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The Big Short

by Michael Lewis

About the book:  'We fed the monster until it blew up ...' While Wall Street was busy creating the biggest credit bubble of all time, a few renegade investors saw it was about to burst, bet against the banking system - and made a fortune. From the jungles of the trading floor to the casinos of Las Vegas, this is the outrageous story of the misfits, mavericks and geniuses who, against all odds, made the greatest financial killing in history.


Notes:  Reread 1.

I first read The Big Short in 2012, fresh from Business School. It's important to note that I went to a different sort of school - a residential campus that leaned (sometimes alarmingly) to the left, and took great pains to instil in its students an ethical way of going about life. And coming from there, I read The Big Short as a vindication of what my professors had been trying to teach me. I enjoyed it, but I also knew and understood that somewhere in the story was a sceptre of cynicism, a silent acceptance of the selfish approach that Wall Street seems to embody.

This is telling, as even in the foreword, Michael Lewis laments that though written from a different viewpoint, his first book, Liar's Poker, was read by college students as a how-to guide rather than as a warning notice. When I read it then, I was an idealist, and it fit right into my scheme of ideas. But today, several years later, The Big Short makes a lot more sense to me in its convoluted characters and flawed heroes - Wall Street is responding to incentives. Sure, its incentives are obscene and vulgar, but they are only responding to the societal worship of money, and money as a source of power. Just that their scale was much bigger than normal people's, and what they were playing with could disrupt the world financial system, which it did.

The prose is brilliant. I've been a fan of Michael Lewis for some time and read almost everything he writes. And even by his own admission, The Big Short is not a subject that feeds his strengths. But he manages, and how. Lewis sparkles in character studies, that is his home ground, and the portraits that he paints of Steve Eisman and Michael Burry, among others, are by far the most enjoyable elements. The villains are more or less invisible, with exceptions like Wing Chau, but the heroes we know; them we understand.

An important part of the book is the finale, when everything comes to a close and Lewis wraps it all up with a few telling observations. None of the perpetrators of this massive fraud among the American people (and in many ways, on the world's people) really paid for it. Almost all of them moved on with huge bonuses and even better jobs, as if nothing had happened in those years. I looked up several of them on LinkedIn. None of their careers has seen even a hurdle. And yet we know how hard it was for the people who Wall Street conned into their great game. Tens of thousands lost their houses, their life savings, the funds they set apart for their children's education. They paid. The American taxpayer paid.

The ones who were responsible never did.

This, ultimately is the soul of Michael Lewis' book. A group of smart, brave people can at times screw a corrupt system, and come out on top. But in the long run, remember, it's a casino. The house is rigged in its own favour.
The house always wins.

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The Lost Generation

by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

About the book:  A Haridwar pandit who maintains genealogical records of families for centuries; a professional mourner who has mastered the art of fake tears; a letter writer who overlooks the lies that a sex worker makes him write to her family back home. These are remnants of an India that still exist in its old streets and neighbourhoods, an unshakeable sense of belonging to a time that was the everyday life of our ancestors. In The Lost Generation, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia narrates the unforgettable stories of eleven professionals—from the hauntingly beautiful rudaalis to the bizarre tasks of a street dentist—uncovering the romance, tragedy and old-world charm of India’s ageing bylanes and its incredible living history.


Notes:  In the hands of a better writer, this book would have gone down as a classic. And that's the thing - it should have. On the level of the idea, The Lost Generation is captivating. But it is in the execution, in the writing, that it fails, and how. I was extremely irritated by the time I reached the mid-point, and continued only because I was aghast at how such a good premise had been let down by bad writing.

At its best, the writing is passable; at its worst, it's cringe-inducing. A few examples:

"With every gust of wind that blows into the hut, bouquets of light and people are displaced in the room."

What. What does that mean?

"Stories that dissolve in their bloodstreams like pearls in the sea, becoming tender memories that comfort like a mother's soft caress."


First, pearls do not dissolve in the sea. That is wrong. And that next sentence. Jeez.

"A pregnant silence fills the room in spite of the old fan whipping through the thick, dry air, the annoyingly happy sparrows chirruping outside and the exaggerated sounds of the sheets of paper as he wastes long minutes rolling each of them."


First, 'wastes long minutes rolling.' Wow, talk about a writer passing judgement instead of recording. And of course, that entire sentence. 'Pregnant' silence, 'in spite of'. Why?

