Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg

In The Power Of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change – author Charles Duhigg takes us into the thrilling and surprising world of the scientific study of habits. The book is an eye-opener into how habits change lives both of individuals and corporates. Though all of us know how difficult it is to form good habits and get rid of bad habits, this book made for some very interesting reading. A few examples of what I found fascinating throughout the book follow.

In one example of a man who had lost parts of his memory, one of the doctors makes a beautiful comment, “I saw how rich life can be even if you can't remember it. The brain has this amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone.”

Keystone habits” matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. They can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. While discussing these habits, the book talks about how they help explain how Michael Phelps became an Olympic champion and how Alcoa became one of the best performing stocks in the Dow Jones index, while also becoming one of the safest places on earth.

Duhigg states how routines are habits which we do without thinking. Habits create cultures where new values become ingrained. Small wins help create widespread changes, for example, keeping a food journal helps monitor one's diet leading to better health.

The book also highlights the power of social peer pressure in leading to worldwide movements. Most movements happen because of strong ties of friendship and weak ties of peer pressure giving protestors a new sense of self identities. A wonderful example is the protests against the race issues in the USA.

Another piece of discussion that I found interesting was the one on sleepwalking. Mark Mahowald, a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota and a pioneer in understanding sleep behaviours says, “Sleepwalking is a reminder that wake and sleep are not mutually exclusive.” There's also an interesting study conducted by a cognitive neuroscientist Reza Habib where he was particularly interested in looking at the brain systems involved in habits and addictions.

There's a fascinating piece of information on William James whose 1892 quote, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” features in the prologue. James spent 12 months believing he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change. He later wrote that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits.

Duhigg offers a four-stage plan to form or reshape habits. Identify the routine, Experiment with rewards, Isolate the cue and Have a plan. As the author says, Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it.

I hope now that I have read the book I will be able to at least change a few of my habits and, thus, change my life as many of the people mentioned in the book have done.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

My most read Top Ten Authors

It's a shame I have neglected this blog for so long. However, I hope to change that, starting today.

This post is inspired by

My most read Top Ten Authors are:

1. Paulo Coelho (6 books read) - He is one of my favourite authors after all. Though some people find him vague and a little too preachy, I think his books and stories are wonderful. And The Alchemist remains my go-to book for most situations.

2. Six authors are tied at place 2 with 4 books each - Dale Carnegie (the original self-help guru), Preeti Shenoy (one of the top selling woman authors in India), Chetan Bhagat (isn't his name itself enough), Ravi Subramanian (the John Grisham of banking), Jane Austen (bless her for giving us Mr. Darcy) and Malcolm Gladwell (think without thinking).

3. Eight authors are tied at place 3 with 3 books each - Mitch Albom, Khaled Hosseini, Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Ruskin Bond, Jack Canfield and Erich Segal.

As is obvious, there are no clear favourites when it comes to my most read authors - I basically seem to be reading anybody and everybody :)

But considering the fact that I am besotted with Vikram Seth (or more specifically, A Suitable Boy), maybe, just maybe, I need to push him to the top of this list. Followed by Haruki Murakami perhaps? :)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Rang De Basanti Album

When it released in January-2006, Rang De Basanti (RDB) became a cult movie almost overnight. Everybody, including me, was simply blown away by it. It had a very unique storyline, brought alive on screen amazingly well by all the leading and supporting actors. In my opinion, the music of the movie composed by A. R. Rahman had a huge role to play in its success. I am fascinated and love each of the songs for different reasons elaborated below.

The title song – Rang De Basanti – is a typical Punjabi song sung by Daler Mehndi & K. S. Chithra. I bet nobody can avoid tapping their feet while listening to this song. Both the lyrics and the music have a very North Indian feel to it.

The song Paathshaala turned out to be a total rebellious college song. Prasoon Joshi's youthful lyrics only added to its charm. Sample this: “Yaaron Ki Equation Hain Love Multiplication Hain”. It is very easy to time travel back to your college days while humming this song. It was shot at Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur.

When Madhavan proposes to Soha Ali Khan, Naresh Iyer chooses to croon the romantic and slow number Tu Bin Bataayein. It was shot in a spectacular location called Mughal Sarai, located about 20 kilometres from NH-1 []. I hope to visit it someday.

