Thursday, November 3, 2016

Fodder for the Season

Reading a book is related to how fresh one arrives at it. At the same time, if it is put aside for far too long, say a decade or so, it again becomes appealing. It is only the interlude, the time between it being too fresh and too old that it can hardly be picked. Book, in this sense are synonymous with our relationships with people.

Reading requires solace, both within and from the outside.

Some books I got from a bookstore, after years of buying them online. Finding
"River of Fire" and "The Tibetan Book of  Living and Dying" in paperbacks was the reward.

'Bara' by U R Ananthmurthy

I am finally picking up a work of one of the doyens of Indian(south) literature, U R Ananthmurthy. Picked up,almost instinctively, from Bahrisons in Delhi, I didn't intend to read any of his works this soon as I wanted to slowly build up my way to reach to his other major works, but nevertheless did. The book has touched many themes, including right wing activism, environmentalism, cow protection and the practice of political patronage.

Bara, means drought. 

Its a story of an IAS officer, who chose to be one because of his idealism to serve the underprivileged, chose a rural posting with open arms, for the challenge of living among the destitute. His idealism is reflected in the fact that he sends his son to a local government school instead of a boarding. 
With the central character of Satisha, the story builds around a drought affected town which is under severe water crises. Also showcased is the irony, that people rather than fighting the system, instead end up quarreling among each other, which towards the end turns communal. How the local politician would leave no stone unturned in practicing corruption, hoarding, nepotism and hooliganism has been briefly talked about as well. It is written in the 70s, with emergency as a backdrop. However, the story doesn't stay within the confines of the that era. Its almost equally valid for the present times. 

Thanks to Chandan Gowda for translating an important work for non-Kannada readers and writing an excellent afterword, which gave new dimensions to the various themes which the book owing to its fictional nature had limitations to be build into any serious analysis or arguments within the framework of a novel. 

With having picked up a work of UR, I can now safely build up to Samkara and Bharathipura

Notable excerpts, 

"The drought in the region could be merely news for someone relaxing inside an office with a ceiling fan."
"Its only because I'm not in the line that I'm able to see all the rows." 
"A student of history, she appreciated relics."
"He was content that his son had a stake in the process of traditional society becoming modern."
"Let me be honest with you. Are your a bureaucrat or a revolutionary? You delude yourself that you can be both." 

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

'The Collector's Wife' by Mitra Phukan

I suppose it is a dream of any writer to weave a story with three key ingredients, first, the relationship between the protagonist and his/her family, second, the political scenario prevalent in the geography(which can be a city, region or a country) and lastly, to leave behind with the help of events, transformations(of characters and situations) a message for the common man, something which s/he can incorporate as a life lesson. If there be, any such trioka for the success of a novel, I think Mitra Phukan has surely made it to the list. If Upamanyu Chatterjee made public how it pans out being an IAS officer, Mitra Phukan has perhaps carried forward the similar sphere of lower Indian bureaucracy by mirroring it with the life of an IAS's spouse.
A great attempt at storifying
Insurgency, Administration
through a Woman's Eyes.

The novel which got better as it moved and specially towards the end, culminated into a great work by any standards. It explores the world of Rukmini and her husband Siddharth, posted in a (fictional) town of Parbatpuri in Assam in 70s and 80s. Various other characters were given ample space in terms of what work they did and how their life interspersed with the couple. In fact, I noticed that any character, if, was given a special mention in initial parts of the book, there was going to be a good reason for it, to be told later. As an author it is easier to create characters but very difficult to give them meaning in the story while not letting the protagonist lose prominence. With the creation of Bangladesh, the slew of illegal migrants poured from the border towards Assam. This was to create tensions between the locals who were finding it tough to keep a grip on their resources, primarily Land and Forests. This slowly took the shape of protests, movements and finally Insurgency. However, it also costed the entire region with a permanent presence of Indian Army. The economy of the region shattered. Another thing which the novel highlighted is the plight of regional or local media of towns and cities. How there is no accountability to what they print and whom they find as victim or culprit. Administration is resource-stricken, over-burdened and highly-backward to deal with the problems of our cities in any substantial manner. Sometimes which appears from outside just as an Administrative Problem is actually a result of decades of inequalities, which the society itself has created and foments but in the world of quick fixes it becomes easier to blame the Administration for any lapses. 