I could find a lot more. The writer is trying too hard, and this is a badly written book. The romance of the professions the writer describes, their other-worldliness, is just lost. And even the research just doesn't seem deep enough. Some of these are just surface level portraits, and do nothing for the reader.

Super-disappointed.

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Cut Like Wound

by Anita Nair

About the book:  Introducing Inspector Borei Gowda... It is the first night of Ramadan. At Shivaji Nagar in the heart of Bangalore, a young male prostitute is killed and burnt alive. It would have stayed as yet another unsolved murder, but for Inspector Borei Gowda, the investigating officer. As bodies begin to pile up one after the other, and it becomes clear that a serial killer is on the prowl, Gowda recognizes a pattern in the killings which no one else does. Even as he negotiates serious mid-life blues, problems with his wife and son, an affair with an ex-girlfriend, and official apathy and ridicule, the killer moves in for the next victim... Steeped in the lanes and atmosphere of the city of Bangalore, Cut Like Wound introduces to the reader a host of unforgettable characters and is a brutal psychological thriller unlike any in Indian fiction. You can also buy from Online stores: Buy from a nearby bookstore: Reliance Timeout Flipkart.com DC books Homeshop18.com Crossword Bookstore Infibeam.com Landmark Bookstore Indiaplaza.com Om Book Shop Uread.com Starmark Bookstore Bookadda.com Sapna Bookstore Full Circle Bookstore Bahri Sons Bookstore Teksons Bookstore Sankars Bookstore


Notes:  I came to Anita Nair's much talked-about first Inspector Gowda book with a lot of expectation. And it has both been an enjoyable read as well as bit of a let-down.

I'll explain.

As a police investigation thriller, Cut Like Wound fares very well indeed. Well rounded, complicated, very detailed character studies make this novel come alive, and how. It's not just Gowda, even the villains have brilliant back-stories. You know why they are who they are.

But Cut Like Wound was also supposed to be a novel of the Bangalore underworld, and somehow I don't think it completely achieves that (admittedly) lofty goal. Not that Nair doesn't achieve an effect of place. She does, like in the UB city passage. But as someone who has read her earlier books, I'm slightly disappointed.

All that said, the book still sets this up as a series to watch out for. Maybe as we keep meeting Inspector Gowda, his Bangalore will become more and more clearer, and we will understand and be afraid of the coldness in this southern megapolis.

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Roads to Mussoorie

by Ruskin Bond

About the book:  Ruskin Bond emerges again, with a delightful set of sketches set in and on the way to his beloved Mussoorie. With an endearing affection and nostalgia for his home of over forty years, Mr Bond describes his journeys to and from Mussoorie over the years, and then delves into the daily scandals surrounding his life and friends in the (not so) sleepy hill town. The pieces in this collection are characterised by an incorrigible sense of humour and an eye for ordinary-and most often unnoticed-details that are so essential to the geographic, social and cultural fabric of a place. Accompanied by beautiful illustrations, Roads to Mussoorie is a memorable evocation of a writer's surroundings and the role they have played in his work and life.


Notes:  Short compilation of a few Ruskin Bond pieces on Mussoorie and Dehra. Passable, could have been chosen and presented much better.

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Tilled Earth

by Manjushree Thapa

About the book:  Startlingly Original And Closely Observed Stories That Capture The Dynamism And Diversity Of Nepali Society In A Time Of Great Flux In Tilled Earth Several Compressed, Poetic And Deeply Evocative Micro-Stories Offer Fleeting Glimpses Of Small, Private Dramas Of People Caught Midlife: An Elderly Woodworker Loses His Way In A Modern Kathmandu Neighbourhood; A Homesick Expatriate Nurses A Hangover; A Clerk At The Ministry Of Home Affairs Learns To Play Solitaire On The Computer; A Young Man Is Drawn To Politics Against His Better Judgement; A Child Steals Her Classmate S Book . . . The Longer Stories In The Collection, Too, Span A Wide Course, Taking Subjects From Rural And Urban Nepal As Well As From The Nepali Diaspora Abroad. In Tilled Earth A Young Woman Goes To Seattle As A Student, And Finds Herself Becoming An Illegal Alien. Love Marriage Is An Inner Narration By A Young Man Who Defying Family Pressure Falls In Love With A Woman Of The Wrong Caste. In The Buddha In The Earth-Touching Posture , A Retired Secretary Visits The Buddha S Birthplace, Lumbini, Only To Find His Deepest Insecurities Exposed. With Their Unexpected, Inventive Forms, These Stories Reveal The Author S Deep Love Of Language And Commitment To Craft. Manjushree Thapa Pushes The Styles Of Her Stories To Match The Distinctiveness Of Their Content, Emerging Confidently As A Skilled Innovator And Formalist.