A. R. Rahman considers Luka Chuppi to be a very special song for him because it was the first time he had an opportunity to sing with Lata Mangeshkar. It comes at a very poignant moment in the movie; when a mother has to bear with the loss of her young son in a plane accident. Listen to it and you will find it difficult to hold your tears.

Khoon Chala sung by Mohit Chauhan is his first song with A. R. Rahman. It portrayed the angst of a civil society rising against the injustice faced by it quite well. Of course, I could be biased since I am such a huge fan of Mohit Chauhan!

And last, but definitely not the least, is Rubaroo sung by Naresh Iyer and A. R. Rahman. This song won the National Award for Best Male Playback for Naresh Iyer. The song comes at the fag end of the movie when the protagonists have confessed what they have done and heave a big sigh of relief. The song captures their friendship and their commitment to the cause quite beautifully.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is my first ever Murakami book. I was told that this is unlike any of his other books in that, it is only a 'simple love story'. But, what a love story it turned out to be! It was definitely not simple and certainly not predictable.

The book's title comes from a song by Beatles ( Before I picked up this book, I was not aware that there was such a song by the band. When the protagonist of the book, Toru Watanabe hears this song, he is transported back to his college days and his first love Naoko who considers this her favourite song. I identify with this sentiment; I am often reminded of someone or the other whenever I hear a particular song that I associate with them. The book is set mostly in 1969 Tokyo when Toru and his girlfriend Naoko attend University.

It is a story that every person who has ever gone to college will identify with – the conflict of emotions you go through, the dislike for a particular course you do not want to study, the tragedy of trying to fit in with your friends, university politics, and, of course, falling in love and trying to make sense of it. And Toru is no different. In the course of the book, he also meets the vivacious and extroverted Midori. It's a struggle for Toru who feels that he now has to choose between either of the two girls.

Murakami is a master storyteller and, for me, the book was an absolute page-turner. However, as much as I enjoyed reading about the main plot of the story (featuring the three protagonists), I also loved reading about Tokyo and its streets and the trains and the restaurants Toru and Midori frequented. Murakami was able to make me feel as if I was right there in the middle of Tokyo observing the events as they took place.

Also, as much as the book is a love story, it is also a story about dear friendships. Because without a dear friendship, can there really be love? And while one may eventually stop loving somebody, the friendship would still remain.

I loved how the book is set mainly in 1969; Woodstock happened the same year ( and one of my most favourite songs ever also happens to talk about the 'Summer of 69' (

It is very easy to love Toru who is as clueless as any other teenager on the cusp of adulthood. But he is sincere and caring and committed and quite serious when it comes to relationships. As Midori says somewhere in the book when she is telling Toru why she loves him, "You know the English subjunctive, you understand trigonometry, you can read Marx, and you don't know the answer to something as simple as that?"

Toru is a bibliophile; some of the books he mentions in Norwegian Wood include John Updike's The Centaur, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, William Faulkner's Light in August and Hermann Hesse's Beneath The Wheel.

I really enjoyed this book though I did feel equal parts depressed and equal parts angry in the course of reading it. But, I guess, if any book does that to you, then it is a well-written one. Go read it if you want to experience love and heartbreak Murakami-style; you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book Review: The Billionaire's Apprentice by Anita Raghavan

Image result for the billionaire's apprentice
I had been wanting to read The Billionaire’s Apprentice for quite a long time. Like many others, I, too, was shocked when the news of Rajat Gupta’s conviction in insider trading was announced by a US Court. What only added fuel to the fire was the fact that two Indian immigrants Preet Bharara and Sanjay Wadhwa were behind the conviction.

This is the first book on an insider trading case written with the aid of nearly fifty wiretapped calls. The author Anita Raghavan takes us behind the scenes of the entire insider trading saga – right from the childhood days of Rajat Gupta in Kolkata and New Delhi to his initial days at Harvard and his entry into McKinsey. His success as indicated by him being appointed the managing director of McKinsey three times is juxtaposed with his eventual fall when he fell prey to Raj Rajaratnam’s sneaky association.

As the book tells us, Rajat Gupta was quite a hotshot guy – he was close to Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries and was one of the few Indian executives who could get Dr. Manmohan Singh on the phone at short notice.

The book mentions the insider trading case in great detail including the various persons involved, their modus operandi, the rise and fall of tech industry and their stocks. The way the prosecution went about building the case going through tons of documents to piece together the evidence makes for interesting reading, especially for financial junkies like me.

