Posted in book review

Book Review: In the Kingdom of Ice

One of the main consequences of industrialisation in the late 1800s in America was the development of new and improved shipping vessels. These vessels opened up the possibility to reach the north pole that had hitherto been just a dream. Beginning from the 1860s, many expeditions were launched in order to conquer the north and place the flag of the country upon the pole. Most of these missions were British, but the failure of each one of them led to few investors willing to invest money. Also, the advancement of American ships made the proponents of polar expeditions believe that the success of such missions could only come from across the Atlantic. In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette is about one such polar expedition undertaken by Captain George Washington de Long and 32 other seamen in 1879.

August Petermann was a German cartographer whose theory had helped spawn the race towards the pole. Although he had never been on any mission himself, he had drawn detailed maps of the north from first-hand accounts of those who had been there. He was also a proponent of the Open Polar Sea, an ice-free expanse of the ocean near the pole believed to be due to the crossing of the Gulf Stream and the Kira Suwa, two warm ocean currents which helped to melt the ice. Petermann believed that once the ice wall was crossed, there was a wide expanse of open ocean where ice-free sailing towards the pole was possible. This was the route that Captain de Long and his ship took in that fateful year of 1879. They would go via the Bering Strait to the north and not through the west coast of Greenland as had been done previously.

Hampton Sides retells a sordid tale of hope of people including de Long and the expedition financier Bennett Jr for being among the first to reach the pole; the hope of Emma-de Long’s wife-that he will return home safe and that of the countless civilians waiting with bated breath for news that one of their own had conquered one of the last remaining lands on the earth.  Indeed Sides intersperses his narrative with letters from Emma to her husband, asking him to be safe on the journey and always telling him that she and their daughter would be waiting for him when he returns.  The journey of de Long and his mates across the north and their fate forms the crux of the story.

Sides is a great author for those of you who are interested in nonfiction in general. He researches his books well and presents the story in a manner that is factual and at the same time not too boring, which I believe is a good quality to have.  

Posted in book review, india

Book Review: The Emergency-A Personal History

Emergency was undoubtedly the darkest phase of Indian democracy. What made it all the more remarkable was that there was no precedent for such a bold step before the event, nor has there been one after. The move shocked the country because of the instantaneous and harsh implementation and also as no one believed the daughter of Nehru-an upholder of democratic values-would behave like a dictator. Indeed many people have compared Indira in the emergency period to Hitler, but as the author of the book mentions, she went one step ahead of Hitler and tried to installed her son as her political heir and successor.

According to the author, there were three main events that contributed to the decision of Indira Gandhi to announce an internal emergency. Mind you, there was already a state of external emergency in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The first reason was the death of D.P.Dhar, one of Indira’s closest advisors. Then came the news that her party had lost the elections in Gujarat. To make matters worse, Indira was stripped of her membership in the Lok Sabha in response to the Election Commission finding certain irregularities in the process, chiefly the improper use of a public servant in the campaign and the use of more money than the permitted amount. These events led her to proclaim the emergency and begin one of the darkest phases in Indian democracy.

The author presents evidence to the fact that while people think the emergency decision was taken in a few days, it was infact the culmination of several events that took place since 1971. There was an increase in the power of Indira Gandhi, both within the party and outside. She began removing CMs (Chief Minister-the head of the government in a particular state) from their post unceremoniously, particularly those who were showing some hesitation in accepting and blindly following her orders. She abolished the privy purses of the princely states and thus went on the wrong side of many princely families, in particular that of Gwalior. Indeed, the Rajmata of Gwalior was one of the first high profile prisoners in the jail following the imposition of the emergency. Another event which convinced the opposition of her growing clout was the installation of a junior Supreme Court advocate as the Chief Justice, bypassing several people who were senior. People saw this as an indication that she wanted a judiciary that was subservient to the government, but her supporters maintained that she only wanted both of them to have the same ideology.

The author, being a close relative of Subramaniam Swamy-one of the firebrand politicians of this country-devotes substantial space to his work in mobilizing the opposition in the country and the support for the opposition in the USA to defeat the ruling party. The contributions of Jayaprakash Narayan and George Fernandes are also mentioned in detail. JP, a leader of the masses hailing from Bihar, was close friend of Indira’s family, with her mother and JP’s wife regularly exchanging letters. The trouble between JP and Indira started from the time of 1969 elections, with Indira feeling that JP wanted to wrest power from her hands, while he was against power in the hands of a single individual. The author mentions how JP was kept in squalid conditions in the jail, mostly in solitary confinement and was denied access to a doctor even when he complained of severe stomach pains. The festering rats, the heat, poor food quality and lack of communication with people, took its toll on the politician and he died soon after.

The story of George Fernandes is not too different. He led a revolt of the railway union and a warrant was issued for his arrest. When the police could not find him, his brother was arrested and tortured for months.