Notes:  Haunting, extremely felt stories by a writer who made me a fan just a few pages into this remarkable collection. Two things have to be mentioned here: the understated, restrained beauty of the prose, and the etching of characters, with the attention to detail in the latter making the stories more than memorable. She knows her country and her people, does Manjushree Thapa, and if I were Nepali, I'd be proud to have her as a chronicler.

I will be reading her novels and her non-fiction soon enough, and I'm sure I'll enjoy them as much, if not more.

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The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal

by Dervla Murphy

About the book:  The intrepid traveler’s stories from Nepal. Having settled in a village in the Pokhara Valley to work at a Tibetan refugee camp, Dervla Murphy makes her home in a tiny, vermin-infested room over a stall in the bazaar. In diary form, she describes her various journeys by air, by bicycle, and on foot into the remote and mountainous Lantang region on the border of Tibet. Murphy's charm and sensitivity as a writer and traveler reveal not only the vitality of an age-old civilization facing the challenge of Westernization, but the wonder and excitement of her own remarkable adventures. First published in 1967, The Waiting Land was a difficult book for Dervla. As she said herself: “It was a light-hearted account of an experience that had not been light-hearted.”


Notes:  My first Dervla Murphy, who I've been meaning to read for some time, and I enjoyed it immensely. Extraordinarily brilliant travel writing, with a delightful eye for detail that brings to life Nepal in the mid-1960s. Definitely reading more of her books. Very highly recommended.

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Kaleidoscope City

by Piers Moore Ede

About the book:  'I will never forget my first sight of the river in Varanasi, from the narrowness and constriction of the alleys, thronged with activity, to the sudden release of the waterfront, the labyrinth's end . . . It seems that all of life has its assigned place on the stone steps leading down to the Ganges. Some are used for bathing, others for laundry, washing buffalo, puja (worship, ceremonial offering), and this one for the business of death. The smells are of wood smoke, buffalo dung, urine and jasmine flowers. The sounds are of rustling kites and lowing cattle, crackling wood and prayer. . .' Piers Moore Ede first fell in love with Varanasi when he passed through it on his way to Nepal in search of wild honey hunters. In the decade that followed it continued to exert its pull on him, and so he returned to live there, to press his ear to its heartbeat and to discover what it is that makes the spiritual capital of India so unique. In this intoxicating 'city of 10,000 widows', where funeral pyres smoulder beside the river in which thousands of pilgrims bathe, and holiness and corruption walk side by side, Piers encounters sweet-makers and sadhus, mischievous boatmen and weary bureaucrats, silk weavers and musicians and discovers a remarkable interplay between death and life, light and dark.


Notes:  A heartfelt, though quite short walk through the ancient town of Varanasi. I'd been meaning to read this one after a trip last year, but came to it late. I've read Moore Ede's travel writing before on the web, and there are shades of his signature, thrall-filled prose here too, though the time he spends on the ideas and stories in this book seems rushed. Still, there are quite a few passages of understated, intelligent beauty, like this one, with which the book begins:

Perhaps for all of us there is a country, and within that a single place, in which some essential element of the world is illuminated for the first time. Sitting down on a park bench in a beam of sunlight, or lost in the cacophony of a spice market, it comes to us that we have never been this vibrantly, persuasively alive.


I know and understand what Moore Ede is saying. This is Delhi to me, in the winter, where I know and feel incredibly, completely alive. In my nation's capital, under Connaught Place's massive tricolor, in the dusty, crowded Chandni Chowk streets, facing the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort, I feel the weight of the republic on me, its ideas, the why of the world's largest democracy, of which I'm an individual part. This book captures partly that unnameable feeling.

But that is all it does. It is a good book, certainly, but it could have been a great one, and it isn't. It just doesn't go deep enough. It could be read as an accompaniment to Diana Eck's masterpiece on the town, and perhaps a few other books. There are a few mistakes here and there as well, that dampen the reading experience. Example: Moore Ede refers to a Tata motorbike. Tata does not make motorcycles, it never has.

But on the whole, this is a good, enjoyable read. And if you have never read anything about Varanasi, this may be a good book to start before you move on to others.