September 23, 2008 turned out to be a red letter day for Rajat Gupta for that was the day the Goldman Sachs had its board meeting information about which was passed on by Gupta to Rajaratnam just before the stock markets closed. While we may wonder what led Gupta to keep on passing sensitive information, as respected and wealthy as he was, his actions may be explained perhaps by his quote during his speech at Columbia University in April-2004, “I think money is very seductive. However much you say you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”

The details of the trial are also quite interesting with the author bringing out Gupta's humane side and his family's reactions quite skillfully. According to Bharara, his rationale behind going after people involved in insider trading was that, “People with lots of money were trying to game the system.” Judge Rakoff disallowed testimony on Gupta's philanthropic plans, saying, “The annals of white-collar crime in this district are filled with people who wanted to make themselves respected, powerful members of society by giving to charity.”

The book is a must-read for those who are interested in reading about financial white-collar crimes. It is also a must-read to understand what made a person like Rajat Gupta, probably one of the most revered and influential Indian-Americans in the world, indulge in insider trading. When Rajaratnam was convicted, you do not feel bad or surprised because his persona was such. But Gupta exuded a different personality and, thus, his conviction affected everybody. The book stays with you long after you have finished reading it; I went on to read much more about the case and Gupta.

Random snippets I found interesting in the book about Rajat Gupta :)
  1. Rajat Gupta's wife Anita Mattoo was the only girl in a graduating class of 250 at IIT-Delhi in 1968.
  2. Subramanian Swamy, a well-known Indian politician, taught Rajat Gupta economics at IIT-Delhi
  3. Rajat Gupta was one of the youngest members of the Harvard Business School class of 1973 and one of three from India.
Random snippets I found interesting in the book that have absolutely nothing to do with Rajat Gupta :)
  1. Golf arrived in Calcutta in 1829, some sixty years before it reached New York.
  2. Governor-General William Bentinck introduced English as the official language for Indian higher education, a move that would have momentous consequences a hundred years later.
  3. Narayana Murthy's son could not get into IIT to study computer science so he had to go to his safety school, Cornell University.
  4. McKinsey has its roots in a company founded in 1926 by James O. McKinsey, a certified public accountant and University of Chicago professor.
References to literature in the book:
  1. Rajat Gupta's most remembered drama performance at IIT-Delhi was his role in Jean-Paul Sartre's searing existential drama Men Without Shadows.
  2. Rajat and his wife Anita acted together in a Hindi adaptation of the Moliere play The Miser.
    On his study table at Harvard, Gupta kept a tattered piece of paper which read, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep – Robert Frost.”
  3. The Guptas named their first daughter Geetanjali after the Nobel Prize-winning epic written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
  4. Anita Raghavan's mother came to the United States in 1959 for an internship at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Additional reading for those interested :)

Note: I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher Hachette India.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I came across this book quite by chance while randomly browsing some other books on the web. The title of the book caught my eye as did its blurb – a mother and a son jointly read books together and then discuss them, at a time when the mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have very long to live.

To say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book would be an understatement. Firstly, the premise itself is quite unique and nothing like anything that I have read before. Secondly, it is a book about books – it is quite liberally sprinkled with all the books that the duo read for their 'book club' with their varied observations on it. As a bookworm and a bibliophile, I could not be more thrilled. Thirdly, we often do not read about a son talking so passionately about his mother; there are several instances of a father-daughter and a mother-daughter bonding.

When Will Schwalbe learns that his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he does not know to react. But he decides to turn to books. As he mentions, “Books reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person.” They form a book club where they frequently exchange books and discuss them.

What I found fascinating while reading the book was that Will's mother, Mary Anne, was a perfect example of 'Lean In', much before Sheryl Sandberg coined the term. She was the first female director of admissions at Radcliffe and then Harvard. She also headed a girls' school in New York. In her 50s, she started helping refugees around the world visiting war zone places like Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burma, etc., eventually founding the Women's Refugee Commission. She also helped raise money for a national library and cultural center at Afghanistan's Kabul University. Basically, she achieved what most of us can only hope to achieve in bits and pieces.

Through the 'book club', Will and his mother were not just reading and discovering books, they were rediscovering themselves as well. Will notes, “I was learning that when you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time. Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favourite books without thinking of her.” I completely agree with Will on this point. I just find it wonderful how we build memories as we read books. And don't most of our relationships have as their foundation a common love for reading?

During one of the book discussions, Mary Anne said, “Every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge. When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same things: books.” She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose is the greatest entertainment and also is how you take part in human conversation.

