Author: SD

Hello there! I review books at https://wetellatale.wordpress.com/ and (used to) write about current affairs, at https://newsandopinionsindia.wordpress.com/. Check them out!

Water Wars

This is a review of the book Water Wars: Privatisation, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva.

Water Wars is a great book for people interested in management of water; the kind of people who binge read newspaper editorials on public policy. It isn’t a hugely educative read, though, since almost everyone (newspaper nut or otherwise) is aware of the water crisis looming ahead, and that solutions to it are way more complex than we’d care to admit.

Just as well, the book is a worthy read because it is spirited (you can almost hear Shiva crying her voice hoarse about the ills of privatisation of water). Also, literature on conserving and saving our environment is necessary, so any literature at all is welcome.

Shiva is an advocate for community led maintenance of water. Her arguments are premised on the idea that communities are democratic and non-discriminating between sections of society. But is that the reality of communities across the country? Caste, class and religion based conflict, related to water, at the village level, are not uncommon in India. It was Ambedkar that said that villages can be the cesspools of narrow-mindedness – are they, then, equipped to solve water crisis equitably? It’s a pity that this point was not critically examined by Shiva.

She also believes that community management can be a replacement to govt efforts. Very well. But every successful case study on community led water management quoted came with the support of the State. For example, Swadhyaya, Pani Panchayat. So reading her ideas about replacing the state in service provision is a little bit of a hypocritic pill to take.

Predictably, the book signs a huge no to privatisation of water services, be it extraction, distribution or recycling. The reasons being that it leads to pollution, inequitable distribution.

Speaking of pollution, a much needed chapter is devoted to the effect of Climate Change on the dialectic on water scarcity. The bad news (not so much news anymore) is that there is no good news at all. Shiva believes that the solution to climate change induced water and food scarcity, and disasters, lies in enforcing action through international instruments like the Paris Agreement (she mentions Kyoto, actually; the book was released many years ago). But there is no way to enforce these agreements, truly. Finally, in a last breathe effort, she says, we need climate justice. That means a paradigm change in lifestyles of people, and a goodbye to the American lifestyle of consumption. But that’s pretty much impossible.

At this point in the review, I think it’s appropriate to point to some of the great despondence that the writer probably experienced while writing the book. These are the not-very-compelling parts of the book: Many pages are spent in saying that private companies (ranging from Coca Cola to Monsanto) are trying to claim all water services, with the help of the IMF and the World Bank. They’re not do-gooders – they’re trojan horses, apparently. So beware! Also, Public Private Partnerships are very dangerous – it’s all about making public good unavailable and making a profit out of it with public money! These statements are not based on facts or figures, rather, they’re based on strong opinions. I did say the book was spirited.

The book ends with a chapter on how rivers are seen as sacred by most civilisations. It was an appeal to the spirituality of the reader, I think, to conserve our water resources. To me, it was interesting for the narration of all the mythological stories related to rivers and other water bodies.

Solutions?

Shiva’s main emphasis is on local solutions to water problems, and she squarely blames states, countries and international organisations, and especially private interests, for the water crisis.

In Water Wars, fierce arguments to save the planet’s water resources by not doing certain things (like privatisation and monetisation of water) are put forward.

But there are no sweeping solutions that are on offer. While the case studies are quoted as a blueprint to solve issues related to water pollution and scarcity, it is also a fact that these stories are not scalable. Abstract ideas of justice and equity are provided as the panacea for water management. Mostly, the author exhorts countries to look within at solutions offered by communities and at traditional methods as ways forward.

If only that worked all the time.

While compelling, the book does not fully quench the thirst for solutions to water problems and water wars.

3/5.

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Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

Public Institutions in India: a cross-sectional view

Public institutions are the instruments through which modern states carry out their tasks of governance and development. Indian public institutions require close scrutiny, given that the Indian State is a paradox of, among other things, governance stability and political chaos, to both, good and bad effect. Public institutions in India especially merit much ink and thought for an administrator because of the implications that it holds for her, while she is a player in the game and creator of the same.