Above all it explores the world of a woman and a woman teacher. How difficult it is to confide your true feelings into someone, sometimes even with your spouse. How difficult it is to transform students in towns(as against cities) of India. How difficult is Development in smaller towns of India. 

I kept thinking of the movie, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, with its similar portrayal of the India of 70s, Emergency, Naxalism with a bunch of Educated protagonists as the center. I hope and wish this book could be converted into a movie(Sudhir Mishra you listening?) as it promises to give a historical plot and luckily with an Indian charisma of being centered around a couple.

Rating: 8/10

A word on Zubaan Books:
Zubaan, which is a boutique publishing house based at Delhi, focuses on Women writings from India. Its difficult to get this book on Amazon/Flipkart, so one can directly order from their website,

Saturday, January 2, 2016

'We weren't lovers like that' by Navtej Sarna

Good writing is one which touches the heart, that is the one which will stay. 

There is cliched quote by Toni Morrison which says, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it”, which I believe is a fitting tribute to this book and its author Navtej Sarna. Give me one reason I could rate it anything below 5, a full five! There was no line which I found misplaced, each thought made perfect sense, each character so thoroughly pictured and there was so much I could relate to on a personal level. When did I ever read a novel which described the A H Wheeler Book Shop of Haridwar station, took me on a ride to Dehradun, its roads and shops with the parallel build up of treasured storyline? When was the last time I read a novel which celebrated nostalgia as much I do? This novel I believe is a gift to my habit of constantly trying to find gold in a husk pile(usually on my own). In its themes and instances it was so rich, that only upon its completion I understood why Navtej Sarna remarked in one of his interviews that its never difficult to write a first novel as one always know what to write, out of catharsis. It is the second novel where one constructs the subjects and the line.
Navtej Sarna creates the story of a Man's lifetime.

The book which is touted (and debated) to be a semi autobiography which explores the life of its narrator, Aftab, who happens to work in some Delhi media firm, based out of Connaught Place. Its written in form of a train journey from Delhi to Dehradun with 5 chapters, each on the intervening stations. Delhi, Saharanpur, Roorkee, Haridwar and Dehradun. The author goes back and forth in revealing his life(and thoughts) from his own childhood to his 10 year son and the novel which began as love story snowballs into an existential masterpiece (yes). The world he recreates, about his childhood and how many of the things which he does as a 40 year old have a connection to his past, a past which he has preserved within him, which people around him hardly know about. He laments and then cherishes his opportunity costs, in health, his lost love, the places chose to reside, career etc. Mina, his wife and who keeps her own wishes above their marriage divorces him for another man, taking with her their son. Rohini, who happened to be his first love(and a true love) gets lost midway and then almost forever, only to return back as a ray of hope when he treks his way back to his hometown, Dehradun. It is a yearning of man's pasts with his future who is somehow carrying the fragments of his broken present. It explores a thoughtful man's mid-life crises. One of remarkable aspects I liked about the book is its rich and vivid description of two things, thoughts and places. The way he describes each city (the novel has touched upon) esp Mumbai and Dehradun and paints each character, with meaning and relevance really makes this novel a complete story in itself. This book will be delight for anyone from any of the cities which were mentioned, especially someone who yearns for mountains in his daily life(wherever one resides). A big thank you to Navtej Sarna for penning this beautiful book and inviting a lot of the readers into a good(if not perfect) world of your story.

Rating: 8.5/10

Navtej Sarna is a Diplomat, an IFS Officer of 1980 batch. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Turn of The Tortoise by T N Ninan [Key Takeaways]

I decided not to review this book and instead learn from what it has to offer. It is a book of details with right amount of back drop, a less theoretical framework and a clear strategy to tackle issues it brings up. 

Where did I get to know about this book? 
The quite popular book launch anchored by NDTV in which Arun Shourie vociferously brought out criticisms of whats ailing the present government efforts, in practice. The arguments during the launch helped the book to go beyond its regular readership and did it more good than bad, in my view. 