But probably the main man of the emergency was Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira Gandhi. His controversial projects which included development of a small sized car for the Indian public and the mass sterilization program built resentment against the ruling party and prompted Indira Gandhi to call for elections in 1977 and lift the emergency.

Emergency was indeed a dark phase in the strong democratic traditions of Indian democracy. It exposed what corrupt politicians, hellbent on maintaining their strong hold on the government and not let the opposition win could do. Never was there a precedent for such an initiative and as a responsible citizen, I hope there never will be.

Coomi Kapoor captures the essence of the public during the emergency having lived through it and experienced it. She tells about the imprisonment of her husband, and that of her relative Subramanian Swamy. She tells about countless other people who were tortured and imprisoned in unhygienic conditions in the name of emergency. This book is a must read for all those interested in Indian politics and the emergency in general.

Posted in book review

Book Review and Synopsis: A Small Town in Germany — DayDreamer

This brilliant narrative by John le Carre features the capital of West Germany- Bonn- as the provincial small town. The plot is set in the 1970’s . Leo Harting, a low level temporary administrative officer in the British Embassy in Bonn is missing and gone with him is the Green File which contains the minutes […]

via Book Review and Synopsis: A Small Town in Germany — DayDreamer

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The Orwell Essays

harryjohnstone

Orwell-Essays-1Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.

Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically…

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My Take: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

When Gaiman announced his new book based on the Nordic mythology, I was excited. Excited because there is probably no person better to tell tales of fantasy mixed with mythology than Gaiman. His previous works including American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are a testament to this fact.

When the book was launched in February, I immediately picked up a copy of it. I must admit at the outset that I knew very little about Nordic mythology, and whatever I knew was from the Marvel movies of Thor and Avengers. So, I was quite excited to read how the author would go about weaving his stories which have a factual basis. But in Gaiman’s expert hands, the stories acquire a new dimension, and you get hooked to the book right from the beginning.

Gaiman starts telling his story before everything existed. He tells us how Asgard and the Gods came to be and then introduces us to the central characters of the book-Odin the All-God, Thor the Mighty and Loki the Cunning. He also tells us about the other Gods and Giants who are not well known but are central to Nordic tales like Mimir, who was Odin’s uncle. Gaiman tells us the reason behind Odin’s one eye, about why he is called the Blind God or the One-Eyed God, and that of Loki’s children. He tells us the story of Thor’s hammer and why he needs to swing it with one hand. Gaiman narrates with his characteristic wit how the Gods got their wall, and how in the process Loki was embarrassed.

However, the story that I found the most interesting was about Loki and his children, more so because of the parallels that can be drawn between it and the Harry Potter book. Loki had three children with a female giant, one of which was a wolf named Fenrir and the other was a poisonous snake. To protect themselves from the wolf, the Gods decide to chain him up. While doing this, the wolf bites down on the hand of one of the Gods and thus acquires the traits of a werewolf. This is like the ferocious werewolf in the Potter series, who was also named Fenrir.

Gaiman ends his book with Ragnarok, the foretelling of the world’s end as we know it, where Thor and Loki die, and the birth of a new world.  The book is a must read because of the simple and delightful way in which Gaiman tells us almost everything about the Nordic mythology. So, the next time we watch any Marvel movie, we have some background on the stories of the Nordic characters.

Posted in book review, Gillian Flynn, thriller

My Take: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

“Books may be temporary; dicks are forever.” This is one of the lines that really capture the witty writing of Gillian Flynn in her new short story “The Grownup”. Originally published in the anthology Rutgers edited by George R R Martin, the story was later brought out as a standalone book.

The narrator of the story is a woman (the author does not reveal her name in the entire book, so we will call her “Mandy”) who gives hand jobs at Spiritual Palms, a place which specializes in tarot card and crystal ball reading at the front, while having a discreet soft sex racket behind closed doors. Mandy has had a difficult childhood: never knowing her father and having had to beg with her mother in order to sustain themselves. However, her mother is ingenuous. She knows which people to target for money (go to women in groups instead of single ladies; never to men in suits), and these skills are passed on to the daughter. The daughter turns out to be a quick learner, managing to earn more than her mother, so much so that she finally decides to escape that life and a newspaper ad leads her to Spiritual Palms. She knows that with a few past records she can never go into prostitution, so she goes on to give hand jobs. Having always been good at judging people and knowing what they want beforehand (also cognizant of the fact that the majority of the people coming for handjobs are middle-aged and perhaps, a bit scared), she tries to ease the situation by asking a few questions and breaking the ice. She excels at it, and starts having repeat clients. It is with one such repeat customer that the story actually starts.

Mark is a normal, middle aged family man who comes to her for hand jobs. Mandy and Mark both share a love of books that makes the bond between them more than that of customer and service provider: one between two book lovers.

