3/5

The Indian Economy, in the 90s

This is a review of books by former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan, India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century and The Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects.

These books offer a great ring side view of the working of the Indian economy. They are, however, dated. To be fair, these are old books, published in the 90s. Nevertheless, they are still relevant to some extent.

For instance, in Problems and Prospects, Bimal Jalan speaks of corruption and how to deal with it, by differentiating the supply and demand for the same, supply being the side of the transaction where people are willing to bribe, and demand being the side where people want, demand, bribes. He puts forth a model to stop both sides of this transaction. His suggestions have, hearteningly, been implemented under the Prevention of Corruption Act, where the bribe taker is heavily penalized (although this has been pushed a tad bit too far by penalizing even lack of action which may result in indirect benefit to unrelated persons causing a loss to the exchequer; it penalizes complicity in corruption, which many believe is doing more harm than good, by making bureaucrats slow and averse to doing risky things, thus compounding the problems of red tapism). He also says that the whistle-blowers should be protected and incentivized for their courage. This seems to be a logical way of thinking about corruption.

Some observations by Jalan made me laugh, mirthlessly. Like, “Indian democracy is schizophrenic” by which he means that although we romanticize democracy (freedom liberty equality!), we’re deeply suspicious of how it works (everyone’s corrupt!). Hence our civil society is weak, parliamentary representatives are not motivated to work for the people and seek to gratify self-interests. General will is all but thrown out the window. But this is changing, as we have seen with “people’s movements” and a burgeoning civil society that increasingly dictates policy. This is a great shift in our democracy that people haven’t taken much notice of!

In his book, India’s Economic Policy, he talks about the weight of Public Sector Enterprises and the losses they incur to the exchequer, and recommends that the state shake them off. This has been a popular demand in India, and the recent governments have taken cognizance of it as they have initiated strategic sales of many of the state concerns.

India’s Economic Policy reads like a journal of the Indian Economy in the 90s, as we were bubbling with hope and trepidation after the giant LPG reforms of 1991.

Some of the issues that are still very relevant, that I picked up, are

  • Making the party whip less powerful – and making the Indian democracy a true representation of people’s interests, as opposed to being a minion of party interests.
  • Separating policy making from policy implementation (ie., the politician and bureaucrat should have more sharper differentiation of functions, and the latter should be allowed to tailor policy to suit the needs of the grassroots)
  • Decentralize, because overcentralization of schemes and programmes has made them inefficient.

The good news is that most of these reforms are in the pipeline, have been implemented already, or have been tried and discarded. I would still recommend it to someone who’s trying to understand the Indian economy from its roots and shoots. I’d rate Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects higher than India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, for its relevance today and the future.

Indian Economy: Problems and Prospects – 3/5

India’s Economic Policy: Preparing for the Twenty-first Century – 2/5

Bimal Jalan’s books are like a reading of the history of the Indian Economy, and the story of her evolution. They’re good. Easy reading, if you’re conversant with basic economics and have a rough understanding of issues related to the Indian economy. But to understand the economy as it is today, policy, problems, I’d suggest (highly recommend) reading the Indian Economic Surveys. The Economic Survey is cooler – with references to Bob Dylan music, dry and witty sarcasm, it is a giant authoritative perspective of the economy today.

Infinite injustice

This is my review of The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy.

In her fight for rights, Arundhati Roy is compelling. Her book of essays (8 of them) makes her sadness, pleas, anger, and righteousness crush you a little with each paragraph that lays bare the injustices perpetuated by protectors and guarantors of freedoms and livelihoods.

In the essay, The Greater Common Good, which she wrote during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she blasts the lid off the scam and scandal behind the worst planned damned dam in the world. She exposes the scam through numbers that tellingly don’t add up. On recognition of the shoddy engineering and planning, the World Bank (the happiest lenders in town, when they have lending targets to meet, that is) was shamed into withdrawing funding. Nothing can be “for the greater good” if it displaces and destroys millions of tribals. And especially nothing good will come of Big Dams, a concept that’s been abandoned for scientific and economic reasons, but still pushed for in third world countries like India (because it’s a great way to grease the wheels…).