The study of public institutions has been carried out in two tangents – in drawing causations between institutions and certain outcomes that they produce, directly or indirectly. Public Institutions in India, on the other hand, is a study of public institutions themselves; on what affects the performance of different institutions rather than how the institutions affect broader aspects of the country’s life. The editors, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contend rightly, that a better grasp of how our public institutions function is imperative in order to appreciate India’s political economy.

Public institutions may be defined as a set of rules and norms that determine roles and which create and foster expectations from each other. When reading this book, though, it is important for a reader to remember the other definitions that enhance our understanding of institutions, ranging from the Marxist to the structuralist (the one ascribed to in this book). Ultimately, it is also to be borne in mind that institutions are but creations of people, and are liable to be preserved, or changed by them, with everyday and epic revolutions to that effect; and in this bottomline, lies the fact that the study of institutions is essential for administrators. To the end that it serves administrators, Public Institutions discusses the design, performance and adaptability of the key institutions of governance in India.

Public Institutions regards a wide range of institutions, from the Parliament, to the Reserve Bank of India, and to the Election Commission of India. The cross-sectional view of these institutions, though, is a tad bit dated today, given the many mutations that the institutions have gone through.

Nevertheless, the book will be enjoyable for the intellectually inclined. That said, it doesn’t conform to the recent trend of books being mediums of storytelling, even if non-fiction (Sapiens, for instance). If the book weren’t in the form of compendium of essays and it had a common thread pulling the reader along, it may have been a different sort of read, but would not necessarily have taken much out of the work. But then again, it may not have been easy to do it, given the vast difference in writing styles of the different writers and the assortment of topics.

As a reader primed to note biases in texts, some biases of the analysts, that even the best statisticians and researchers face, such as confirmation, hindsight, overconfidence bias, were sometimes too stark to skim over. For instance, the Pratap Bhanu Mehta essay concludes that the courts in India have predominantly intervened for the realisation of the duty of the State, as given by the Directive Principles of State Policy, as opposed to preserving and guaranteeing civil liberties. The examples stated to show the courts’ preference to intervene in the former and not latter have been selectively listed, in a classic case of confirmation bias. Mehta’s analysis does not pass the test for bias, given cases that contradict his view, like AK Gopalan versus State of Madras and B Muthamma versus Union of India. That said, the essay on the Judiciary is informative for the uninitiated and delves deep into the malaises and strengths of the institution.

The best part about these essays is that they deliver on their promise – they look at various institutions in depth, their interactions, as they aid or subvert each other, and their future prospects. An example would be the analysis of democratic durability and economic performance of the Indian political economy by Devesh Kapur. He states that despite the political instability that India has seen, she has remained a relatively very stable economy. He suggests, with numbers and graphs (indeed!), that it is perhaps the out of phase life cycle of institutions and political cycles that has reduced the covariance risk and has given more systemic stability to the State.

The writers also suggest ways forward for the institutions that they have analysed, some of which stand out for being forward looking and optimistic. In the essay on the police in India where the multiple linkages to the institution and its effects on society are analysed, it is also suggested that the institution needs to look within and at the society, with research at the core of policing.

The volume following this one is on Rethinking Public Institutions, in which the same institutions are analysed again, after over a decade, by other researchers. This time, with a reinvigorated zeal to suggest reform, with little and great revolutions within.

The purpose of the book, Public Institutions in India, is to appreciate efficiencies, comment on absurdities and highlight lacunae through a cross-sectional view of Indian public institutions. This, it does exceptionally well. The book is a must read for those interested in public policy and administration; preferably over a cup of piping hot tea or warm coffee. It is inevitable that this body of intellectually stimulating work will be discussed and debated in the halls of Indian public policy and administration, for it is one of a kind, and a good one at that.

4.5/5.

Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written by Arundhati Roy, who is famous for being the winner of the Man Booker Prize Award for her previous work of fiction, The God of Small Things (and is famous still for eliciting vile hatred among the gatekeepers of Indian Nationalism and Patriotism).