The book also touches upon a very important point, one that Atul Gawande is now making with his book 'Being Mortal' – end-of-life care. This focuses not just on managing pain but also on helping patients and their families maintain the best possible quality of life throughout the course of an illness. Towards the end, when his mother realized that any treatment would only reduce her quality of living, she chose to be home with a caring nurse amidst her books and her collection of pottery surrounded by her family.

Though you know right at the beginning what the end is going to be, I would still urge you to read this book. It fills you with a sense of hope and a sense of wanting to do something with our limited time on this planet. Mary Anne's life should inspire all of us; her warm nature, her deep involvement with society, her commitment to her family and friends, her passion with reading different genres of books and her belief that, at the end of the day, kindness begets kindness. With this book, I would like to believe the author Will Schwalbe has paid a perfect homage to the memory of his mother.

As an aside, I came across an interesting tidbit as I read the book. Will's sister-in-law Nancy was commissioned by the second-richest family in India to do a giant mural for the ballroom of the house they were building in Mumbai, which would be the tallest private house in the world. For those of us who stay in Mumbai it is not very difficult to imagine who that family could be. For the others, does Antilia ring a bell?

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

I picked up this book with a lot of hope and excitement. I have been fascinated with France, and particularly Paris, ever since I started learning French from the 8th grade. But the book disappointed me. It is, not as I expected, about the many walks through Paris and the author's personal favourite. It is rather a collection of observations the author has about Paris, only some of which are related to him being a flaneur.

But, that is not to say I did not enjoy the book. It does mention tidbits about Paris and its literary inheritance which a lot of visitors may not know about. The author, who lives on rue de l'Odeon boasts of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company run by Slyvia Beach; Slyvia lived in the author's building where James Joyce often visited as did Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. So, one may say, John Baxter is quite qualified to write about Paris and its walks from a literary angle.

The author mentions that Paris belongs to its pedestrians. He quotes the writer Edmund White who wrote, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail.” If the Paris of pedestrians has heroes, notes Baxter, they are Georges Eugene Haussmann (who got people back on the streets in the late 1800s) and Andre Malraux (the minister of culture).

Before the author came to Paris, he lived in Los Angeles which had “persuaded him that going anywhere on foot wasn't just unusual but downright unnatural, even illegal.” He mentions Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” set in a future Los Angeles where nobody walks. The only man who defies this custom is hauled off by the Psychiatric Center because “Who but a madman would walk for pleasure” I would tend to agree. On my travels to the United States, I have observed that nobody walks, not even in the suburbs. People drive down to the nearest park and then take a walk there. The US is certainly not a country for flaneurs in my opinion!

The author also mentions that since nobody walks like the French, they are the people who have raised the political walk to near perfection. Parisians grow up with the promenade, or stroll, as a natural part of their lives.

Baxter gives some interesting tidbits about the various metro stations in Paris, at least I found them wonderfully fascinating. Pont Neuf, nearest to Le Monnaie, displays old coinage and an ancient hand press. At Concorde, each tile bears a single letter, as if for a giant game of Scrabble. At Varenne, nearest to the Musee Rodin, full-size replicas of his Thinker and statue of Honore de Balzac rule the platform. Louvre-Rivoli station is elaborately decorated with facsimile Egyptian status and other antiquities.

During the course of the book, the author takes us through some amazing anecdotes about Hemingway's life; he takes us underground Paris's streets where the catacombs lie; he talks about the fascination painters have with the city; and how the French really love their food.

At the end of the book, he also gives some tips to visitors. I found the following ones interesting:
  1. A true French cafe breakfast remains one of the great pleasures of life in Paris.
  2. Paris's twenty arrondissements spiral out from Notre Dame, with something interesting in each of them.
  3. Paris's rare-book market takes place every weekend on rue Brancion in the fifteenth, in what used to be an old slaughterhouse.
  4. Afternoon hot chocolate at Proust's favourite cafe, Angelina.
  5. Climb the famous stone staircases of Montmartre around 5.00 a.m. or take the little cable car, buy coffee and rolls, and eat breakfast on the terrace below the Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur.
Though the book did not live up to its title, I did enjoy reading it and the various little pieces of information it offered me in terms of its past inhabitants and how they came about to shape and build the city as we know it today. Rest assured, when I do visit Paris, I will be taking this book along with me if only as a kind of a tour guide.