Posted in book review, thriller, travel

Tales of Polar, Desert and Sea Explorations

There are few men in history and almost none alive today, who can be compared in the same breath as Sir Ranulph Fiennes. For those who are hearing his name for the first time, Sir Ranulph is one of the best polar explorers in the world, in addition to being a writer and a poet. I first read about him when I was reading something about Antarctic expeditions and the more I found out about him, the more respect I had for the man. But like him, my thirst for knowledge and understanding was not quenched, and so I decided to read his autobiography- Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. The unusual sounding title is how he was referred to by his father-in-law when he asked his daughter’s hand to marry him.

The book begins with an account of the author’s childhood-the death of his father in World War 2 before he was born, his childhood in South Africa and how he dreamed of someday commanding the Royal Grey Scouts, which he ultimately did. After graduating from university (where he was taught German by John le Carre, the famous author), he served in the army of the Sultanate of Oman, and once his commision expired began looking for alternative employment opportunities. What followed was a series of expeditions in Canada, Transglobe (where the team started from England and went to Antarctica, the Arctic and back to England over a course of three years, travelling entirely on land and sea), the Antarctic expeditions and countless others. But the one expedition that I was really impressed by was the 7*7*7 marathon challenge.

Ranulph finishing a marathon
Sir Ranulph completing a marathon

In 2003, just three months after suffering a heart attack and undergoing a bypass surgery, Sir Ranulph completed 7 marathons in 7 days across 7 continents. While most of us only dream about running one marathon, this sixty-year “young” man completed seven over a period of six days actually, taking into account the different time zones. And in addition to that, the sponsors had one more condition-each marathon must be completed in under six hours, which both Sir Ranulph and his partner managed to do.

Sir Ranulph writes the book in a no-nonsense style, meaning if he doesn’t like someone, he will say it. And that is what makes this book so interesting. Readers expecting high drama and adrenaline pumping action will be disappointed. The author does not glorify himself or the expeditions, rather he simply states the facts, his preparation, the journey itself and finally the outcome. Towards the end of the book, the author described his failed attempt to climb Everest and successful one to climb the north face of the Eiger.

Sir Ranulph climbing the Eiger

Ginny, the author’s first wife features predominantly in the book. He described her as a rock in his life, taking care of all the planning and communication for his expeditions, in addition to managing a farm in his hometown. Her death due to cancer affected the morale of the author, but he subsequently remarried.

Having raised over 10 million pounds so far for charity, the author pens down his “wishlist” at the end of the book, where even at the age of seventy, he wants to plan and go for a few more expeditions in order to reach the magical figure of 15 million pounds.

After the release of the book, the author succeeded in his third attempt to climb Everest and thus became the first man to cross both poles on land and climb Everest. When one journalist asked him about his plans for retirement, he joked that he would never retire as he thought playing golf and bridge are ways to reach an early grave.

There are many things that one can learn from this man and his book, no matter what your profession. Never give up is the foremost lesson. Strive hard to achieve what you want, and ultimately you will get it. And lastly, age is just a number. If a man in his sixties can run seven marathons in seven days barely three months after having a double bypass, we in our twenties can finish at least one.  

Hovercraft expedition across the Nile
Posted in book review

Book Review: Riot-A Love Story


Riots and India have something synonymous with each other. With a population of over 1.3 billion people belonging to different religions, speaking different languages and following different customs, tensions are bound to flare at one point or another. There are many incidents which make the “normal” citizens like us cringe even at the thought of it. When one of India’s popular singers tweeted that he did not like being woken up by the sound of Azaan early every morning (Azaan is the Muslim call of prayer, the first of which takes place around 5 am), a minority leader offered anyone who shaved the singer’s head a sum of INR 10 lakh (around 15,400 USD). Then there is a recent case of a film called Padmavati, based on the life of a Rajput queen. Even before the film’s release, the Rajputs have started protesting and offering anyone who cut the lead…

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Posted in book review, thriller

Book Review: Riot-A Love Story

Riots and India have something synonymous with each other. With a population of over 1.3 billion people belonging to different religions, speaking different languages and following different customs, tensions are bound to flare at one point or another. There are many incidents which make the “normal” citizens like us cringe even at the thought of it. When one of India’s popular singers tweeted that he did not like being woken up by the sound of Azaan early every morning (Azaan is the Muslim call of prayer, the first of which takes place around 5 am), a minority leader offered anyone who shaved the singer’s head a sum of INR 10 lakh (around 15,400 USD). Then there is a recent case of a film called Padmavati, based on the life of a Rajput queen. Even before the film’s release, the Rajputs have started protesting and offering anyone who cut the lead actresses nose a hefty sum of money, stating that filmmakers have distorted history in the movie. This comes at a time when the film is set to release in the county and almost no-one (apart from the makers), have seen it. This sense of holding the country hostage and getting your way in everything is what is halting the march of the country on the path of development.

Shashi Tharoor bases his book Riot-A Love Story in such a similar setting. The book, written in 1989, is set against the backdrop of a riot in the town of Zalilgarh in India. The author portrays the location as a typical small Indian town where people are not too educated, but everyone takes religious matters seriously.