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Inferno

by Dan Brown

About the book:  *NOW A MAJOR FILM STARRING TOM HANKS AND FELICITY JONES* Florence: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakes in a hospital bed with no recollection of where he is or how he got there. Nor can he explain the origin of the macabre object that is found hidden in his belongings. A threat to his life will propel him and a young doctor, Sienna Brooks, into a breakneck chase across the city. Only Langdon’s knowledge of the hidden passageways and ancient secrets that lie behind its historic facade can save them from the clutches of their unknown pursuers. With only a few lines from Dante’s Inferno to guide them, they must decipher a sequence of codes buried deep within some of the Renaissance’s most celebrated artworks to find the answers to a puzzle which may, or may not, help them save the world from a terrifying threat...


Notes:  Dan Brown was a college-time favourite. With important, mysterious ideas forming the backdrop for his books, there was so much history, symbolism, and knowledge in his books that made me particularly receptive. The parallel I drew was with Michael Crichton, whose books, laden heavy with real science and extraordinary futuristic speculation, were absolute magic for a curious school kid. But Dan Brown is not the writer even someone like Crichton was. Sometimes the plot meanders, sometimes the writing is pedestrian, sometimes the protagonists do things out of character. It didn’t matter. The plot, the central idea is the king in a Dan Brown book, and they are great fun. I wasn’t complaining. I loved Angels and Demons; the book is certainly one of the best thrillers in terms of plot I have ever read.



But The Lost Symbol stopped all that. The formula grated, I wasn’t taken by the plot, and it bored me. I did not pay any attention after. Until the Inferno trailers showed up, that is. Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were great to watch, and I looked forward to the Inferno movie so much that I just had to read the book. Which I did, in two days, and went to movie within half an hour or turning the last page.



I loved the book. I hated the movie. And there’s a reason I'm saying this. In Inferno, Dan Brown examines something the world is facing, and instead of shying away from the problem and giving it to us in black and white, faces it head on. This is a brave book in that sense. Here is a writer who, knowing his reach and his readership, has put forward a few brave ideas that might make us cringe, but is also trying to make his readers think. This is commendable. Though the movie isn’t the subject of this review, I point out the difference to underline something about the book: The movie shied away from the very important point the book is trying to make. Just that tells you how incredibly smart and nuance filled the book is.



Everything else is also there, by which I mean the Dan Brown formula. European art history, its cities, all that symbolism. It’s a treat, all that research. But in resurrecting Dante’s vision of hell for this century, Dan Brown has tried to tackle a problem the whole world is facing. This is fiction, so there are no solutions he is proposing, but he has done enough to make us (hopefully) think. And for a writer of any kind, that’s an achievement.


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The Amazon Way

by John Rossman

About the book:  In just twenty years, Amazon.com has gone from a start-up internet bookseller to a global company revolutionizing and disrupting multiple industries, including retail, publishing, logistics, devices, apparel, and cloud computing. But what is at the heart of Amazon.com's rise to success? Is it the tens of millions of items in stock, the company's technological prowess, or the many customer service innovations like “one-click”? As a leader at Amazon who had a front-row seat during its formative years, John Rossman understands the iconic company better than most. From the launch of Amazon's third-party seller program to their foray into enterprise services, he witnessed it all—the amazing successes, the little-known failures, and the experiments whose outcomes are still in doubt. In The Amazon Way, Rossman introduces readers to the unique corporate culture of the world's largest Internet retailer, with a focus on the fourteen leadership principles that have guided and shaped its decisions and its distinctive leadership culture. Peppered with humorous and enlightening firsthand anecdotes from the author's career at Amazon, this revealing business guide is also filled with the valuable lessons that have served Jeff Bezos's “everything store” so well—providing expert advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, CEOs, and investors alike.


Notes:  Work reading. A short, rather rushed introduction to the management principles that have made Amazon what it is today. Definitely a good read, but a few more examples in some places and some deeper exploration of the ideas in some others would have made the book much better.



Still an interesting read, however, and worth the two or so hours it will take of your time.

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When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

About the book:  #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both. Praise for When Breath Becomes Air “I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. . . . Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him—passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die—so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times “An emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.”—The Washington Post “Possesses the gravity and wisdom of an ancient Greek tragedy . . . [Kalanithi] delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.”—The Boston Globe “Devastating and spectacular . . . [Kalanithi] is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it’s all heading.”—USA Today “It’s [Kalanithi’s] unsentimental approach that makes When Breath Becomes Air so original—and so devastating. . . . Its only fault is that the book, like his life, ends much too early.”—Entertainment Weekly “Split my head open with its beauty.”—Cheryl Strayed


Notes:  Such a beautiful, beautiful book. I was reduced to tears several times during the time I read this, and other times I had to keep it down and wait for some time to pick it up again. I do not think I possess the intellectual ability to analyse or judge this work at this point of time. This has to be read again, discussed, and read about, before I realise and understand its true value and teaching. But I do know that in its honesty, vulnerability, and extraordinary vision of life, striving and death, When Breath Becomes Air is destined to become a modern classic.