Why did I decid to read the book?
T N Ninan has headed one of India's leading Economic Daily, Business Standard which I've been reading for over a year now. Head of a business daily would present a non-academic, slightly non-ideological picture of the Indian Growth and Development. The Book analyses where India stands at the end of the 2nd decade on the 21st century with less of economic prediction and more of a wise take on how to deliver on its expectations. Another reason was to read a book which provides the latest picture, and so I had to read it within a month of its launch to make the best of out it.  As Ninan is essentially a Journalist, I found the book written in form of newspapers editorials. "Facts, Analysis, Facts, Argument, Facts, Criticism, Facts, Hope, End." As facts keep piling up, I wonder why editorials don't stretch beyond one page. :)
Rightly timed manual of policy prescriptions.

The book begins with the present state of Indian economy, interesting details from the past and comparisons with other Asian nations. The expression Turn of the Tortoise also gets explained here. Rapid growth criteria of World Bank, which requires a country to grow at an average of 7% for over 25 years is taken as a base to show how India lagged behind the other early 'hares' Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China. India during the decades 1988-2010, did grow at and average 6.4% but missed the mark by some .6%. India's per capita income(at $1626) is 1/6th of the global average and is so low that even if it grows at 7% for another decade it is going to reach the next economy, Philippines ($2865). This speed is what the authors refers to as a Tortoise
The book bases its arguments on sounds facts unlike coffee table discussions to show how India has struggled to grow. Take the case of a theoretical comparison between the growth of post war Japan and India, both of whom started their journey at the same time. Though, a common person would neglect the fact that Japan was already a proven imperial expansionist Empire which had capabilities in Aerospace, Ship Building, Automotive and Manufacturing Industries before the second world war, had even defeated Russia in 1905, whereas we only had 2 steel mills at that time ie. a huge starting handicap. Ninan makes an interesting argument of how we have used non-economic measures(also called populist) as our base ideas of growth. Like, setting up a factory deliberately in Backward area and not on the basis of resources/optimization/connectivity. Such measures he calls as Confusion about Objectives.  

As India has maximum number of poor people in the world(will continue to have till atleast 2025) and thus a lot of work to do. However, being a late starter the existing set of available technology and services from around the world, makes it easier for us to 'catch' up with the global growth. The three set analysis which Ninan puts, shows that India has performed well on creating and providing an educated manpower, a growing Indian market but has faltered on Government policy and executive action. The reforms of 1991 focused more on Product markets (like cars, phones, steel, agro-products etc) but failed on the Factor Markets side(land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship/technology).  Lets take Capital for instance, At 4:1 ICOR(Incremental Capital Output Ratio, a metric which shows how much of the capital which was invested has resulted in growth), 32% of the GDP invested should deliver a quarter of the growth, ie. 8% but if the ICOR reduces to 5:1 the GDP growth rate will reduce to 6.4%. Since capital in India is largely infused through Banks, of which 70 % are publicly owned, the govt has a lot of task cut out to make banks more efficient else the cases of bad assets will ensure low growth rates. Of all the factor goods, the government can deliver most on entrepreneurship, which we Indians, naturally have a nag for and where a lot of govt intervention/restriction is present(take the case of permits and licences one needs to start a business here). 
Ninan goes at length to show how Government is involved into activities which it has no business to be in(well yes, Milton Friedman must be very happy to read his book too) like Telecoms, Airlines,Hotels etc thus leaving less room to things it is supposed to good at, Purely Public goods like Law and Order, Public Administration, Justice etc. Such endeavors natually reduces the government's ability to deliver upto its capacity. Ninan critiques the rights approach of UPA, which brought 3 legislations of Education, Food and Employment and was about the bring the 4th, Health(before Modi roared) and suggests the capacity driven approach to inclusion. Well, we know these debates very well, dont we? 

On China (and India):

"Indians talk, while China Chinese do." - Lee Kuan Yew
China had 50% more GDP and a lower per capita during the early 50s, the time when both the giants got unshackled. During 1991, the Chinese per capita equaled India's and its economy became twice of us. 
China has grown at 10+ rates for over 3 decades and has out paced us by giant leaps. Even if India continues to grow at the current pace we will reach what China is today not before 2035 and where will China be then? :-/
Take the case of what India aims in its 25 segments of Make in India campaign, High End Manufacturing of Garments and Electronics, Tourism, Solar Energy, Defence whereas the China now wants to focus on 10 areas such as Robotics, High end machine controls, Ocean engineering, New materials, Bio medicals. They are ahead and they are growing. 
Ninan points out some good arguments about how differently the two nations have progressed. China was always ruled centrally under one emperor, whereas India was mostly an amalgamation of regional feudal lords. Also, post 1947 India owing to its non-violent struggle dealt with various issues in a soft manner, whereas China owing to violent civil uprising had a firmer hand to impose the will of the government. India has not capitalized (well, not completely failed) to copy the SEZs model from the China, wherein we had vociferous critique on land grab and huge farmer unrests.
Focusing too much on services or tech industry is one of the reasons we are not able to deliver what we are good at, labour. Eg. One million jobs are created for every $2 Billion output in Garment Industry but in services sector to create One million jobs, $ 10 Billion output is required. We have a serious employment problem because we failed on this front. 