Priscilla Hart is an American medical student at a university in New York and has come to Zalilgarh to educate the women about reproductive health. Her association with the country is not new. Falling in love with India as a young child when her father was the head of Coca-Cola in the country, she sympathized with the Indian poor and wanted to make a difference in their lives, particularly the women. She felt that if Indian women were educated about contraceptives, they would bear fewer children and thus have more control over their lives. Apart from Priscilla, the District Magistrate of the town-Lakshman and the Superintendent of Police are the two main protagonists. Trouble brews when Lakshman and Priscilla fall in love with each other. The author weaves a simple narrative out of the two storylines of the love story on one side and the brewing tension between the Hindus and Muslims on the other side. The Hindus want to destroy a mosque built on a sacred Hindu land and want to build a temple on the site. Matters come to a head when clashes erupt between Hindus and Muslims and as an act of revenge against Lakshman, Priscilla is killed.

The author tells the story from the first-person narrative of all the main characters-similar to what we see in The Song of Ice and Fire books (Game of Thrones book series). The book is gripping because each of the characters thinks that he is telling the truth and that all his actions are justified. From the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, this book is nothing short of a masterpiece. Shashi Tharoor once again takes the readers on a ride, at the end of which they will be forced to think about the state of their country in retrospect.

Although written almost 30 years ago, many of the situations depicted in the book still ring true. Most of the towns are still dusty and polluted with an erratic power supply. Communal tensions can still lead to riots in any city with a comparable Hindu-Muslim population. It is high time that the country starts to think about these issues.

Posted in book review, travel

Tales of African and Amazonian Exploration

Exploration and the desire to reach the most uninhabitable places on earth was always and still is, the fascination of explorers around the world. Since the 1850s, the world wanted to know more about Africa and the Amazon. One of the most famous questions burning through the minds of explorers was regarding the Source of the Nile in Africa and the presence of a lost city in the Amazon, fabled for its riches. These were the topics of my reads this month. The first was Into Africa: The Remarkable Story of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard and the other was The Lost City of Z by David Grann.

THe lost city of Z

Into Africa deals with the adventures of David Livingstone and more importantly, the search to find him when he goes missing. Like most explorers of his era, Livingstone was a man fixed on his purpose, which can be gauged from the fact that his 21-year-old son had only seen him for 5 years of his life. His life was dedicated to only one thing-finding the source of the Nile. The discovery of the source was a challenge captivating the hearts and minds of the British explorers. Into Africa talks about this challenge. The book also mentions the previous efforts undertaken by Burton and Speke, but the main protagonists are Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and had undertaken two expeditions previously to Africa. What made him more famous was the fact that he was a commoner and not an aristocrat as all the other British explorers were before him or at that time. He went into Africa to spread the gospels about Jesus but found himself captivated by the land and eventually with the questions of the Nile’s source. So, he set out in 1867 to finally find the answer to that question. His disappearance and ultimate discovery by Stanley forms the crux of the book. In a way, the book and the story give us the lesson that once we set our minds to a task and go about it with diligence, we will succeed eventually. Even though Livingstone failed in finding the source, he made numerous discoveries which led to people getting to know more about the continent from his journals and writings.

Similar to Africa, there was a myth circulating among the British exploratory circles that the Amazon was once a host of a vast and rich civilization. Though many doubted that an isolated land could harbour such a complex civilization, the evidence was overwhelming enough to point to the affirmative. The city was called Z and the search for it by British explorer Percy Fawcett Jr in the early 1900s forms the heart of The Lost City of Z. The author of the book David Grann retraced Fawcett’s steps as part of his research and ultimately succeeded in finding the lost city which had eluded the explorer.

Both the books are easy reads and make you appreciate the hardships that the early explorers went to help us understand all that we know about these lands today.

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Book Review: Elon Musk-Inventing the Future

“I think there are too many smart people pursuing Internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.”  

It is the period of 1970s-1980s in South Africa. Apartheid is at its peak and a brilliant young kid has just started going to school. However, the school doesn’t interest him that much. Although he enjoys subjects like Maths and Physics, he is subjected to constant bullying at the hands of his classmates, and that torments him. And the situation at home is not too good either. His parents have divorced and he is mentally harassed by his father. If that is not enough, his country is practicing the policy of apartheid wherein he regularly sees the black people being discriminated against.

This was the sort of childhood that one of the greatest innovators of our times-Elon Musk-grew up in. Detailed in the book by Ashlee Vance, the author describes the events that helped shape the thinking of Musk into doing what he is known for today. Interested in computers and software, Musk taught himself coding and developed a video game at the age of 12 which was featured in a magazine and gave the world a first glimpse of the talent that was to be. Years later, not wanting to be drafted into the South African military, he used his mother’s Canadian ancestry and emigrated to Canada, with the hope of getting into the USA, which he believed was the place that was the solution to all his problems.