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Ghachar Ghochar

by Vivek Shanbhag

About the book:  'It's true what they say - it's not we who control money, it's the money that controls us. When there's only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.' From a cramped, ant-infested house to a spacious bungalow, a family finds itself making a transition in many ways. The narrator, a sensitive young man, is numbed by the swirl around him. All he can do is flee every day to an old-world cafe, where he seeks solace from an oracular waiter. As members of the family realign their equations and desires, new strands are knotted, others come apart, and conflict brews dangerously in the background. Masterfully translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, Ghachar Ghochar is a suspenseful, playful and ultimately menacing story about the shifting consequences of success.


Notes:  A short, sparkling, unsettling read about the interior lives of a Kannada family. Barely 120 pages, and yet so deeply felt, this novella is nothing short of a masterpiece. So much feeling, so much wisdom is condensed into this little gem. What I loved most about the narrative was how it was able to hold that tight, wrung-up atmosphere all through, never letting up once. Just brilliant.

I don't know enough about this important Kannada writer, but I certainly will try to read some more of his stuff. Also, it just didn't feel like a translation. Credit to Srinath Perur. Very highly recommended. Read it in one sitting, if you can. And don't even go near the Kindle edition. The gorgeous Harper Perennial hardcover is an absolute keeper.

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Never Go Back

by Lee Child

About the book:  NOW FILMED AS THE SECOND JACK REACHER MOVIE, STARRING TOM CRUISE Drop-out military cop Jack Reacher has finally hitch-hiked his way to Virginia. His destination, the closest thing to a home he ever had: the headquarters of his old unit, the 110th Military Police. Reacher has no real reason to be here, except that he spoke to the new commanding officer on the phone. He liked Major Susan Turner’s voice. But now he’s arrived, she’s disappeared, and things are getting weird. Accused of a sixteen-year-old homicide and co-opted back into the army, Reacher says nothing. But he’s sure as hell thinking of a way out. ‘Reacher is a man’s man, a loner, a renegade crusader for justice...on the top of his form’ Sun ‘Bone-crunching, joint-popping... a man of steel’ Evening Standard


Notes:  Back to the Reacher books after what seems like ages. First read them eight summers ago on a binge when a friend's brother brought a trove of them back home from the States. I knew it was something special then, and I know it now.

Lee Child's All-American hero, with his own sense of justice and Into The Wild-type philosophy on life is a hard man to dislike. And the writing never lets down this great character too. I read Never Go Back as my return-to-Reacher book because of the upcoming movie, and was not disappointed.

Maybe it's time to go back and read all of them in order, with 1997's Killing Floor? I have yet to make my mind up about that. But I'm sure Lee Child's creation can be what Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo was to us 90s kids: The superman out to dispense his brand of justice. If Tom Cruise and Edward Zwick are able to swing that, that is.

But the comparison to John Rambo is not exactly right. Reacher is not just brawn and bravura; Reacher is also a lot of brain. And that is what makes him a hero worth following around.

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Operation Cactus: Drama in the Maldives

by General V P Malik

About the book:  Operation Cactus was a unique mission for the Indian Army. Within hours of receiving an appeal for assistance from the Government of Maldives, Indian troops rescued President Abdul Gayoom and foiled a coup detat attempt by rebel forces led by Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by the Tamil secessionist group from Sri Lanka, the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). On the notice of a few hours, the Indian military put together a strong task force that flew non-stop over 3,000 km, from Agra to Male, and restored the Maldive' government's control over its capital. In this book, General V.P. Malik, Chief of the Indian Army from 1 October 1997 to 30 September 2000, tells the story of this coup and the alacrity, expertise and meticulousness with which it was executed. In the process he focuses on the decision-making processes that were followed at the political and military strategic levels as well as at the operational level. He writes about defence and military diplomacy and provides a historical as well as futuristic perspective on India's higher defence management.


Notes:  Quick, enjoyable read on an Indian fast-response operation in the Maldives during the Rajiv Gandhi era. Very informative, very detailed in terms of Armed Forces protocol. Can be read as a intuitive primer to the international politics of the time in the Indian Ocean region.

