asimov.

I started reading "The Stars, Like Dust" one depressing evening. The story takes place in a far away future, when the Earth itself has been abandoned, and forgotten in many places of the Galaxy. Asimov's writing always cheers me up, but alas, this was not the case with TSLD. The author of the book was not someone I knew, not someone who always knew just how much science to throw in to maintain the book unputdownable. This was an amateur, struggling to build memorable characters, with very less subtlety when going to science, often straight out jumping to defining things, with not so much as a thought to blend them in to the plot.

Yet, somehow, the connection to the Trantorian Empire, the mentions of visisonar and visiplates invokes memories of the Foundation Saga, and that is enough motivation to push through the book.
Indeed the Asimov of the Foundation Saga and the Asimov of the earlier (and later) days is very different. But it is a hard thing, to give just three stars to my favorite author of all time.
I do not regret the time spent reading it though. In fact spending time with your favorite author's book is like spending time with your family. You can't always expect it to be roses and unicorns. :)

Recommended only to Asimov Fans.

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Friday, 1 January 2016

Review: India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy

India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I set to type this review, I also seriously consider not doing so, on account of my naivete. In all fairness, I am new to this genre and this book had been lying around for more than a year in my shelf, till I started reading it after I had finished some 100 odd pages in a friend's copy.

I have not read any other book that was so dense as this and yet so well-paced. The amount of information in each page is staggering. The only book I know that has more footnotes than this is, perhaps, the Infinite Jest.

I started off by watching a TEDx video my Mr.Guha. He was so articulate in his views that I was compelled to read the book immediately. And in his book, he is more articulate, more evocative than I had imagined a writer of history can be.
India, is in it's own right, an exception in the world, as a nation. It had not satisfied any condition that major historians and theorists of the day mandated to the formation of a successful, lasting nation. There was no unifying language, no unifying way of life. The Hindus, even with their majority were not keen on establishing a government guided by Hinduism. Hence, religion as a unifying factor to establish a nation was out too. There was only the common theme of being at the receiving end of European colonialism. And that was not enough to forge a united nation, many historians and journalists predicted, at the time, of which Guha is generous to include many samples.

One cannot blame those people who predicted the downfall of India as a nation soon after the British left. The Indian populace was illiterate, yet granted adult franchise. A wave of nationalism dominated the first election. It was famously said that 'even a lamp post can win if it contested under Congress auspices'. In essence, India was the first modern complete democracy. It started off as a constitutional one, and has morphed into a populist one.

India had its share of wounds too. It was deeply hurting from the communal riots incited as a result of the partition. In fact, the communal violence would continue to dog the country well into the twenty first century, initially condemned by the government and sometimes condoned and actively aided by it, episodically.

There was no scarcity for secessionist claims either. It seems like throughout the second half of the century, after the Indian Union came into being, almost every corner of the country wanted a separate nation, every province harbored a desire to be declared a sovereign nation. Domestic terrorism had its share, for good(!) measure.

There was the issue of neighbours, their aggression, non pragmatic foreign policies and internal economic policies, all product of the nationalist sentiment that ran high when these were enacted and enforced. And they have all come to pass, with better versions replacing them, albeit slowly, often obstructed by recalcitrant politicians with vested interests and policy makers with Anchor bias and tunneled visions.

It is to be noted that, as an (unfortunate) consequence of adopting a democracy, India had to tolerate its politicians. That the literacy rates were below the average of similar democracies / freshly liberated colonies didn't help. India was gifted with great statesmen, who seeded the revolution, nurtured it and lived long enough to see it mature. In the initial decades things were decidedly better than they are now.

Since then, India has come a long way. And this book tells you the story of this country. Ramachandra Guha has done an excellent job of chronicling it, without even a hint of distaste towards the politicians or the policy makers or its executives. This is a remarkable achievement in itself.

India is the seventh largest country in the world. It is no mean task to select issues that need to be covered, in order to be representative of the government, the nation, and ultimately the populace. However, Mr.Guha proves to be just the man for this task. Nowhere does one feel that some issues were left out, or downplayed, or exaggerated. It must have been very hard to resist those temptations and be non-partisan. Too many historians have claimed to be authoritative re-tellers of the great Indian History. And Mr.Guha shames them all, and not through attacks, but through sheer scholarship.

I do not claim that I am enlightened now, even as far as the subject that has been covered in this book. But it is because of my own inability to retain and evaluate all the facts objectively. That I may have to re-read it multiple times to assimilate even the outline of the book is in no doubt.

The book is one giant story, sometimes titillating, sometimes depressing and sometimes neither. I made reading this book a ritual, covering a hundred pages in the morning every day. And it has paid off, richly. In part, it also subjected me to much chagrin, at the knowledge of just how much I didn't know about my own country. But Mr.Guha himself vindicates the great nation through his book. For all its imperfections and shortcomings, India has survived this long, and shall survive long enough that it will come to be seen as a country that has always been a democracy.

Near the end of the book, the author points out the lamenting of Isaiah Berlin, who pointed out that countries like India shouldn't be seen only as liberated subjects of European colonialism. They have their own distinct history, character, she says. And Mr.Guha's book does justice to that claim. No doubt this will go down as a classic, for it already has become a standard and authoritative text on the subject.

Highly recommended.

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