Book Review, Classics, Graphic Novel, Non-Fiction

(Book) The Little Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

the_little_prince_011 Ok, this is one my eternal favourites. I read this again after atleast five years. This book, like Animal Farm, can be finished in less than forty minutes, but the effect that this has on you is so profound that its essence stays with you for a long long time.

The best books, I have always believed, are the ones whose certain phrases and words come to you at the right moment; when you are feeling something similar and these words come rushing back to you. That’s when you realize that the book has really been internalized.

This for me is a prime example of this. The parable of the rose in the story is one of the most moving pieces of literature that I have read. That such a seemingly complicated part of life can be explained by such a simple passage, is truly a wonder.

The book is a fairy tale parable that can be read as easily as when you are 10 years old as when you are 70. Its just that at different times in your life, you would be able to mine different meanings of the same 50 odd pages.

The little price coming down to earth after many small adventures on different planets and finally ending his journey by the side of the author who at the start of the story was pressed with more ‘urgent’ matters. In a way, the little prince is a manifestation of the lost childhood of the author himself who ‘grew up’ after he faced the cynicism and the blandness of the adults who saw a hat instead of an elephant inside a boa. This then is as much a fairy tale as much as an internal journey of self discovery – a journey that we should all undertake if we are to save ourselves lest we become completely adult.

To tell more of the book is taking away the magic. If you are reading this and haven’t read the book, please do. They may be the most important 50 pages of your life….

Book Review, Non-Fiction

Buyology written by Martin Lindstrom

buyology A book that marries branding with neurology, a concept that is catching on fast in the marketing world and also raising a host of other questions, not all relating to selling better – ethical ones primarily. If marketing has always been about second guessing the way we come to a buying decision and thus devising a way to trick us in to believing that we want something even though our logical part says nada, buyology tells us that we have reached a tipping point. Marketers are literally peering into our brains to understand what really turns us on when we look at an object, an image, listen to a sound or smell something. And that is being used to make us open our wallets more and more.

Naturally it raises big ethical questions. Which are not easy to answer at all; the question is – does the book address this very important side effect of this science coupled with marketing?

The book opens brilliantly with promises of lot of jaw dropping revelations. The book starts off with the grandest experiment ever conducted till date on consumer’s brains. And then it makes you settle back for magic.

Except it does not quite appear magical. Somehow it seems to lack the punch. Its not in the narrative. Its more in the final result. The first few revelations were, quite frankly, quite lame and seemed pretty intuitive. I think that any marketer worth his salt would know that overkill of similar visuals lowers attention spans and that product placement within the narrative of a show would achieve much better results. Hell, I am starting out and I knew that before I opened the book. Or the fact that sports are akin to religion in the fervour it causes amongst its followers, however atheist they may be. Or the fact that too much of scatter-brained sexual imagery takes away the customer’s attention from the product itself. Or the fact that emotions sell more than a mere logo. Or the fact that seeing a glittering futuristic design on somebody’s ear or wrist makes you want to own it. You don’t need brain scans to determine that or to know that mirror neurons are at work (in the last case, it is)

However there were some extraordinary revelations, though they were few in number as compared to the ones I described above. The prime among them, I feel, is the insight that the warning signs on the cigarette packs actually results in increasing the craving for nicotine in the smokers. Quite powerfully counter-intuitive and absolutely a death blow to anti-tobacco activists.

That said, there are nuggets of very interesting facts hidden throughout the book which gives new meaning to everyday phenomenon. And IT IS good to give a reason to societal viral marketing – mirror neuron that is. But the most important thing about this book is that it aims to make a precise science of guesswork and learn by experience that marketing is still largely today. No matter what the quality of revelations in the book, the fact is that the science it defines is very much real and is becoming a part of corporate’s marketing arsenal even as I write this. Soon, through numerous experiments, it will soon be known which area of our brains light up when we think about food, clothes, sex etc. and soon we will be sold products and services tailored to light up those precise areas

Which brings us to the most crucial question – the ethical one and the natural fear of a big brother society, which in this case would be dominated by the advertising-political-military complex. Imagine being manipulated into buying (or believing something) just because we cant help it, because our brain is overriding our logical instincts without us being even aware of it. Can it really get so bad, is the first question that pops in your mind as are halfway through the book

The book answers this poorly, lamely informing us that knowledge is power and by understanding how the marketing world CAN manipulate us, we can make our own defences. Can we? I was not convinced. Brain scans are not something at our disposal and nor are we equipped to keep in touch with the latest advances of a phenomenon which is just in the nascent stage.