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Bombay, Meri Jaan

by Jerry Pinto,Naresh Farnandes

About the book:  When King Charles Ii Of England Married Princess Catherine De Braganza Of Portugal In 1661, He Received As Part Of His Dowry The Isles Of Bom Bahia, The Good Bay. Reclaimed From The Sea, These Would Become The Modern City Of Bombay. A Marriage Of Affluence And Abject Poverty, Where A Grey Concrete Jungle Is The Backdrop To A Heady Potpourri Of Ethnic, Linguistic And Religious Subcultures, Bombay, Renamed Mumbai After The Goddess Mumbadevi, Defies Definition. Bombay, Meri Jaan, Comprising Poems And Prose Pieces By Some Of The Biggest Names In Literature, In Addition To Cartoons, Photographs, A Song And A Bombay Duck Recipe, Tries To Capture The Spirit Of This Great Metropolis. Salman Rushdie, Pico Iyer, Dilip Chitre, Saadat Hasan Manto, V.S. Naipaul, Khushwant Singh And Busybee, Among Others, Write About Aspects Of The City: The High-Rise Apartments And The Slums; Camaraderie And Isolation In The Crowded Chawls; Bhelpuri On The Beach And Cricket In The Gully; The Women'S Compartment Of A Local Train; Encounter Cops Who Battle The Underworld; The Jazz Culture Of The Sixties; The Monsoon Floods; The Shiv Sena; The Cinema Halls; The Sea. Vibrant, Engaging And Provocative, This Is An Anthology As Rich And Varied As The City It Celebrates.


Notes:  A lovely, lovely read.

The first on my long list of Bombay books, I came to it in a dark time. I hadn't been able to read for a while (or do anything, actually), and it brought me back, the way good books do, to why you started reading in the first place.

It takes you around Bombay in its own way and in its own rhythms, and with its heavy focus on social history and memoir, paints a portrait of the city the present seldom gets to see. Though it has literary superstars in its lineup (Pico Iyer, Naipaul, Ezekiel, Kipling, Theroux, Kiran Nagarkar, Manto), as befitting a city of this size and scale, the best for me was Paromita Vohra's memoir of young life in a gentrifying slum-turned-suburb. So many things, so many feelings about this city are told in that story, directly and indirectly, that I know I'll go back to it several times.

Credit to the editors. This must have taken some doing! The Parsis, the rise of the Shiv Sena, the jazz age of Bombay (Naresh Fernandes dazzles us here!), almost everything you'd heard about what it was like in India's biggest megapolis is given a introduction to.

In the preface, the editors say to us, "..we wanted to serve up the taste of the Lived Bombay rather than the more exotic flavours of the Visited Bombay."

I dare say they've succeeded.

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A Bend in the River

by V.S. Naipaul

About the book:  ‘Brilliant and terrifying’ Observer Set in an unnamed African country, the book is narrated by Salim, a young man from an Indian family of traders long resident on the coast. He believes The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it. So he has taken the initiative; left the coast; acquired his own shop in a small, growing city in the continent’s remote interior and is selling sundries – little more than this and that, really – to the natives. This spot, this ‘bend in the river’, is a microcosm of post-colonial Africa at the time of Independence: a scene of chaos, violent change, warring tribes, ignorance, isolation and poverty. And from this rich landscape emerges one of the author’s most potent works – a truly moving story of historical upheaval and social breakdown. ‘Naipaul has fashioned a work of intense imaginative force. It is a haunting creation, rich with incident and human bafflement, played out in an immense detail of landscape rendered with a poignant brilliance.’ Elizabeth Hardwick ‘Always a master of fictional landscape, Naipaul here shows, in his variety of human examples and in his search for underlying social causes, a Tolstoyan spirit’ John Updike Set in an unnamed African country, the book is narrated by Salim, a young man from an Indian family of traders long resident on the coast. He believes "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." So he has taken the initiative; left the coast; acquired his own shop in a small, growing city in the continent’s remote interior and is selling sundries – little more than this and that, really – to the natives. This spot, this ‘bend in the river’, is a microcosm of post-colonial Africa at the time of Independence: a scene of chaos, violent change, warring tribes, ignorance, isolation and poverty. And from this rich landscape emerges one of the author’s most potent works – a truly moving story of historical upheaval and social breakdown.


Notes:  I took a lot more time reading this than I should have, but this meant that I also spent a lot of time thinking about the book.