Musk always had the ability to see opportunities in places that other people do not, Vance writes. After graduation, he started Zip2 along with his brother and later founded, which later merged with PayPal. Believing that man is not a one planet species, he founded SpaceX to establish a colony on Mars by making space travel cheap. Pioneering the concept of reusable rockets, SpaceX aims to bring the launch price to about a fifth of that of other companies (60 million USD v 350 million USD). The successful tests of Falcon rockets have brought that dream closer to reality.

He started Tesla motors (the name is a homage to Nikola Tesla-the developer of AC technology) to revolutionize car travel, the same as he did for space travel with SpaceX. He faced many detractors, with politicians and scientists he admired and respected openly saying that subsidies provided to electric and hydrogen cars were not worth it, apart from having no faith in these technologies. But the success of Tesla cars proved all that wrong.  

Musk faced many challenges-both personal and professional-while starting and running these companies. But he never gave up. Vance analyses some of the characteristic traits of Musk that resulted in him being so successful. Apart from having the innate desire to do some good in this world, Vance also points to the turbulent childhood that Musk had in South Africa that made him socially awkward and thus pushed him deeper to “nerdy” stuff. Also, these experiences made him tougher and less likely to give up, something which has been echoed by his brother and mother alike.

After reading this book, I watched some of Musk’s presentations and interviews on YouTube. A recurring question posed by many to him relates to what makes him do the things that he does, and if his failures ever make him think about giving up. Without displaying any emotion, Musk replies that he never gives up, and the only way he would not do something he liked is if he was “dead or completely incapacitated.”

While I think, Musk is a bit extreme in his work (working upwards of 16-18 hours a day), I still believe the most important lesson we can learn from this book and his life, in general, is to never give up. Vance beautifully explains the rise and rise of Elon Musk right from his childhood to the present scenario, talking the readers through the formation of Zip2 to the work at SpaceX and Tesla now. This is a must-read for everyone who admires the genius that is Elon Musk.    


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Short Story: The Dream

One of the first short stories that I wrote. Read it when you have the time and please leave your feedback.


Nikhil dreamed a dream.

Nikhil opened his eyes. He was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the room reserved for death row convicts.  This room, unlike the others in the jail, had a fan. It seemed like a cruel joke to Nikhil on the part of the jail authorities to give him such privileges just as he was to be executed in a few minutes time. His other cell, the one he had called “home” for the six months that he was in jail, did not even have a window. And in the heat of the capital, the stay was unbearable.

From the jail, he could not even make a petition for bail; he was a “threat to the society and the general public”: the words of the judge as she had given her judgment. And then had come the final crushing blow: he was told yesterday evening that the…

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Book Review: Origin by Dan Brown

Dan Brown is one of the authors that I hold in high esteem. The Da Vinci Code was his first book that I had read, and it fascinated me. Never had I imagined that a subject as abstract as art symbols would make a compelling mystery, let alone a bestseller. But I was proven wrong. After the Da Vinci Code, I moved onto his lesser known work- Digital Fortress. Angels and Demons was next, and this book for me cemented his place as one of the best authors in the world currently. His handling of Christianity and its symbols, along with the setting of the novel in CERN and the Vatican made for a brilliant book.

The Lost Symbol is where it all began to go downhill. The infallible Dan Brown-one who could do no wrong-suddenly appeared to have a chink in his armour. Inferno was his second failed attempt. The novel failed to match the success of his previous works, and the movie did not work much either.

Origin-his latest book, released on the 3rd of October and I immediately picked it up for reading. The start was promising. I particularly liked the use of analogies made by Edmond Kirsch (the science-geek protagonist), when he goes to meet the religious heads on a mountain top (“Moses climbed a mountain and restored faith in people, and I am climbing one to destroy it”). Like all of his other novels, this one too takes place over the course of 24 hours. It is his fifth work featuring the famed Harvard Professor Robert Langdon and as usual, he finds himself in a spot of bother when Kirsch (One thing I found funny is that Kirsch is a denouncer of religion while his name Kirsch seems derived from Kirsche which means Church in German) makes a presentation in the Guggenheim Museum in Spain which could shatter the foundations of religions, but is killed midway. What follows next is the usual cat and mouse game, where Robert Langdon and Ambra Vidal-queen consort of Spain find themselves racing across Barcelona trying to broadcast Kirsch’s presentation to the world.

However, unlike the Da Vinci Code, this seems like a work that has not been thought about much. The plot never picks up (never even thickens for that matter) and you begin to wonder midway through the text whether Dan Brown has lost his art. Entire paragraphs on the description of places seem to be copied from Wikipedia and every new place that Langdon visits is either “awesome”  or “breathtaking”. The allusion to the mickey mouse watch of Langdon still continues and climax ends too easily for my liking and I believe also for those who have read the book.

But the book is not without its moments. The presentation by Edmond Kirsch where he tries to answer the two fundamental questions of life (Where do we come from?; Where are we going?) is nothing short of a masterpiece. The novel has questions about faith at its heart when technology becomes more intelligent and starts taking over our lives.

Although Dan Brown’s storytelling ability is not much to speak about in this work, trying to answer the questions about faith and technology is no mean task- one that he has done reasonably well.