Anything to do with Roy becomes political, as might be the case with this review. Even though I’ve tried to be apolitical, how can I seem to objectively review this book? Roy is, after all, a woman who stokes the deepest fears in people who admire her, detest her, or, who try to be indifferent to her. I’m aware of the political speak that the review of this book can seem to exude, just as the book itself did. After all, as Roy says, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Before the book was released, commentators commented on the political undertones of the novel. I was intrigued. When I purchased the book, I mulled over the meaning of the poem on the book jacket for a long time.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody.
No. By slowly becoming everything."

What does the poem mean? Are people shattered in the course of their lives? Are the shattered people reduced to things? Are the people reduced to things after being shattered? Will knowing the stories of shattered people’s lives leave me shattered too? Can’t I tell a shattered story without being affected? Should I be stoic and unreasonably tree-like in my attempt to tell the shattered story of the dehumanised shattered people? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. Such angst is a hallmark of Roy’s works, especially now, when she’s weaving metaphors through every sentence.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I figure, is the place that the (shattered?) people of the periphery congregate to; and if it had to be a physical location, it would be the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, an ascetic Sufi saint who was executed by the Mughal King, Aurangzeb, for the crime of blasphemy, being naked, and mostly for being a nuisance. The enigma of the saint shines through in all the protagonists – eccentric people from the fringes who live their ludicrous lives with aplomb.

One of our protagonists, Aftab or Anjum, a transgender person, or a Hijra, as she likes to be called, was introduced to the Sufi saint by her grief-ridden mother (for having given birth to a Hijra). After many years, during which time Anjum discovers her sexuality, moves out of her house, into Khwabgah (a place where Hijras stayed, and which literally translates to “a house of dreams”), attains fame, etc., she finds her daughter at the Shrine. Anjum’s life changes as tragedy strikes soon afterward, and she goes off to live in a grave yard.

Saddam Hussein, a security guard who rides a pony, is another such eccentric character. He, too, ends up living with Anjum in Jannat, the palace in the grave yard.

Another main protagonist, Tilotamma, is an architect who is possibly modeled after Roy herself. In her life, everything is a metaphor. As a young graduate student in Delhi, she falls in love with a passionate and handsome man, who goes on to become a Kashmiri militant fighting for Azaadi, and who calls her Babajaan. She is also romanced by a idealistic hardcore investigative journalist who is soon absorbed into the State’s news mill. She loves him for a brief period, but then falls out of love gradually. She’s also the love of a man who joins the Intelligence Bureau; a true patriot who thinks they can never really be together, for reasons ranging from her being “rootless” while he belonged to an “upper caste”, him being married to a woman of his parents’ choice, to her being as aloof as she is, etc. And towards the end of the book, or somewhere in the middle (it’s hard to say when), she also adopts an abandoned child born to a raped Maoist militant. Tilo’s story, or multitude of stories, was my hook.

Endearing characters apart, the book traces some of the most seminal moments in Indian history, like the partition, the emergency, the 1984 sikh riots, Godra 2002, Kashmir 2010 and 2016, Maoist movements in Andhra Pradesh, the India Against Corruption movement 2010, to name a few. But these events are scattered across the book like bread crumbs, in a jumbled up time-line, which only a keen reader can keep track of.

When the reader turns the last page, though, she wonders why this is no more than a work of fiction. Is it not an argument made through fiction? Argument or not, the very obvious references to the Indian leadership and polity can make the book more of a political memorandum than a piece of literature.

In an interview, Roy was asked why she resorted to fiction when the reality, or Duniya, is so starkly fantastic and mildly dystopian. She said, “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves”. That declaration pretty much sums up this book: an attempt to make sense of the world – of the dance of the world – by threading together the shattered tales of a shattered people.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, happiness is redefined and is free of the crutches of social norms and facts. It’s written with a luxuriant flow of words and with the ragged edge of a penmanship that seeks to speak directly to the reader. If you read the book as a work of contemporary fiction, it may be a 4/5 experience. If not, I can’t say.

Queen of the Court

This is a review of Queen of the Court, Serena Williams’s autobiography, penned with Daniel Paisner. She gives us rare insights into her childhood, training regimen, among other curious details in the life of a champion. The book was published in 2009, when she had “only” 11 Grand Slams to her name. Today she holds a record whopping 23!