And it is a book that deserves a lot of mulling-over, because that is exactly what it is about, too: It is perhaps the most ruthless examination of the self in a novel I've read. Salim is not just Salim: He is Indian, an African of the coast, a survivor, a man trying to make his place in the world. This is not just his story, though. It is also about everything that happens to him, everything he lets happen to him, and about the people he comes into contact with.

But the book is, overpoweringly, about Africa. And Naipaul's Africa is a living, breathing place, an extraordinary amalgam of sights, smells, and people. And the way Naipaul brings all of them together in a book that is in the end about history, is just brilliant. The language is electric without being difficult, the sense of place is immediate, palpable; the novel practically crackles along with passages of immense beauty thrown in from time to time.

I will have to come back to it, if not to reread it, then at least to read more about it. To understand this work of genius will take more time than what I gave it now.

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The Ghosts of Meenambakkam

by Ashokamitran,N. Kalyan Raman (TR.)

About the book:  One dark and stormy night, Dalpathado unexpectedly crosses paths with the narrator at Meenambakkam airport. The faceless, middle-aged man from Dalpathado’s past is there mourning the unexpected death of his daughter in a plane crash. After they spend a dangerous night in each other’s company, lashed by rain and reminiscence, neither man remains the same. Ghosts of Meenamkbakkam is a meditation on the violence that detonates human lives and the idea of love that endures all mayhem, even in death.


Notes:  When Kalyan Raman, the translator of this book, put up the covers of three new Penguin Ashokamitran translations on Twitter earlier this year, I was overjoyed. I've always loved the Modern Classics productions; the quiet, sometimes playful seriousness of the covers seem to celebrate the idea of books itself - as works of art to be contemplated, discussed, and enjoyed. There is also this unique feeling of nostalgia the photographs and illustrations on the covers of these editions evoke, something akin to what the Portuguese call saudade, a feeling of intense longing for something that we perhaps have never really experienced, but seem to miss intimately.

With the cover of this particular book, I had no such problem. I could miss the real thing. I have watched the Madras MRTS train speed through the Meenambakkam station in this very way, and felt some of the things the protagonist feels. My Meenambakkam is extraordinarily different from the Meenambakkam of this 1988 book, and yet, I seem to understand the slow, private Madras of that time. This is an emotion only someone who has lived in, and loved the Tamil capital will understand - that even though it is now a bustling, loud, non-stop metropolis: at its heart, Madras remains a small town. It still moves to the beats of the Tamil hamlet, its rhythms are still dictated by the Tamil festival calendar. And its evenings can be sad things; the breeze warm, the darkness sudden, and the air tight, coiled-up, with the congested dreams of normal, ordinary people who have come to the big city to make a life.

It is this private drama within an individual in a city that Ashokamitran explores. I first encountered this in his Manasarovar (also translated by Kalyan Raman), a brooding tale that left me with a sense of loss. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam is similar in the sense that it is also a very grim narrative, but entwined as it is true events and a commentary on personal tragedy, it is also a very different book. I'm trying hard not to reveal plot details, because in such a taut narrative, even a slight aside may ruin its effect, which is incredibly haunting. I read it in a single setting, and though the tension in the pages, intensely personal, made me tear my eyes away for a moment or two, I was never able to put it down. This is incredible mastery of both the writer's and translator's art.

As the translator points out in his introduction, the quality of Ashokamitran's writing can be deciphered in the weight of the things left unsaid. This is what The Ghosts of Meenambakkam does too. There are allusions, foreign names, veiled references, sidesteps. Putting them together is up to you, and it is through this that the story becomes more than just a story.

As my father nears retirement, he maintains a voluminous collection of stories/essays/travelogues cut out from the extraordinary number of Tamil magazines he buys. There is a whole folder dedicated to Ashokamitran, and its lovingly annotated pages indicated to me the stature of this writer I have only come to discover in English. This, then, is the only gripe I have - a personal sense of shame that I can only read the great masters of my own language in English. I intend to change that soon, but in the meantime, I'm thankful for these translations.

Very highly recommended.

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Sleeping On Jupiter

by Anuradha Roy

About the book:  A train stops at a railway station. A young woman jumps off. She has wild hair, sloppy clothes, a distracted air. She looks Indian, yet she is somehow not. The sudden violence of what happens next leaves the other passengers gasping. The train terminates at Jarmuli, a temple town by the sea. Here, among pilgrims, priests and ashrams, three old women disembark only to encounter the girl once again. What is someone like her doing in this remote corner, which attracts only worshippers? Over the next five days, the old women live out their long-planned dream of a holiday together; their temple guide finds ecstasy in forbidden love; and the girl is joined by a pho¬tographer battling his own demons. The full force of the evil and violence beneath the serene surface of the town becomes evident when their lives overlap and collide. Unexpected connections are revealed between devotion and violence, friendship and fear as Jarmuli is revealed as a place with a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it. This is a stark and unflinching novel by a spellbinding storyteller, about religion, love, and violence in the modern world.