But WILL it get that bad? Maybe not. Every science has its limitations and human nature cannot be manipulated so completely that someone does not cry wolf for real. But there is always a niggling possibility, no?

A book that is one of the first to talk about this new consumer science should have taken the lead to identify the paths, good and bad that we could be taken on, once this science becomes commonplace.  In this regard the book is a disappointment. But with regards to the science it proclaims on the world, this book is worth a read – especially if you are not that much into marketing yet.


Book Review, Non-Fiction

Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell

6a00d4144194da3c7f00e398cc52650003-500pi Blink carries on the tradition of ‘The Tipping Point’ of demystifying some of the mysterious undercurrent forces that affect us so much in our lives, only that we are unaware of them consciously. If ‘Tipping Point’ was about how social phenomenon around us are affected by things which do not lend themselves to documentation or rational analysis by common sense, ‘Blink’ is more personal and more individualistic.

‘Blink’ is about how our mysterious subconscious, the murky supercomputer residing in us, can make leaps of decision making and connections that we are unaware of us, but which nevertheless is a part of the choices we make or the way we think.

From knowing that a statue is fake by looking at it, when scientific analysis state otherwise, to the best method of choosing a musician (should be done blindly), this books has interesting tit-bits that keep you hooked and encourages you to think and reflect. For example, I found the part where this supercomputer can work against us, very exciting. Not only because it explains a lot about how subconscious prejudice works but also because of how we can actually make ourselves fairer by knowing our own pitfalls.

Malcolm Gladwell is very good at assimilating all the interesting research being done out there. So even though nothing in the book is essentially original, the compilation of the various researches aimed at a specific reasoning makes for exciting reading. I think this is mainly because the lay reader does not come across the individual researches which are usually known well in the scientific world…

This book, though leaves a lot out. I would have loved more details in every chapter especially on the neurological and the psychological part of the phenomenon. Though I admit that if that would have been so, the book would have become a tome of sorts. But nevertheless I found this gap to be both the strength and weakness of the book. The strength of this lies in the fact that it spikes your interest and encourages you to read more on related topics in detail.

For me, the book served more as a window to more exciting possibilities…

paths of glory jeffrey arche
Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Paths of Glory written by Jeffrey Archer

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

                                                       – Thomas Grey "ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD"

“Because its there” – attributed to Mallory, the response to a question as to why he ‘bothers’’ (to risk his life to climb Everest)

0230531431 That the book was about one of most romantic-tragic character in history who has always fascinated me – George Mallory, was one of the main reasons that I picked up the book. I have always enjoyed Archer’s short stories collection but not his longer novels, so this required a leap of faith of sorts…But the subject matter and the undoubted talents of the writer swung the balance.

And I have not regretted that decision. From the first page of the book, the book sweeps you into an era that was the last great eras of human exploration, an era that ended in man’s final conquest of nature, a victory of the frail human body over all the odds thrown against it. It was an era when explorers and adventurers were arguably as much a celebrity that movie stars, if not more at certain occasions. It was an age when both the North and South Poles fell, when man started to conquer the airspace. The age ended with the landing on the moon bringing to a close the era of heroic explorers and discoverers. It was also during this age when many of the highest mountains of the world were conquered. This book is about this final conquest. And what high mistress of the mountains is there other than Chomolungma (or as we know by the British given name – Mt Everest). When did Everest yield and to whom? to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, as we have been taught or did it yield to the intrepid George Mallory thirty years earlier, who when last seen before he disappeared in the mist near the summit, was a few hundred feet from the highest seat in the world?

