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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