In her essay Power Politics, she says that capitalism works because there are greedy givers and moneyed takers. And lost in these vicious transactions are the have-nots, in line to be swallowed into the belly of the monster. Her sarcasm, dry and twisted (twisted is the world, she’d tell you), is a little difficult to digest. She is extraordinarily bold in her accusations, but some of her broad accusations are flawed. Markets are decried so much that I was beginning to think her suspicion for market economies was ideological. The State’s promotion of privatisation is not always bad, Roy. It’s just bad if it’s business-friendliness, not liberal and (then) privatised. It’s the difference between the State supporting an Ambani and allowing a Silicon Valley to grow. One of them reeks of corruption. But the other is transparent, accountable to consumers, and responsible to its stakeholders (who are in the thousands, and hence also provides for shared welfare). It is no good throwing missiles (she hates those from the bottom of her big heart) at them. Take the case of social capitalists, for instance. I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not really one, as proven by social capitalists themselves. Schools (that are run at a no-loss, no-profit basis) are an example. Nevertheless, Roy is right in this essay. She describes a disgusting nexus between bureaucracy and greedy capitalists – in building a dam that helps no-one, but manages to destroy millions of people’s houses and large forests. A dam that is likely to be built by a textile trader and a garbage incinerator (go figure!).

Another essay that I found poignant was The End of Imagination. Nuclear weapons’ Disarmament has become a joke, and nuclear weaponisation has become a dance that the powerful perform; around the pyre that they will create, of people and countries that they will inevitably destroy. “No, nuclear missiles are created to prevent such destruction”, they’ll tell you. Arundhati Roy allows you to laugh at them. Sadly.

The essays are powerful, exposing the great lies told to us today, that we are confused by. How can a dam be good for us if it displaces a million people? It is for the Greater Good. Of course. Of course. Naturally…

Roy hits you hard across the face and tells you not to believe them. That, I think, is what makes her a powerful writer. Waking up your readers from a slumber (intoxicated and hallucinating) is no joke. With the tools of grassroots work, and relentless pursuit of truth, she helps us with a point of view wholly different from what we’ve been fed by the drunken mainstream media. She’s good. But she also leaves you unsettled. She tells us to fight for specific causes in specific ways (like joining the NBA). But is that feasible for lay people like me? Moreover, will that not result in insufficient change? Should we not work upstream? How can we institutionalize participatory democracy? These are some unanswered questions. Perhaps one will be angry enough to figure them out oneself.

3/5

To work upstream is to abandon the shelter of grassroots, and to foray into the unknown elite groups, of bureaucracy and politics. It is arduous. Also, horrible as it is, the truth is that well meaning men and women who enter politics and the bureaucracy are converted into leeches and leprechauns, blood sucking and bribe seeking. Perhaps Roy has seen too many of that ilk. Hence the disillusionment. Hence the well placed anger.

Quick epilogue to the essays:

  • Since the NBA’s struggle, the World Bank withdrew from the project. Despite that, the project went ahead. The Supreme Court, however, ordered that the implementation of the dam project, especially the resettlement and rehabilitation of people, should be done in a participative and democratic manner. This end of the struggle has been held as a way forward for many more specific struggles to be waged in specific ways.
  • Nuclear disarmament is still a dream, and dream it will remain for generations to come. However, there have been significant agreements signed between the more powerful nuclear armed countries (US, Russia) to not expand the nuclear arsenal but only to modernize it (make it more potent, powerful). This is a joke, to be honest. They already have enough missiles to obliterate the earth and the moon. Now the buzzwords are non-proliferation of nuclear technology.

Welcome to Zombieland

So, audiobooks. For those book purists who look down upon eReaders because “I love the FEEL of paper pages!”, this might cause spontaneous combustion. But for people who spend a not-insignificant part of their day in crowded buses, hanging on for dear life, it might not be such a bad idea!