The period of 2002-2008 saw the interests rates drop to an all time low allowing the newly created enterprise barons in India to tread on an investment spree abroad. A lot of which was miscalculated and resulted in huge loses later.  eg. Tatas put about $16 Billion to buy Corus, Land Rover etc but post 2007-Crises, their debt mounted to $30 Billion, owing to loss of demand and the crises. The failure of Indian domestic enterprise is explained in detail as well. Post 2002 riding on the wave of Public Private Partnerships and cheap-credit, huge investments were made in Infrastructure, (unlike in the 90s when post liberalization, the the investments were made in products), which meant going from B2C to B2B. The B2B policy formulations are subject hugely to policy formulations and government contracts, which suffered from paralysis. Also, the same decade saw large investments in resources, which has political overtones to be kept in mind. Though a lot of good has happened too, like the rise of new breed on entrepreneurs in E-Commerce, the rise of Private sector banks and a lot of Capacity buiiding which has happened due to global acquisitions, eg. Mahindra's utility aircraft buyout in Australia. 

With embarrassing and detrimental cronyism seen in Coal allocations, Spectrum and regionally in Sugar Industry in Uttar Pradesh, walk out of POSCO & Vedanata in Odisha, Illegal Iron ore mining in Kartanaka, the 4 basic tenets of economic policy making formulated by Raghuram Rajan find a suggestive mention in the book.
A. Avoid the concentration of productive wealth in the hands of a few,
B. Create a safety net for the people(not companies) who loose out in the competition 
C. Keep borders open for international competition
D. Keep driving home the benefits of competitive markets to the the public.  

Francis Fukuyamas idea of building high trust societies, Daron Acemoglu suggestions of a country's development directly linked to its intitutional capacity and William Baumol's Bad Capitalism(state driven oligarchies) and Good Capitalism(entrepreneurship driven big firms) all of whom have written bestsellers on these ideas, suggests the importance of the global flow of themes that can help shape our development. 

State of Defence:
Whats ailing?
1. Lack of funds(National Security Advisory Board had suggested the defence spending to be 3% of GDP, but in straddles to .60-1 in practice). A lot of which goes on in salaries (and now pensions) of troops and not in modernization or capacity building in the new age warfare. 
2. Excessive dependence on Imports. We are the largest defence hardware importer in the world and our 60 % defence budget gets spent just on that.
3. Accident prone weapon systems
4. A military brass that thinks traditionally about battles. We have to work in inter services manner and in single command structure. eg. We are dismally prepared for strikes similar to Mumbai or the Parliament.

Way ahead? 
Make in India and subsequent increase in FDI in defence to 49% is a step in the right direction. Two important contracts of Light Attack Aircrafts and Missile systems from Israel were canceled with fresh provisions attached for them to be manufactured in India. 
wrt China which has better positioned army and better equipped Air Force, Indian Navy has been speedily covering ground of the which can choke the Malacca straits thus restricting oil supplies to China, in case a conflict arises. 

The last part of the book deals with India's Foreign Policy:
"Rapid economic growth remains the best foreign policy." 

China has taken pro active measures in creating and maintaining relations with the world. It has used its Security Council position to take great favours(like winning gas contract in Myanmar against India), extended its hegemony in South China Sea, has extended close to $800 Dollars of credit to Africa, Road and Belt initiative which invariably encircles India and continues to act vociferously. Though with India's new engagement with US, Australia and Japan a containment is on the offing but its not a feaseable solution as China continues to be the largest trading partner of every major economy of the world. 
Pakistan has recently scaled up its nuclear arsenal which is siginificant concern for India. India's effort to work on Chabahar port seems to be now a late work as its goal to enter the mineral rich central asia countries with multi modal trasport from Iran to Afganistan has already found the Chinese partners(in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan).
However, we seem to have played a thought after role in Africa by not running our kleptomaniac-ally after their minerals and instead focused on capacity building of Africa alongside trade. The Chinese however are tough on their contracts and even shipped millions of their people to work in Africa. 