The controversy has not been resolved yet, even though Mallory’s frozen body was found a few years ago by climbers. The evidence on his body threw open fresh controversies since the photo of his wife Ruth  was not found on his body. He had promised Ruth that he would put her photo on the summit when he climbed it.

This book takes us on a fictionalized account of the life of the climber and offers an opinion on what really occurred in 1924 after Mallory and Irving (his climbing partner) disappeared from view.

The main bulk of the book is devoted to knowing Mallory as a man rather than a legend and in this I feel that in this regard, Archer is excellent unlike what many other reviewers feel. We come across a man who is liberal in his thoughts and open to criticism and alternate views. In many ways, he is a man ahead of his time – especially in regard to women empowerment. Remember that at this time women did not have the right to vote and their education was frowned upon. His indomitable attitude to everything (especially to anything that needed climbing!!) is also brought out well. His skills as a mountaineer was astounding and he was proclaimed a genius even in his lifetime…

The book dwells at length on the fairy tale romance between Mallory FWWmalloryG4and Ruth, the woman he fell in love at first sight and to whom he remained faithful and completely in love till the end. It was a love story which make the stuff of legends. His impassioned letters to her starting with “My Dear Ruth” have become one of the most well known correspondences in history. His last letter to her was almost prophetic and makes for emotional reading.

To woo her, he risked arrest by climbing a national monument in Venice!!!. An illustration of the love between them comes across when Ruth gives up security to encourage Mallory to go on his last fateful climb even though he had decided to give up climbing to stay with her since he did not want to lose her. She understood that men like Mallory can only rest when they had conquered what beckons them. The exchange in this regard between Ruth and Robert Scott’s widow is poignant and one of the hallmarks of the book.

The book is ultimately about the fatal attraction between Mallory and Mt Everest. It was the final frontier for a mountaineer and Mallory was arguably the best man available to conquer the heights. But a combination of bad luck (WWI) and the prevalent ‘climbing ethics’ George Mallory and Andrew Irvine preparing to leave their camp near Everest in 1924. (called the amateur code – which included looking down on use of oxygen) prevented him from attempting the summit seriously until he was in his mid-thirties. So when he climbed his fateful climb, he knew very well that this was the last chance to imprint his name on history. He was also unlucky to not get George Finch, the only person he considered his rival, as his climbing partner due to the imperial frostiness (They did not want an Australian and a divorcee on top of a mountain which they considered theirs).

Of course we may never know what caused Mallory to never come back to safety and to Ruth and the book also leaves the question hanging though Archer does make him the first conqueror of the mountain.

The book is fast paced and covers all aspects of his life. And because you know what is going to happen in the end, the chronicle of his short life becomes even more evocative. You almost wish that he did c0nquer the mountain. But even if he didn’t, he set an example for all the men to follow – by his open minded attitude, his leadership qualities, his humanitarian approach to climbing (when he gave up an attempt on the top because of an injured partner when he could have gone on – a contrast to many modern climbers who forget this alpine spirit) and above all for his spirit of adventure…

One of my unforgettable reads…


Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

To make the deaf hear written by S Irfan Habib

30 Books like these are very important for a much more holistic understanding of Indian struggle for independence than what is taught to the children of this country through the official NCERT textbooks…Books like these remind us how much of our history we are unaware of and we also become aware of the fact that ‘rewriting’ of history is not something that BJP attempted during their regime but something that the Congress complete successfully during their uninterrupted rule for almost fifty years…

Today much more questions are being raised about Gandhi’s role in the struggle and there is a start to put his efforts in perspective with other people who had the same goals but differed in their methods and ideology. Gandhi is not considered the demi-god that he was projected for a long time. His flawed ideas, his hypocrisy and his ruthlessness in dealing with people who did not agree with him (He let Bhagat Singh hang, considering him a threat)  is increasingly becoming public knowledge and gaining acceptance. That is indeed a welcome change since it is time that history is retold in a more objective manner. It is also time that other people who have been airbrushed by Congress historians in favour of their own people are given the honour and the place in history that they deserve.

bhagat20For a long time, the establishment considered people like Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen to be a threat to their version of history since they openly spoke against the compromises Congress made with the British and spoke against the weakness in approach and ideology of the Gandhi camp in dealing with the imperial power. For a long time the established view of the manner of India’s getting independence was thrust down the gullible throats of children. That is slowly changing with many books (like this one) proving that quite a different scenario was present and that independence of this country did not come via Gandhi at all.

