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 me 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.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Book Review: The Winner's Curse by Dee Walker

The Winner's Curse is a political thriller about national ID numbers, power and greed. It narrates the story of how a group of IITians use their knowledge and networking to create a governance technology based on national ID numbers and how greed for power leads to their doom.

The story seemed quite interesting and topical. If you have been following current news for the last two-three years, you will be able to link and identify situations and people. UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) was launched in India with such fanfare in Feb-2009 and most of us have already obtained an AADHAAR card. The book also touches on the sensitive and controversial topic of governments spying on its citizens; something that Edward Snowden exposed quite shockingly to the entire world in Jun-2013. Also, the book's characters be it businessmen or politicians are easily identifiable as they seem to be inspired by real-life people.

The book's story moves across New Delhi, Haryana, Dubai, Bangalore, Dharwar and San Jose. It has an equal mix of businessmen (telecom moguls Harsh Mittal & Rajan Khosla), politicians (the Master), Govt. officials (Raghav Badhwar & Aravind Pandey) and activists (Kamal Pandey). There's also the Master's son-in-law Robbie who seems quite similar to a certain famous son-in-law quite in the news these days. Kamal Pandey's middle-class, activist image seems to be inspired by another 'Aam Aadmi'. Savita Bhambi, the influential PR person, reminds us of another PR lady who was in the news quite sometime back.

Though the book's primary plot is setting up a national identity number system and using that to set up a secret surveillance system, the plot does not begin to unravel till almost half the book is over. Also, the author has tried to include too many sub-plots as part of the book; this leads to there being too many characters spread across multiple locations. It tends to get quite confusing at times.

In addition to the primary plot, there is a civil activist who is trying to expose the business-political nexus; there is a mining scam in the state of Karnataka and there is an IIT JEE preparation coaching class.

All the central characters have studied at IIT – the country's premier educational institution. However, each person chooses his/her separate path towards achieving their goals – be it power, money, status or serving the people.

The pace of the book is quite fast befitting a thriller. However, since there are multiple characters, I had to go back and forth several times. Also, the intimate scenes/hints at them seem to have been inserted merely from the point of selling the book; they do not seem to have any connection with the story whatsoever.

I am going with 3/5 for this book for the way in which a topical story is narrated linking together disparate items. I only wish the author had restricted the sub-plots. Also, the editing is very bad; words and entire paragraphs have been repeated.

I was given a review copy of this book by the author.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: God Is A Gamer by Ravi Subramanian

Let me confess, at the outset, that I am a huge fan of Ravi Subramanian's books. His 'The Incredible Banker' remains one of my favourite books till date. I also happened to win an autographed copy of 'Devil In Pinstripes' in one of the contests on Twitter.

The blurb of 'God Is A Gamer' states: What happens when you cross gamer, banker, politician and terrorist with virtual money? From the bestselling author of If God Was a Banker comes the first ever bitcoin thriller. God Is a Gamer is a world where money means nothing, martyrs are villains, predators are prey, assassination is taught by the ancient Greeks, and nothing is as it seems. Moving from Washington's Congress to Delhi's finance ministry, the beaches of Goa to the corporate boardrooms of Mumbai, this is Ravi Subramanian's most gripping novel yet.

The premise of the novel is definitely interesting – a thriller that connects an ATM heist in New York with a website Cotton Trail which enables transactions in bitcoins to the addictive world of online gaming and the workings of multinational banks and the hacking risks they are exposed to. The story connects the murder of a senator in Washington with the suicide (?) of the CEO of a MNC bank in India to a hit-and-run case and laptop users getting burnt due to overheating of their machines. It is quite unusual in the sense that it moves effortlessly across seemingly disparate incidents and distinct locations (Washington, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Ukraine, New York City, Sangamner, Stanford, etc.)

The book is certainly a page-thriller and I finished it in almost one sitting; the chapters are shorter and crisper compared to his earlier novels and make for easier reading. I liked how he has incorporated into the story the tale of how Socrates died; I also liked the way John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' appeared in the narrative. All the characters such as Aditya, Varun, Tanya, Swami, Malvika, Sundeep,etc. were developed quite well with their mannerisms and intricacies told in a detailed fashion. Ravi has quite intelligently given the characters real-life names: Vijay Banga (President, Mastercard International) sounds similar to Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard; Aditya Rao (pioneer in banking in India) sounds similar to Aditya Puri, MD of HDFC Bank; Malvika Sehgal, CEO of New York International Bank could be any of the leading female bank CEOs in India currently – Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma, Kalpana Morparia, etc.

Ravi has done quite a bit of research while writing this book – explaining the intricacies and technicalities of bitcoins (digital currency which not many are familiar with yet) and online gaming (including advertising it on Facebook and the manner in which it generates revenues). However, sometimes it got too technical for me and I had to re-read entire paragraphs to try and understand what was being said.

I felt the author has tried so hard to write about multiple elements that it has become quite a mish-mash. At times, it became quite difficult to keep track of who was who and what role that person had played so far in the story. Combining so many elements into a single story meant that no story really grew on its own; it seemed as if all of them were stretched liberally to connect in the end.

Also, there were quite a few grammatical and spelling errors in the book. For instance on Page 36, the sentence reads as “It was only on her mother's insistence that had she come back to India in the intervening period.” The word deposition is misspelled as depostion on Page 196. On Page 219, the sentence reads as “She couldn't take her eyes of the glittering diamond ring.” Towards the end, it appeared as though the author was in a rush to finish the book – the last chapter seems to be written hurriedly, almost in bullet points-like sentences.

All in all, the book makes a good read but I would not call it one of the author's best works till date. Read it to enlighten yourself about the intricate web of online gaming, bitcoins and banks' security systems.

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