Book Review: If Today Be Sweet

Title: If Today be Sweet

Author: Thrity Umrigar

The story is about a Parsi family. The son (Sorab) immigrated to the US after coming to the US as a graduate student. He later marries an American (Caucasian) and settles down in the mid-west.  His mother (Tehmina Sethna) visits the US after her husband’s demise and has to grapple with the decision of where to spend the rest of her life.  She could go back to Mumbai and live by herself or chose to spend the rest of her life in the US with her son, his wife (Susan) and grandson (Cavas).

The bulk of the book deals with the mother’s dilemma and her struggles with life as a widow. The cultural challenges faced by most immigrants of Indian origin (especially parents whose children live in the US) are very well captured. Frequent comparisons are made throughout the book between the western outlook and the traditional Indian views on practically everything. These discussions (often in the mind of the lead character) fit in perfectly with the context of the story and adds depth to the emotional challenges faced by her.  Sohrab’s boss and the part of the story involving the owner of the company and his decision regarding change in leadership seemed a little far-fetched and trivialized. Apart from this, the rest of the story seemed believable and true to life.

This book is one more of the cultural cross-over books.  Unlike most books in this genre that stick to the Indian experience for the most part, this book has a very good blend of mainstream American characters.  The characters of Indian origin in the story interact with the mainstream through most parts of the book. So this book has much more to offer than a conventional “Indian experience” in the US.  Moreover, these interactions blend rather nicely into the story and don’t ever appear forced.

The author is a journalist turned University teacher and it shows in the writing which is all prim and proper except when there is “guy talk”.  The early part of the book tends to be slow (and sometimes boring) but once you survive this, the book is a very enjoyable read.

Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India

Title: Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India
Author: Anita Jain

The author is a journalist who relocates to India partly with the objective of finding a husband!  The book is a memoir of her experiences in India and mostly focused on her relationships. Despite the book having no conventional story as as such, it is engaging and interesting. The book captures the more culturally progressive social scene in India particularly among the younger generation.  She brings to light the prejudices she encounters at various times (while renting a house, dating etc.) highlighting the issues faced by second generation Indians from the US in India —  too Indian to be treated as an American, and too American to be considered an Indian!

The author’s interaction with her parents in the US (first generation Indians) is truly hilarious and very believable.  The book is admirably candid and funny, especially the various relationships and their cultural dynamics.  For NRIs (especially if you are out of touch and curious to know what its like to be young in India these days), this book a perfect read. If you are socially conservative you are in for a rude shock. If you are progressive, you might still be in for a few surprises. The author has a great writing style and the book is an enjoyable read.

Book Review: 2 States – The story of my marriage

Title: 2 States – The Story of my marriage

Author: Chetan Bhagat

Ok, I read yet another book written by Chetan Bhagat 🙂 This book is based on the coming together and the eventual wedding between a Punjabi boy and a Tamilian girl. The bulk of the book is on the clash of cultures between the Punjabis and the Tamil Brahmins.  The book is a fast read, a sure page-turner, ideal for a long flight, and has all the makings of an entertaining Bollywood flick (with Ek duje ke liye fading in public memory the time might just be right for another shot at a similar, yet different theme with a happy ending). Given the theme of the book and its story line there is great scope for humor and the author exploits this to the maximum. The clash of cultures is nicely portrayed with plenty of hilarious situations. The authors description of the boy’s experiences in Chennai are well captured and authentic.

Like all his books, this one too is focused purely on mainstream populist Bollywood-like entertainment in text form – there is music, sex, comedy, you name it.  The downside is that the book a little too filmy, in a number of places, particularly towards the end.  The role of boy’s Dad is a perfect example. Then, there is the heroine lecturing all and sundry in the midst of stalled wedding to win over several hearts and minds.  Then, there is the girl’s mother getting to share the stage with leading playback singers  SP Balasubramaniam and Hariharan! Unfortunately, there are no foreign trips to accommodate the duet in Switzerland. The author settled for Goa instead. In the true spirit of Indian films, where “plug and play” pieces fit into various films with slight variations (like the hero’s friend with a comedic side track a la Vivek in Tamil films), the author seems to be developing his own “modules” so to speak — the hero delivering tutoring sessions seems to be his favorite having made it at least to a couple of his books.

In summary, an entertaining read and at Rs. 90, a sure no-brainer.