The title of this book comes from the reason that Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt gave in support of their action in throwing a harmless bomb at the Legislative Assembly. They felt that the Congress and the British Imperial propaganda were disparaging the revolutionaries (relegating them as terrorists – NCERT books still label them as such) and also that their policies were harming the common people. They courted arrest so that their ideas could be more readily disseminated to the people of India.

bkdutt The book is lucidly written and takes an approach of giving the background of the rise of the revolutionary ideals in India and their evolution from a religious nationalism to a completely scientific socialist point of making a revolution. The book is also a testimony to the maturity and the incisiveness of thoughts of the revolutionaries in understanding the situation in India especially in relation to the world scenario and their understanding that unless the core problems in ideology and approach were solved, white masters would be simply replaced by brown masters without causing much change in the ground situation (an observer today would testify to the prescience of these thoughts). Compare this with the fuzzy, hazy, metaphysical ideology of Gandhi which proclaimed the Luddite ideal of pre-industrial village economies and living off nature. chanderShekhar

It is a tragedy that someone like Gandhi gained ascendance in Congress (helped no doubt by the British and the Indian capitalist classes). His rise is naturally due to the fact that the imperial masters found easy to deal with Gandhi who easily compromised and whose actions (purely non-violent) never really threatened the established order. His was a spiritual movement completely out of tune with the requirement of the  hour. But as things stood, the British killed off the people whose ideas could have made the country much more inclusive while Gandhi continued with his fuddy-duddy approach, much to the delight of the Britishers (I mean, he wanted a dominion status late into 1930’s for India – can you imagine India as Wales?).

All of this is explained beautifully in this highly informative book. We are gradually introduced into the world and thoughts of rajguru2Bhagat Singh and his comrades. For someone who does not know, it would come as an incredible the thoughts of someone as young like Bhagat Singh and his friends. His “Why I am an atheist” could not have been written more lucidly by a learned professor of thrice his age. His mature approach to the struggle and his foresight in terms of what the Indian society needs is a refreshing read and is a proof (if any was needed) that the Indian  struggle was not a monotheistic one nor a linear one.

The book is filled with lots of pamphlets and writings by the  revolutionaries themselves which gives us an opportunity to read them without the filter of interpretation. This is one more thing that makes this book a gem…vohrafamily

All in all, a very refreshing and important read not only for a history buff like me but for anyone with an open mind who is interested in understanding our roots…and very importantly, the fact that it is written by Irfan Habib makes it very accessible to even the casual reader of history…


Book Review, Non-Fiction

Pirates of the Caribbean – Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali

ali_pirates As is clear from the title, Tariq Ali positions this book in defiance of the term ‘Axis of evil’ given by Bush Jr. And its a defiant book to the last page. And its a book that is both a manifesto of hope and a reminder of events which the mainstream media wants us to forget or worse, remain ignorant of.

The book is mainly about a new way of life that is being developed in Venezuela and Bolivia which takes Cuba’s legacy as its inspiration. The book traces the history of the region and talks about the various ups and downs that have taken place in the region’s (Latin America) struggle for self determination. He also makes a report card of how the progress has been.

What makes this book delightful, when the subject matter is such that it could have easily become a boring tome of facts and sloganeering, is the way in which Tariq Ali approaches the subject. In his inimitable style he takes on a host of varied subjects and ties it up together in one theme.

He starts off with a scathing attack on the turncoat socialists who abandoned their beliefs when the ‘end of history’ happened after collapse of Soviet Union. After this, he positions this book as an account of those who resisted and have been able to give us a different way of looking at social, economic and political problems of our time.