…Unless, like me, you have terrible listening comprehension. Like zero.

I still tried, because I hadn’t read anything in ages. So here is my very vague review of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.

This book was published in 2015 and got overall good reviews, with someone (I forget who) dubbing it the modern day American Psycho. I loved the satire on modern society in AP, but found it somewhat dated, since it was published in the 90s. I was hoping that YTCHABLM would have more relatable humour.

It did, sorta. There’s some bashing of consumerism, with a mega-supermarket chain called Wally’s (sound familiar?) that uses some strange marketing tactics to suck people in. Also an all-natural junk food called Kandy Kakes with aggressive advertising and an infinite shelf life.

But apart from that, it’s the strange, uber introspective narrative of a girl called A who finds herself being replaced by her roommate B and abandoned by her boyfriend C (such naming. much wow). She has a mindless job and all the charisma and personality of an overripe banana. Her roommate on the other hand is dependent and helpless, and eats only popsicles, because oranges are too hard to peel.

The entire novel is an overly dramatic monologue, with some entertaining observations. The drama is intentional, but tends to get on one’s nerves, because the plot as a whole is not terribly eventful. It’s more about the wit and funny-strange observations on culture than any beginning-to-end storyline. The audiobook version that’s available on Amazon Audible has a narrator that fits the character very well.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel unless you’re a big fan of satire, but I DO recommend using your one month free trial of Audible if you have an Amazon account. It’s a new medium of storytelling that’s worth a try.

3/5

Fun factoids

This is my review of Think Like A Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the duo behind the Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics books.

This genre is best described as pop-armchair-economics. As someone who is an admirer of all things science and a champion of the scientific method, I can’t honestly recommend these books without coming off as a huge hypocrite.  They provide insufficient facts and flaky logic at times. But to be quite honest, these books are what introduced me to economics in its pure form- the science and art of making conclusions from data.

Like Freakonomics, the book is made up of bite-sized anecdotes that are perfect for reading on the go. The first story is about how thinking out of the box allowed a young man break world records in competitive eating (!). Another interesting one was the need for feedback loops and experimentation in advertising, and how simple observation can take the place of large-scale, potentially costly trials.

They also talk about ‘tricking’ people into saving more by gamifying the process- people were more likely to put money regularly into a lottery than save for retirement.

What I didn’t like was the occasional self indulgence. One story was about how the Freakonomics guys helped the US government catch some terrorists. While it was a clever move, it seems extremely risky and probably something that shouldn’t be in the public eye. They also talk about the concept of opportunity costs by describing their own personal success.

The book is overall a letdown, I expected much more from these two! It manages to be reasonably entertaining and a quick read, though. 3/5

The Perfect Murder

This is my review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

I really liked The Talented Mr Ripley, and had my eye out for another novel by Patricia Highsmith. Managed to acquire this book legally online and devoured it in a sitting. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a semi-abridged textbook edition of the story. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

This book has a very interesting plot- two men meet on a train and trade murders. Charley Bruno is a playboy who has had a disagreement with his father, and Guy Haines’ ex-wife is trying to sabotage his career as an architect. There is no motive, no acquaintance even, between the murderer and victim. And so they will escape without any trouble, or so they hope.

This is more like a psychological thriller than a murder mystery. While the psychopathic Charley murders Guy’s wife promptly without any qualms, Guy finds himself forced into a corner with no alternative (and a creepy stalker).

While the story itself is interesting, the execution and pace of the novel is not great, possibly because of the editing/ censorship of the version I read. I’d recommend the movie instead, you can’t go wrong with Hitchcock. 3/5.

Graphic Memoirs Are Cool

This is my review of Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. As the name implies, this memoir is primarily about the author’s struggles with eating disorders. Quite a bleak read.

To be honest, I picked up this book because it was right next to a fat, colourful Asterix compendium… that was in French. College libraries for the win! But I digress.