Book Review: The Three Mistakes of my Life

3 MistakesTitle: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Author: Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat seems to be churning out novels on an assembly line. Everytime I visit India and browse through an airport bookstore I seem to run into one of his novels. His novels are made for travel — relatively short, nominally priced, and perfect for on flight reading. It appears that he has found his sweet spot so to speak in the world of fiction writing! I found his first book to be an enjoyable read, while the second was a complete waste of time. The Three Mistakes of my Life is easily the best of the three books.

Once again, the author sticks to a “made for Bollywood” formula. He makes sure that there is a dramatic beginning that creates a sense of suspense and maintains it till the end (like a flash back at the start of a film). Then there is cricket, romance, intrigue, friendship (the common theme in all his books), entrepreneurship, communal tensions, sex, exposure (!) etc. The good news is that the author has done a fine job weaving these into a nice fast paced “masala”. A Bollywood production based on this book has all the ingredients for a super hit!

The story revolves around three friends who join together to start a sports equipment store. One of them is an ardent cricket fan/player and fancies himself to be a coach. The other is deeply interested in business while the third has some strong right wing political connections in his family. The one who is the brain behind the business also happens to be a Math whiz. He tutors his collegue’s sister and ends up in love with her (discreetly of course), thereby complicating and ruining their friendship and business relationship. The cricket fan ends up coaching a Muslim kid, and this adds to some dramatic scenes during concocted communal riots. The story is set in Gujarat and the earthquake that happened there (in Bhuj 2001) is also cleverly weaved into the story. There is plenty for cricket fans as you might have guessed and there is fairly contrived jaunt to Australia(!) (this serves the purpose of a song sequence and skin show followed by some long distance romance for the Bollywood version)

This book is an easy, entertaining read. If you are looking for fancy prose and brilliance in language, this book is not for you.

Book about “Afterlife”

Read a review of the book “SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives” in the Mercury News.

David Eagleman shows in his new book, “Sum,” very entertaining, too. The author, a neuroscientist with literary leanings, has set out a series of possibilities for the afterlife, described in 40 vignettes, each of which presents a different explanation of who God is and why he or she (or, in some cases, they) chose to create us and what might be planned for us on our demise.

Here is another section of the review that’s very interesting.

“There are three deaths,” Eagleman writes. “The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

In this scheme, when we die, we go to a cosmic waiting room where we mark time until our name is never again mentioned. The famous are trapped here, of course, for a very long time; they wish for obscurity, but it may take an eternity to arrive.

Book Review: The Last Lecture

Title: The Last Lecture

Author: Prof. Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow

If you have never heard of Prof. Randy Pausch a good place to start is here. He died of pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008 after battling the disease for over a year and a half.

This book is based mostly on his lecture at CMU (where he was a Prof.) and was written along with Jeffrey Zaslow of the WSJ. The book follows the lecture for the most part except for some additional details. However, despite their similarities, their impact is very different. The talk is engaging and gives you a good feel for Prof. Randy Pausch himself – his love for his teaching, his passion and commitment despite his deteriorating health, his excellent public speaking skills, his energy and overall positive attitude among other things. The book on the other hand gives you the opportunity to empathize with the author, soak in the emotions and reflect on life in general. Here is a small excerpt from the latter part of the book where the author puts things in perspective.

There are so many things Jai and I are discussing as we come to terms with what life will be after I’m gone. “Lucky” is a strange word to use to describe my situation, but a part of me does feel fortunate that I didn’t get hit by the proverbial bus. Cancer has given me the time to have these vital conversations with Jai that wouldn’t be possible if my fate were a heart attack or a car accident.

The fact that the book is written by a person (has a family with three small kids) who is terminally ill makes the book that much more poignant and moving. In other words, it is the painful real life context of the book that makes it an interesting read. Those who have been faced with a personal tragedy or trauma of any sort will find this book particularly engaging.

Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

ConfessionsTitle: Confessions of an Economic Hitman
Author: John Perkins

The author worked for several years for consulting firms that encourage under developed (and developing) countries to accept large loans from the World Bank (and other similar institutions that provide financial aid) for large projects with the basic intent of eventually controlling the local governments and their policies to serve the needs of American Corporations. He calls it “corporatocracy”.
“Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars,”….If we falter, then a more malicious form of hitman, the jackal, steps to the plate. And if the jackal fails the job falls to the military.”

The EHMs cook up projections about the implications of these projects (often large infrastructure projects) in order to convince these countries to accept these loans. Also, a number of locals are bribed in the process if need be. The loans are then paid to US Corporations that service these projects. Ultimately, these governments are unable to pay back these loans and become proxies that serve US interests.