When I picked the book up, the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew very little about what Serena Williams is made of; what kind of person is she? Is she as tortured as Agassi was, as hard on herself as Nadal, or as perfectly naturally athletic like Roger Federer? What is it about her, the sinew and guts, that make her the Queen of the court?

Legend has it that Serena and sister, Venus Williams, were born because of some happenstance by which their father was watching the 1978 French Open on TV. The announcer mentioned that the player, Virginia Ruzici, had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play, more than Serena’s father earned all year. He was stunned and inspired. The story goes that he went up their mother and said, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

They made tennis their life. The older Williams girls were trained along with the young potential protégées. In their household, every little game was about tennis, and every day, needless to say, was spent hitting balls, or practicing form, or watching a game. This tennis regimen involved a lot of homework for the parents, especially their dad, who was their coach in the formative years. For him, training the girls included learning the game, the tricks involved, game play, coaching methods and juggling his day job with the tennis-life. The focus with which the girls were brought up, and the up keep of that spirit – with love and respect for the game – is commendable to say the very least.

The Williamses’ dedication to the sport, bordering on religion, is almost unthinkable, given that they literally practiced in courts while next door there raged gun violence. They hopped from public court to public court, with an old car loaded with balls, racquets and brooms to clean the court (of dry leaves, if they’re lucky, and drug paraphernalia, if not). The girls themselves were driven and passionate, with abundant conviction and confidence, from the beginning, that they would be tennis stars one day. Their father kept the improbability of that away from them, though.

As a child, Serena sees herself as the spoilt brat in the family; the youngest one who is spoiled with love and affection, the one who hides under the shadow of the big sisters, and the one that gets away with all sorts of mischief. One such mischievous act got her career as a professional tennis player started. When Serena was 8, her sister Venus entered a professional 10-and-under tournament, as per her father-coach’s plan. Serena, who always wanted what Venus had (and who believed she was ready!), demanded that she be allowed to play too. Her father felt she was not ready yet, and so turned a deaf ear to her. Come tournament day, the family travelled together as usual, and Serena was tagging along with Venus and her father. When they reached the courts, however, Serena slipped away. Her father noticed, only a little later, that she had wandered off. He asked one of the referees if he’d seen Serena (who was a known face, there, being dark skinned and being a part of the Venus entourage and all). “She’s playing her match, out back in court number..” he said. Apparently, Serena had taken the liberty to enter the tournament by herself! And she proved her father’s fears wrong.

This spunky young lady, though, is besotted with self-doubt. But, due to the criticism of the nay-sayers, who had pinned her down to forever be no more than “Venus’s little sister”, or despite it, she rose through the ranks and held her own. She suffered through injury, the loss of a sister to gun violence, vicious hatred and racism on and off the court, and still came at the top of her game.

Although the book was a quick read, it dwells on many aspects of Serena’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches upon many facets too, from family to training to sponsorships to fashion. It also has some family pictures and some entries from her journal, which make the memoir all the more personal and stirring. (Although I would have liked very much if the textese were corrected.)

But the book didn’t fully satisfy the curiosity that I picked it out with. Now I know what she wrote in her little Match Book, one that she leafs through during matches, like, “U will not be afraid. It is not in your vocabulary. It is not in your nature. It is not in U, period. NO FEAR!!!” I also know how much she loved fashion and thrived on the looks she created for each tournament. I know, too, that she was moved by her visit to Africa (a Roots-esque visit, I’d say). But I don’t know how she really battled her poor self-image, how she remained efficient even as her haters grew louder, and I don’t know the little details of her practice and cross training, or diet, and I am fully blindsided on her childhood outside of the tennis courts, which, I reckon, made her into the tough lady we see on court.

Also, since the book was written in 2009, I had no way of learning about her journey since (duh), which has only been more inspiring than not.