Despite my initial skepticism (largely because it wasn’t Asterix), I ended up finishing this fat 500+ page tome in one sitting. It draws you in with its simple illustrations and narrative.

Katie was always a picky eater. She talks about how she hid away unwanted food as a child, and speculates whether that was an early symptom of the illnesses that plagued her for over a decade. During her teen years, she became sensitive to comments on her appearance, triggering her spiral into anorexia. After a brief recovery, she falls ill again and takes the help of an alternative healer to get rid of her ‘negative energy’. Seemingly cured, she heads off to college for a degree in Biology.

Her demons creep up on her again, this time in the form of binge eating. She seeks help again- from a real therapist this time- and slowly but steadily works her way back to health. Armed with some insight into her thought patterns and feelings towards food, she faces her illness head on. Plus she switches careers and becomes an illustrator. This memoir is, interestingly, her first work.

I liked this book for its minimalist illustrations and simple ways of representing complex emotions. However, I think that the whole premise falls flat unless the reader can relate to eating disorders, or Katie’s way of thinking in general. It is so personal and introspective that a bystander must either share in the emotions or move along. Either way, Katie Green has great talent and I will definitely be looking her up in the future.

3.5/5

A Black Widow?

This is my review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

My second Great-American-Novel-type book in a row. And I don’t mean it in an awestruck GREAT-American-Novel!!! kind of way. I mean it as a genre of fiction that offers a lot in terms of insights into culture, but not much in terms of plot. For instance, The Great Gatsby is certainly well written, and afforded a peek into the culture of partying and bootlegging that I knew nothing about. But strip away the novelty and you have a confusing tangle of plot, with some unrequited love and an unsatisfying ending. The same applies to Jacob I Have Loved, to a certain extent.

The themes of this book are (in the trendy hashtag style) #feminism #blackpower #womenempowerment #everglades (?). The story is narrated by Janie, a close to middle-aged woman who returns to her hometown after being away for several years. Her neighbours don’t know why she has returned and accuse her of vaguely immoral things, since she was recently married to Tea Cake (the origin of this name goes unexplained), a man much younger than herself.

Janie is misunderstood, though. As a teenager, she was married to a much older man, mostly because there was no one else to look after her. Her second marriage also failed- he saw her as a trophy wife and didn’t treat her with respect. It was her third marriage to Tea Cake that showed her what a healthy relationship should be. They move away and set up a business, but a hurricane strikes.

This book definitely takes you to a different time and place, with its black dialect and culture. But the ending is a little too strange compared to the bleak portrait that had been painted earlier. If you like this novel, try out The Color Purple, which is also about the struggles of black women in the time of racial segregation.

3/5.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book that has to be chewed slowly.

It’s wonderfully written.

It will, at points, shock you with its little quirky insights on “being Indian”; actually, even “being Indian”, in the abstract, is questioned and argued about in the book.

Irrespective of what you want this book to be, it will turn into that book that you want to read because it allows you the luxury of self perception, into the society (and maybe yourself).

It’s an enriching book, in that it makes you look at your countrymen with more empathy for their steadfastly held (always steadfast, never slack..) beliefs. It’s, however, not a book you want to discuss details of with your devout and orthodox relatives who argue endlessly, one-way (some will be maddened into thinking you’re turning into a deviant rebel if you do talk to them with the rationality that might stick when you read this book). It broadens your mind, undoubtedly.

A friend said, after he read this book, he looked at people, and India, differently. That sounded very cliche. But he was right. This one gives you a rather grey tinted looking glass. It makes you conciliate with the anomalies of your society, it helps you make peace with all kinds of gobar too. (But it didn’t really help me make peace with whatever it is that the “nation wants to know!”*)

As for the title, it’s not misleading. The essays in the book reflect on the argumentative nature of Indians, and help you realize that being argumentative is a powerful tool you can have; not to be mistaken with being loud and thick. This book, for example, is soft spoken (if I may), but is compelling. The essays are about the different hues of deliberation, discussion and debate that conversation and practices lead one to; it, at no points, mistakes lambasting and being crass for being argumentative.