Tariq Ali dons the role of a pirate and revels in it. He discusses politics venezuelan-flag of the region and the fallouts especially Venezuala and its most famous leader till date – Hugo Chavez. The book discusses his rise and his consolidation and his socio-economic policies and why what he is doing is a lesson to everyone. Ali discusses Cuba and Bolivia as well, Cuba as the inspiration for Chavez and Bolivia and Morales as the inheritor of Chavez of both. He also discusses the history of the region with a whole chapter on Simon Bolivar, the inspiration for whole generations of Latin American revolutionaries. Its not only a discussion of events but is an analysis of whys and hows and which way in the future. Its the latter part that makes it so important.

The book never lets up and is a refreshing call to arms for people who are aware of the developments and a starting point for those unaware.

These discussions attain an important significance today with the collapse of neo-liberal policies, policies which were considered infallible till a few months ago and which have been proved to be hollow and worse, highly dangerous. This book, then, is a book of hope and of rebellion against ‘conventional wisdom’.

Book Review, Non-Fiction

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco

logo_rhino A product of the avant-garde theatre, Rhinoceros is the play that made Ionesco’s fame. It is perhaps the only ‘political’ play he wrote though there is nothing overtly political in the play’s narrative. It is only when you read it midway, in the midst of the Rhinoceros epidemic that you get to realize that a very powerful political statement is being made. And even though I find Ionesco’s politics and views slightly scatterbrained, this play is a case of the art growing beyond the artist and should not be associated with the views of the writer after a point – it should be taken as a statement and an art form of its own…

Ionesco is known to use surreal setups to depict his themes. In this play the setup is centred around the ‘Rhinoceros’. The characters in the play keep getting transformed into rhinoceroses’. As to why this particular animal was chosen, there are many interpretations, one of which is most appealing, as we will see…

The play starts with Berenger and Jean discussing in the coffee stop, with Jean expounding on his philosophy of life which is bordering on puritanism. Jean feels that Berenger should develop a will-power to develop his character and constantly gives him his own example – of how Jean himself can exercise will-power, how he keeps his word, how successful he is going to be and so on. The whole tone is one of extreme patronization. Berenger is shown to be a person who is eager to please and who is shown to be a drunkard who ‘cannot help himself’, one who is unsure of himself in all matters and one who always defers himself to Jean, who is his friend.

The scene also introduces the character Logician – shown to be a person who uses logic in every sentence (almost all of which is rubbish) and Daisy – the love interest of Berenger but who is too timid to approach her and who he feels is attracted to Dudard who has a ‘future’.

The discussion is interrupted with the appearance of a rampaging rhinoceros who interrupts the discussions twice, throwing everyone in a tizzy and triggering a discussion on whether the species was an Asian or African variety. Berenger falls out with Jean on this discussion and Jean parts with anger, calling Berenger names, inspite of which Berenger feels contrition later on.

The next scene is in office where Berenger works. Here we are shown the character of Dudard and Botard. Botard is shown to be highly sceptical of the rhinoceros business and refuses to believe in the phenomenon and is openly hostile to people who believe in it, claiming a huge conspiracy. This is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging rhinoceros (who demolishes the staircase), who we are informed is actually Beouf, another employee who has now been transformed into the animal. This development makes the discussion go beyond mere speculation and into wondering why Beouf transformed himself – whether out of his own will or due to other reasons.

This is the point in the play where we start to get a clearer picture of what getting transformed into a rhinoceros would mean. It would probably mean a person getting converted into an ideology or religion which seem completely alien or disgusting to people initially, people who have not been converted…yet.

Nevertheless, the choice of animal could stem from the fact that they are rampaging animals who would demolish anything in their path and who seem to have a single minded focus without a shred of doubt – ingredient for development of any totalitarian ideology.