Having realized her talent at the back of the room, her boss decides to put her out in the front, advising women and calming their fears. She meets Susan Burke, a mother of two who works in an agency and “defines and eliminates problems.” Susan appears troubled with the strange behavior of her step-son and asks Mandy for her help. Realizing that Susan is rich, Mandy begins of think of this as her gateway card to make a name for herself. She agrees to come over to her house and sort out the troublemaker.

When she sees the house for the first time, she gets the creeps. However, seeing a massive library filled with at least a thousand books somehow calms her down. She decided that she could get through anything as long as she had some time to lock herself up in the library to read.

But, the matter is not so easy as she thinks it will be. The son is really a creep, and there are incidents when Mandy begins to realise that the threat to her life that Susan was talking about, was not a misguided conception at all. She researches the house and finds that the previous owners were killed by their step-son: the father was stabbed, the mother was killed with an ax, and the younger son was drowned before the step-son hanged himself. And the eerie thing was that the step-son looked exactly the same as Miles, Susan’s step-son. Realising something was amiss, Mandy asks Susan to consider moving out of the house.

One day while in the library, Mandy stumbles onto a picture of Mark in a library book. Realizing that she has been giving handjobs to her client’s husband, she things that she has been caught and that Susan will inform the police. This is where Miles comes in and informs her that they must leave, as Susan is planning to kill them both as she knows about Mandy and the hand jobs. Miles tells her that Susan came to Spiritual Palms so that she could seek Mandy out (remember that it was Susan’s job to “define and eliminate problems”). Mandy realises that she was doubting the wrong person and runs away with Miles. On the way, Miles tells her that Susan knew nothing about the affair, and that he had lied to her so that he could leave the place and begin a new life: a life where he set the rules and had to listen to no one. Mandy begins to realise that she can never know who is right, and understands that the best way forward is to use Miles as her son and play the single mother angle to get her way in the world.

Taking a simple theme that has been repeated and retold a number of times (a haunted house; troubled step-son; cheating husband), Gillian Flynn weaves an intricate plot and the story acquires a new dimension in her masterful hands. The book is well worth a read for any person who is a fan of thrillers.

Posted in book review

A True Banker to the Poor

In the year 2006, an Economics professor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on micro-credit. No theoretical model was formulated for which this prize was offered. Rather, the author successfully implemented the scheme of providing micro-credit to the poorest of the poor with almost 100% repayment of loans. That man’s name is Muhammad Yunus and the scheme he started is now the Grameen Bank with replication models in more than 57 countries, including some of the most developed ones. The book “Banker to the Poor” is a story of how a university professor actually took it upon himself to change the lives of some of the poorest in the entire world by providing them capital as a means to reinvent their lives.

The reader at this point may wonder, what is different about the things that this man has done. Surely the banks provide credit to the people, and at much lower interest rates, than that charged by the Grameen Bank? (Grameen Bank charges 20% interest on the principal). However, while the part about the interest rates is true, the Grameen Bank (GB from hereon) provides loans without the need of a collateral. And this is where the catch is. Commercial banks are not ready to provide loans to any person or organization without having sufficient guarantee that the person withdrawing can repay the loan.

Yunus studied the poor around his university and came to the conclusion that while they were talented and hard working, their inability to hold capital was what was holding them back, apart from being exploited by local money lenders.

After several futile attempts to convince banks to lend money to these people without collateral, the author, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, started lending money. He designed a system whereby only those who have no property are able to take loans. Women are specifically targeted as empowerment of a woman typically means empowerment of her entire family. Women can be eligible for loans only after they have formed a group with four other women who would all be responsible for each other. These women then have to pass a test whereby they must know and practice the Sixteen Principles of the bank which they are expected to follow. Chief among these rules is the fact that they will educate their children.

Once these women are able to take out loans, the peer pressure from the group ensures that the loan repayment is high. Also, since most of them are daily wage labourers and cannot go to the bank, the bank itself comes to them. Every week, a GB representative cycles to the villages and collects the weekly repayments.

The GB model has also been replicated in many developed countries including USA and Norway. While the above countries do not lack money, the initiative has freed people in the former country from the bondage of social security (a system which the author is critical of, since it does not allow people on welfare to break free and look for employment opportunities), and social integration in the latter country. In Norway, women on an isolated island were provided capital so that they could manufacture traditional items while the men were away working.

Apart from providing poor people with capital, the author also attacks the institutions providing aid (like the World Bank) by doubting their methods. The author argues that the very fact that these people are managing to survive without access to capital means that they have some skills. Rather than teach them new skills (which the aid programs try to do), their existing skills should be leveraged. Also, rather than viewing credit as a means to alleviate poverty, it should also be viewed as a means for social change and integration.

Muhammad Yunus through his work has inspired a generation of young men and women to help him in his mission to change the lives of around 2 million of GB members.