Notes:  Didn't work for me, and I can't really explain why. Maybe the characters, and the events/coincidences that take the narrative along, lacked the depth necessary to tell a story of such emotional weight. This is a personal take, though. The novel is critically acclaimed, and is loved by many. Perhaps you will too.

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The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller

About the book:  “At once a scholar’s homage to The Iliad and startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist….A book I could not put down.” —Ann Patchett “Mary Renault lives again!” declares Emma Donoghue, author of Room, referring to The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s thrilling, profoundly moving, and utterly unique retelling of the legend of Achilles and the Trojan War. A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, Miller’s monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights—and fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.


Notes:  Beautiful retelling of one of the greatest ever tales told by humankind. Miller's book is almost a masterwork, in that it takes a story of so unimaginably lofty pedigree and brings it down to us as something human, familiar, and intimate. Criticisms have been pointedly focused on the love story that is the core of the book - between Achilles and Patroclus: it has been called childish, soft-porn, even contrived. But I think that misses the point entirely. Patroclus is in his late 20s when he falls at Hector's hands, a boy-man, as is Achilles. In much of the book, Patroclus is a teenager. They haven't had a normal life, they've never had to face the responsibilities that adulthood entails.

This is as much a book about young men who never grew up as it is about heroes.

The achievement of the book is that even in the closeness we feel to these characters from long ago, there is no diminishing in their larger than life-ness. Odysseus, the cunning tactician, soon to be a hero in his own right as he sails back from the war, on the journey that will become The Odyssey; Achilles, half-God, half-man; Ajax, breaker of stones; Hector, the great prince of Troy and favorite of Apollo: as the story unfolds we get to know them as people, flesh and blood. But we also know where they stand - in the battlefield of a war that will be spoken of thousands of years later. Fame is what they chase, and glory. The symbolism in certain scenes is palpable, you can almost reach out and touch it.

At its heart, though, The Song of Achilles is a love story. And like the greatest love stories, it is destined for heartbreak and doom. Miller's book may do many things, but what it does not do is trivialise feeling. The climax is heart-wrenchingly, breathtakingly beautiful: The image of a stricken Achilles saying Patroclus's name over and over as he cradles the dead body in his arms stays with you.

So does the one of a marked grave where their ashes lie mingled - if not in life, at least in death.

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Roumeli

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

About the book:  Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani compellingly revealed a hidden world of Southern Greece and its past. Its northern counterpart takes the reader among Sarakatsan shepherds, the monasteries of Meteora and the villages of Krakora, among itinerant pedlars and beggars, and even tracks down at Missolonghi a pair of Byron's slippers. Roumeli is not on modern maps: it is the ancient name for the lands from the Bosphorus to the Adriatic and from Macedonia to the Gulf of Corinth. But it is the perfect, evocative name for the Greece that Fermor captures in writing that carries throughout his trademark vividness of description. But what is more, the pictures of people, traditions and landscapes that he creates on the page are imbued with an intimate understanding of Greece and its history.


Notes:  My first Patrick Fermor was interrupted by several important life-decisions, and therefore had to be read in demarcated chunks, and over more time that I wanted it to be ingested in.

And yet, it was so so good.

I do not profess to know much about Greece and its history, and I came to the book to see the linguistic style and narrative flourish I had heard so much about. And I wasn't disappointed at all. The descriptions and tales just blew my mind, and I couldn't have enough.

I'm filing this away to come back to, perhaps after a primer of Greek history and geography, and maybe even after Fermor's earlier books, so I can read this with even more comprehension and delight.

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Lisey's Story

by Stephen King

About the book:  Two years after losing her husband of twenty-five years, Lisey looks back at the sometimes frightening intimacy that marked their marriage, her husband's successes as an award-winning novelist, and his secretive nature that established Lisey's supernatural belief systems, on which she eventually comes to depend for survival. Reprint. 50,000 first printing.


Notes:  I can see why it's regarded as one of King's best. Some of the things in here are pure genius. Just that it didn't work for me. Which is sad for me, and not at all for the book.

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