The book serves as a very good work of fiction. But it is highly likely that there is some truth to this book. Unfortunately, the author glosses over details of projections that he claimed to have “cooked” up as part of his job. This certainly leaves plenty of room for critics to rightfully argue the credibility of the authors story. While the underlying theme of the book is highly plausible, it is hard to say how much of it is really true vs. pure fiction. Ultimately, it is an interesting and engaging book.

The book covers the author’s first hand experiences in several countries including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Ecuador etc. The Saudi Arabian part is of particular interest in light of recent global events (the rise of Bin Laden, 9/11 etc.)

If you are a pro-environment, anti-big Corporation, and in general left leaning, and prone to alarmist tendencies, this is a book that is sure to confirm your worst fears. You are bound to have the “I told you so” moment on reading this book. In any case, a must read for anyone interested in geopolitics.

p.s: I love the cover design.

Book Review: India’s Politics

Title: India’s Politics — A View From The Backbench
Author: Dr. Bimal Jalan

The author was the former head of Reserve Bank and then went on to become a Rajya Sabha MP.
The underlying theme of the book is that coalition Governments at the center are here to stay. This trend brings with it its own set of issues and if not addressed soon enough could result in further deterioration of the political system as whole and hurt the country and its standing in the world in general. The author is careful not to mention any individuals per se despite discussing specific issues and events. In other words, the book is more about the political system in India rather than about personalities. The book discusses the challenges of India’s current political system and offers a reform agenda.

Here are a few (but by no means all) of the points raised in the book.

Coalition Governments: Given that coalition governments are here to stay, the author calls for coalition partners to agree on a common set of social and economic policies rather than enter into an opportunistic arrangement of convenience. The author argues that these smaller entities must be considered as part of the coalition (UPA, NDA etc.) and not as separate parties for the business of parliament. Any differences must be sorted out within the entity as opposed to in public.

Collective Responsibility: The Indian constitution was based on the principle of collective responsibility of the council of ministers. This principle shields individual ministers from being held accountable for their performance while it has not prevented them from taking decisions without seeking a minimum consensus from coalition partners. The author provides examples to illustrate this phenomenon.

Anti-Defection Law: Coalition governments have resulted in small parties with less than 5% of the national votes wielding unusual power. They even control ministries by virtue of their being part of the ruling coalition, but with little accountability. The author suggests that the anti-defection bill must be amended to disqualify members of a party with less than 10-15% of the seats in the Lok Sabha who opt to join a coalition and then defect.

Business of Parliament: The last few budgets have been passed without discussion! The author says its imperative to bring in a rule that you can’t pass the budget with a voice vote.
Inefficiency: There is too much inefficiency in public services. There are way too many agencies, schemes, departments etc (created by different ministries) often working at cross purposes and politicization of administration in general (“In recent year, the politicization of the bureaucracy has gathered further momentum as a result of governments with shorter tenures pursuing their private or party interests in the guise of promoting the larger public good”). Ultimately, these inefficiencies affect the poorer sections of the society and contribute towards increasing the disparity between the rich and the poor.
Security/Law and Order: The national boundaries and the armed forces are the responsibility of the central government, the responsibility of internal law and order is the responsibility of the state. The states unfortunately are increasingly becoming incapable of addressing law and order issues. (“One-third of all Indian districts are now believed to be under the influence of Naxalite organizations”). Ministers in power in the state tend to control and interfere in the administration of law and order. The authors recommendation is to redefine India’s overall security and law and order management with a greater control and co-ordination from the center especially to respond to terrorist threats orchestrated by external organizations which have a global reach.
A well written book, that is a must read for anyone interested in India’s politics today and into the future. I found that the book tended to get repetitive at times. Perhaps, the author was doing this for emphasis sake. There was no mention of the events at Godhra in 2002 and how events like this can be avoided, which was a disappointment. But overall a very informative book from someone well versed in India’s economics, politics and everyday challenges.

Book Review: No God in Sight

Title: No God in Sight
Author: Altaf Tyrewala

The author deserves credit for taking an interesting approach — Each chapter is written in the first person for a different character in the story. All characters in the book are based in Mumbai and it is a good reflection of the variety of people in the city and their daily lives.

The book starts promisingly but unfortunately, it does not quite come together in the end. This was rather disappointing. The title of the book is hardly explored anywhere in the book and just receives a passing mention in a couple of places. This is the author’s first book and he seems to have made a decent start despite the shortcomings mentioned earlier.