In 2017, she won the Australian Open when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. What wouldn’t I give to know what she wrote in her Match Book for the finals? Here’s a picture of the Queen at the 2017 Australian Open –

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One of Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

For someone who plays tennis, Queen of the Court is a must read. 5/5. For the rest, who hope to learn how to hit a top-spin, the book is no good. For a tennis or sports fan, the book is worth a slow weekend. 3/5.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

(Queen, Killer Queen)

No Child’s Play

There is something exquisite about children’s books. There’s joy and wonder in the discovery of new things. There’s unbounded love. Most importantly, there’s the tremendous responsibility of nurturing and molding young minds. Shouldn’t that make reading children’s books a great learning experience?

This post is a review of a famous children’s book, Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H Porter, and a book of compiled letters to Indira Nehru, Letters from a Father to His Daughter, by the inimitable Jawaharlal Nehru.

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The ever so happy Pollyanna

Pollyanna is a book about the little child, Pollyanna, who is glad about everything under the sun. She is the person behind the adjective Pollyanna or pollyanaish. If she finds nothing to be glad about, under the sun, then she just digs deeper till she hits the goldmine of gladness. She’s a delight. She’s a great person to introduce to children, especially in times such as this (cue dramatic music), because she is an embodiment of hope and joy, and possesses the power to transform even the grumpiest of people.

However, since I am, I think, an adult, I didn’t find Pollyanna to be enlightening or even cute. In fact, I felt intensely sorry for her. What would ever happen to her when she grew up and saw the purple flowers, like Celie did far into her adulthood? I would definitely not want to witness her bubble bursting. Of course, when reading a children’s book, one is supposed to wear one’s most childish pajamas. But, try as I might, I couldn’t pretend not to be an adult when I read this book. Besides, it also didn’t help that I am biased towards books that are based on plausible dystopias rather than books that are desperately trying to be about a utopia.

Apart from the main selling point of the book, I also disliked the way it is written. I had always thought that writers before the mid 20th century were very conscious of their grammar and punctuation. But, it turns out, I’m wrong. Porter has unfortunately used big shouty letters to emphasise words, rather than effectively use simple words.

If you’re a child under 10, or know a child that young, gift him or her this book. It will act as a balm when he or she ever feels let down by their worlds. I’d root for Black Beauty and Heidi though, instead. Anyway, if you’re an adult, it’s a 2/5.

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Young Indira Nehru

Pollyanna doesn’t make for a great present to a 10 year old, but Letters from a Father to His Daughter does! The book is a compilation of letters that were written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter, Indira Nehru, who would go on to become the first female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The letters were written with love and devotion, and published with the hope that “such of them as read these letters may gradually begin to think of this world of ours as a large family of nations“.

The letters cover the creation of the earth, evolution of life and man through civilisations, stratifications based on race, gender, caste, class, creation of social institutions, and their relevance today*. The simple language and the breadth of information compressed is wonderful. It made me appreciate the exceptional talent every parent must possess to answer their children’s infinite queries.

What stood out in the letters was the lack of sermons. Nehru treats little Indira as an intelligent person. There’s the glow of constant engagement between father and daughter; as if her education never ceases and as if she was always thirsty for more. Nehru emphasizes, in the first letter in the compilation, that to truly understand the world, it is important for Indira to step out of her comfort zone. “If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born,” he wrote. We also see Indira being groomed as a world leader, a humanist. Nehru’s words are timeless. He wrote, “As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

As an adult (clears throat), I had a good time reading the book. The book gave me an idea or two on how to smother my little nephew with love and be an overbearing aunt at the same time. I thought the book could have packed in more illustrations, though, seeing as the ones that made the cut into the book are as pretty as they are. Also, in some parts of the book, I had an undesirable urge to argue with Nehru on some of his ideas. But, even so, the letters don’t truly belong to any school of thought, per se, and the book is an enjoyable and age-appropriate read throughout.

If you’re a young child of 8-12, this book can be rated 5/5. For a person older than that, however, the book comes close to 4/5, for its simplicity, its power through knowledge and, also, by being the book that possibly shaped the life of one of the most prominent leaders of the world’s largest democracy.

Children’s books are a thing of beauty, and I have realised through the act of critiquing them, that they’re tricky and a joy to read. Nevertheless, I figure, children’s books are no child’s play.


Feature image: Aaron Shikler’s painting of a young JFK.