As for the writer himself, what can I say that a Nobel** cannot? Salut to you sir. Thumbs up on the choice of the book cover. So gorgeous!

 


*reference made to an unpopular Indian TV anchor who lives in his little deep well, like the green frog did.

**the Nobel was admittedly not for his work on culture, history or polity (which this book is about), but was in the field of economics. Nevertheless, it’s a great measure of one’s greatness, at least in the annals of bloggesh. *tips hat at imagined audience

What’s the opposite of Chick Lit?

You might be familiar with the concept of chick flicks- Hollywood romantic comedies targeted towards the segment of society that paints its nails to match its clothing. You may even have heard of chick lit, which is basically the literary version of the same thing (but slightly more intellectual, because reading). Both of those things, to me, are good entertainment but not really works of art.

This is my review of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I’d seen this book recommended several times on Reddit as a light, amusing read and decided to give it a shot.

Our narrator is Rob Fleming, a thirty-something former DJ who now runs a record store. He and his colleagues (whom he doesn’t seem to like too much) spend most of their time making Top 5 lists, but they manage to scrape by. Rob’s just gone through a breakup, which prompts him to list his top 5 most painful breakups to stop himself from obsessing about the most recent one. Which is amusing, but doesn’t seem like a great idea…

Rob soon goes back to obsessing about his relationship, and the next-door neighbour that his ex seems to be shacking up with. And then about his unsuccessful career. And then about how his parents have a more lively social life than he does. And then about his commitment phobia. Spoiler alert: A lot of obsessing happens in this book.

He does have some pretty insightful views on life and relationships. This isn’t a romance per se- there are no confessions of love or weddings or epiphanies- but that’s what makes this book a 1000x more realistic than all the other fluff out there. ‘Cause everyone feels like a loser once in a while, and I doubt real life happy endings are accompanied by cheerful pop music.

Read this, if you want a light story with a good narrative style. Or if you want to read the male version of Princess Diaries– overthinking and self improvement plans everywhere! 3/5 from me.

PS: The answer to the question posed in the title is apparently “dick-lit”. The Internet is very, uh, educational.

Pumped Up Kicks

Today’s theme is school shootings. If you didn’t figure that out from the title of the post, please listen to this before proceeding.

Back? Okay.

Last week I read Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. This is a drama-thriller-fluff book about a school shooting and the aftermath, focusing on the personal lives of the killer and victims, and the defense presented by the killer’s lawyer in court.

Quite a few Picoult novels have a similar courtroom setting. It’s quite interesting for a layperson because the role of the attorney in a case like this is to make the guilty seem less guilty.

Picoult handles this disturbing subject quite well. She tries to include several plot twists, though none (bar one) are shocking in the least. And alas, the interesting, thought-provoking twist comes right at the end and is not fully fleshed out. Which makes me wonder if I am giving the author too much credit, and the twist is not as clever as it seems…

The writing style is simplistic and filled with corny dialogues, which I began to sincerely record about 20 pages in:

“He tasted of maple syrup and apologies”
“Hope, Patrick knew, was the exact measure of distance between himself and the person who’d come for help”
“A loose handful of grapes scattered like gasps”

And all this was just the first 150 pages.

3/5. Read it if you want some timepass entertainment.

On the other hand, if you want an intense, chilling portrayal of a school shooting, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is my nomination. It is written in the form of a series of letters from the mother of a school shooter, and her analysis of what she might have done wrong. Neither the mother nor the son is a pitiable figure; but you can’t help but root for them, especially when you realize that the mom has become the town’s public enemy #1. And the tale only gets more horrific towards the end.

I couldn’t get through this book on the first attempt, and watching the movie gave my friends a couple of sleepless nights. Do read if you like psychological thrillers.