After this point, the play takes on a surreal tone, especially after we find Rhinoweba1 that Jean has himself turned into a rhinoceros with him now using his own fastidious puritanism to rationalize the change even though he initially claims he is not changing into the animal. He almost tramples Berenger who is very upset over the development and wants to call a doctor to help Jean over the ailment. This particular part ends with Berenger finding himself trapped in the building with everyone in it transforming at an alarming speed. He looks out of the window and he sees a procession of rhinos…

The last scene takes place in the room where Berenger lives where he shown to be nursing a head wound, which constantly bothers him since he does not want to develop a bump (which would start the transformation). Dudard comes in and they have a discussion on the whole situation. It increasingly becomes clear that while Berenger is defiant on never aligning himself with the rhinos and their ways, Dudard on the other hand, while not committing himself, insists on taking a pragmatic and open minded view on he whole subject. In between, we are told that many other people have turned into rhinos which dismays Berenger. The point of the discussion between the two is that while Dudard is articulate and able to make his position clear, Berenger is speaking from emotion and intuition and keeps blundering into discussions. But while Dudard is shown to be talking a middle path which talks of ‘trying to live with them’ and finding a ‘peaceful solution’ and raising the point that morality is relative, Berenger is talking of rebellion and of non-acceptance and remaining themselves.

Berenger claims that he would need someone like the Logician who can put the discussion on the right track and in the right perspective. But he sees suddenly that the Logician himself has transformed into a rhino which thrown him into further despair. Berenger then claims that Botard, who was vociferously sceptical, is the man of the hour especially since he was a retired school teacher and hence learned.

In this scene comes in Daisy. She comes with the news that Botard has also turned into a rhino, thus devastating Berenger who feels himself more and more alone. He keeps muttering to himself of defiance but also claiming he does not know how to resist it all. Though Daisy is shown to be siding with Berenger overtly, she talks about trying to think about co-existing while remaining different. Later on we see that her position is not ideological or stemming from any conviction but is purely emotional. The discussion ruptures when Dudard suddenly claims that he cannot abandon his friends and things ‘should be changed from within’. He leaves and almost immediately becomes a part of the thronging rhino population outside.

Now we are only left with Daisy and Botard who express their love for each other and claim that they would defy becoming a part of the rhinos whose population keeps multiplying outside. However as the discussions progress, we see Daisy despairing as to what would happen to them and maybe the rhinos are not so bad after all. That they seem to be happy and content and that they seem to be so strong unlike themselves who she begins to see as weak (especially Botard). She begins to claim that the trumpeting of the rhinos is melodious which is hotly opposed by Berenger. The break comes when Berenger in a fit of rage and frustration slaps Daisy and she goes out on the street muttering that ‘he is not nice at all’…

Berenger finds himself all alone and swings wildly between the defiance and capitulation. The solitude is clearly getting to him. He almost succumbs but then reasserts himself with a show of unlikely willpower when he defiantly shouts at the end “I’ll take on the whole of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot if them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating!”

The play attains a very surreal and almost terrifying atmosphere by the end. The play shows with a very simple allegory how people give into herd instinct and immerse their individuality in the mob especially one that shows strength in their attitude. The most significant part of the play I felt was the fact that it is Berenger, the unsophisticated, the person whom everyone considers to be of no account, the person who is full of doubts, who resists till the end when ‘better’ people had long given up. Maybe the last part is important – that he is full of doubts. Maybe that was the significant message of the play. People like Jean and Dudard and the Logician who are erudite and ‘men of the world’ can rationalize everything and embrace changes out of ‘pragmatism’ (while the real reason can be fear, opportunism etc) while men like Berenger can see the farce for what it is because he does not have excessive education or ‘culture’ to cloud out the basic things that he feels is a part of him – his individuality mainly.

You admire Berenger at the end. You admire him because even when he is weak (and he knows he is weak), he still stands upto the mob in his own quiet way. He makes his stand when it would have been so easy to capitulate and he would have had many ‘excuses’ to choose from. He is left all alone and finds himself isolated in his views and yet is defiant at the end. It is Ionesco’s way of saying perhaps that the ‘best’ people in the world are not the ones who resist. Its the unlikely people who understand and defy.

Its an important play that cuts across time since the theme is universal and recurring – our constant struggle to maintain  our individuality. While the play can be read as an allegory of transformation of Germany into Nazi Germany, it would be too restricting to keep the context confined in that time period. What about the cultural imperialism of our time or of our acquiescence of the world view of powerful nations?

The play would retain its relevance and freshness for all time and would constantly nag us with the question; who would  we choose -Berenger with all his faults or Jean/Dudard/Etc with their surety?