Rating: 7.5/10

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Making of India : Gamechanging Transitions by Akhilesh Tilotia

"The old ways have got to be made irrelevant in such a comprehensive manner that they cease to remain relevant."

A brilliant book comes to an end and leaves so much to remember and ponder.
The Making of India, Kotak Securities 

I came across the book, in a talk which Arun Shourie delivered for its launch. Various sets of people, whether in policy making, students and general readers will find it of great help. The book is written in form of themes(not crude chapters) and is packed with a lot of data, its analysis, explanations on myth busting(eg. the issue of land) and most importantly a slew of macroeconomic concepts to make things very understandable. There were numerous occasions where privatization as an idea seem to be inevitably brought to the notice(in form of case studies) like private firms entering hybrid-seeds production, private firms entering distribution of water utilities(in Nagpur) etc but there was nothing as an ideological baggage and everything got substantiated with convincing arguments and data. I really liked the way the book is written, not much heavy baggage of ideology or cynicism of Indian economy. Straight, to the point prescriptions and a clear reading of changes that are sweeping our society. The book focuses mainly on the areas of 'economics' and 'governance' (not to be read as government) so it does miss covering a few extra areas like Health, Education, Energy etc. But whatever it brings out is A-grade content. The Chapter on Urbanization, E-Governance and Agriculture added a lot of analytical weight to this book.

The Book was born out of an in-house research headed by the author at Kotak Securities primarily as an aid to the understandings of investors(abroad and national).

Rating: 7/10  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Country of First Boys by Amartya Sen

I think, as an Indian it is very important to read Sen. I find him more of an Indian diplomat who, through facts and staunch arguments puts before the world the contributions and richness of our nation and at the same time deliberates and appeals to fellow countrymen to make sense of the chaotic and parochial mentality which still grips us(for which he is flagged). He remains a work in progress to whom the ideal India is still in the making, alongside him. 

Sen's latest book, The Country of First Boys , consists of 13 essays on varied and surprisingly fresh topics out of which only 4 are written afresh for this book, with the rest coming up as compilations from various talks and lectures. One particular thing, for which this book has to be specially mentioned is Sen's coming forward on some on the confrontational issues of recent times, like his removal from Nalanda university and his apparent image of being pro-UPA/Congress. He has come clean on issues of Subsidy vs Redistribution, his desire of favoring a right wing government(surprised?, he brings the experiences of erstwhile Swatantra Party) etc. 
The chapter on Calender and how intermingling of ideas and religions have produced similarities in our dates was an interesting read. The subsequent chapters, particularly the detailed account of Nalanda University, Importance of Tagore(and humanities) and the title chapter 'The Country of First Boys' makes the book stand apart from his rest of the works. Though I must say,  there were some re-iterations of Sen's favourite concerns like Development and Freedom, the recent threats of Hinduvta coupled with a critique of the perceived hindu history of India. Globalization and its relation to Justice also finds a detailed mention in one of the chapters.
The Country of First Boys
by Amartya Sen, 2015

The Book is a 'general read', with no diverging themes. In words of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who wrote its foreword, it should be read without an appetite for knowledge, a thirst for data or hunger for measurable quantities. It should be read for the pleasure which comes with insights.   

Rating: 7/10 

A Book of Simple Living by Ruskin Bond

In this new collection of thoughts and renderings Bond come to terms with some philosophical queries. His eccentric style of fitting in bits of nature in the most queer and mundane events makes this piece an interesting read*. However, I must say that this collection should hardly be called a Book. Its written in form of Almanac with pages of various almanacs of his past, intertwined. Its more like an advanced Bond reading, if I may say.
Bond goes on!

The Book is surprisingly revelatory for Bond's readers(especially) on page no. 60 and again on 83 and in general too gives a good amount of info about how one of the finest author of our country thinks and lives, in the form of bits of autobiographical crumbs. Off course I am not here to play the spoil sports so perhaps one might read it for themselves. :) 

*Like thinking about a sparrow and its activities when he was in Police station, waiting to be bailed out.