Saturday, 25 February 2012

Book Review: Scammed: Confessions Of A Confused Accountant

A book by an Anonymous writer, with a title such as "Scammed - Confessions Of A Confused Accountant" - is a book most of us would be attracted to, given the spate of revelations that has kept the media busy and working overtime! It also conjures up images of numbers, balance-sheets, convoluted cross-holdings and such like, given the word "accountant" in the title. So it was that I picked this book with a combination of eagerness and doubt - I was frankly in two minds, more so since the previous two books (Akbar and Tamasha) were fabulous - and I didn't want to break the run! But I was in for a pleasant surprise, as the book exceeded expectations, turning out to be refreshing light and quick read!

Your first impression on picking up the book is the slick binding and superb cover - sleek elegant and stylish. Rarely have I seen a book that is so stylish. The binding is excellent but firm, and the font used is simple and very easy to read. All in all, it is a stylishly finished classy product. This does deserve special mention - and the publishers (Grey Oak Publishers) have really done a great job. It will stand out among its peers in a book stall, that is for sure

The Main Characters
Hitesh Patel - Not as confused as he is claimed to, or seems to be!
Payal - Surprise Package!
Sushma - An Attractive Package!
Venugopal Reddy - Wants to make a killing!
Varun Rao - "Capable" Head of marketing of Super Cabs, if you get my drift!
Saahil - Rises fast up the corporate ladder - using a rope (or anything else he can) to move up!
Mr & Mrs Patel - Want their son to succeed, period!

These are supported by a variety of supporting staff - GS Rao, Mehta, RV Suresh, Mohan Babu - the evil villains from Supreme Motors; Mahinder, Sohail, Rajesh: Die-Hard supporters of our anti-hero

The character of Hitesh Patel takes shape very early in the story, and is exceedingly well defined and well developed. He comes across as someone you can identify with - a capable person, not promoted in his career, with a yearning for the high life; a person with a relatively weak will combined with a sharp intellect - thus susceptible to pulls and pressures. A person who thinks, nay knows that he is as good as his boss and wants to prove himself to himself, and to his family. This character-sketch is further buttressed by his family, who constantly nag and needle him as to his career. It is noteworthy how the supportive cast- his parents and colleagues and acquaintances have been used to develop his character. This is central to the story - for this explains Hitesh's character, his willing collusion in some matters and the compromises he agrees to make for success

Payal, on the other hand, stays largely in the background and grows slowly in stature; she comes across as a solid dependable person that everyone would like. Payal warms your heart, and you feel for fer...  Then there is Varun Rao - rough, can and will use any trick in the book, a maverick person utterly without scruples; Venugopal Reddy - wants to exit both Super Cabs and Supreme Motors and make a killing in the process - and never mind about bulls & bears & sebi & sensex & legalities, thank you very much; These are the 4 principal characters around whom this book revolves, and who shape the story

I have just one grouse here: while Hitesh, Varun & Reddy have been well developed, Payal and Mahinder have been left underdeveloped. I personally felt that the Author could have developed Payal a little more - this would have added a lot more substance to the story, while not taking away from the pace too much. 

The Plot
This story is about a bitter young accountant working as an auditor in an audit firm. The start of the story - with the annual performance appraisal coming up; Hitesh expecting a promotion - only to find someone else with contacts has made it - captures your attention. To the credit of the Author, once the guy has your attention -he keeps you riveted to the story, which takes a rapid and racy pace from that point forward. To cut a long story short, it is a page turner! In this phase it has everything that will grab your attention - the fast-thinking and street smart "friend" who does any- and every- thing to become your boss; office politics et al. This sets the background for the story, as well as defines Hitesh and his character. 

Hitesh comes across a fleece operation in a company - the failing Supreme Motors wherein 4 "gentlemen" are taking the company for a royal ride. In highlighting this to the management, he puts in an idea of a Cab Service. Supreme Motors, with outdated models, could supply cars to the Cab Service, which would create a market for the Auto Maker. This idea is liked by the management, who see in it a chance to push up the stock prices and thus make a killing. Hitesh is taken on as CEO to run this "operation", and driven to scale up very fast. The fast scaling up is critical to generate orders for the Auto Maker, improving its order book and this its market prospects. 

Thing go wrong since the 4 villains in the piece -a few of whom having lost their jobs and their ill-gotten gains as well, the rest smarting from the insult, are forgotten. One of those who retains his job is on the staff of the new Cab Service, and in an increasingly stronger position - being the marketing head, and responsible for all the lovely orders that Supreme Motors need. He seems to have it made - but they (the villainous 2)  are, however, waiting for a chance to strike back.... and when it comes, they strike back - bringing the house of cards crashing down!  The rest of the story deals with how Hitesh loses everything - and is indeed faced with arrest. Does he strike back? Or does he go scot-free, especially since he is also responsible for the scam, having turned a blind eye to many irritants and outright violations? Read the book for that!

At times, you do get a feel of the plot being a bit far-fetched: would the normal auditor have thought up a business plan - especially an auditor who is under extreme pressure not to investigate the company too much? A man who is under deadline pressure and working a tight schedule? Would an accountant have the knowledge to not only dream up an Idea, but also implement it in today's competitive market, attending to franchise issues, talking with franchise, making advertising suggestions and plans? Or would the villainous 4 have been able to pull off the audacious fleece operation at Supreme Motors? But again, such is the pace that these doubts vanish almost as soon as they arise!

The Analysis
As you turn the last page, you get a sense of satisfaction at a logical ending. A split second later, Mr Brain - the soft gentlemen who resides in your upper story - kicks in with a different assessment; the Author could have fleshed out the story a little more by developing Payal, by giving a few more details about the scam-in-the-making, about making the transition from accountant to CEO more believable, about the inter-relationships. Still, you decide that you have had a great time, and shrug Mr Brain off - for realistically, had the Author fleshed out the story, he would have had to compromise on the pace of the story. The objective was to tell a racy, fast-paced story and going into relationships or gory scam details would decidedly have slackened the pace. Best of all, the book does not give you the time to make any value judgements about the actions of the central character in the story - before you get to judgements, the story ends "almost" logically. (Shant spoil the "almost" with an explanation: find out in the book!)

All in all, a good book that you can finish off in a couple of hours on a Sunday or on a journey!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Tablet Device Market: caution rules for now...

It is nice to see a semblance of balance echoing through the Tablet Device majors now... a sense of sanity if you will. There seems to be an increasing realisation that the Indian market is based on different factors, and requires almost a paradigm shift in approach. This can only augur well for the entire trade - customers and employees alike, companies and stakeholders alike. 

History has proven that India's telecom market has grown along an entirely different path in comparison to the established markets of the west. For example, here the advent of pagers and mobiles happened almost simultaneously. Further, within the mobile space, there was heavy - almost cutthroat - competition, which placed intense pressure on pricing. The combination of the 2 factors drove the pager industry into the ground. The intense competition has forced the players to innovate constantly, which resulted in lower prices at the customer level, as well as a variety of devices especially in the lower price ranges. Again, the 2 factors working in tandem served to push up mobile penetration at an almost unheard-of pace.

A similar scene is now emerging in the latest battlefield in mobile / telecom space - the battle for the tablet market. And an early return to a sense of balance, a realisation of the tremendous challenges that lie ahead is a definite sign that the industry is becoming attuned to the realities of the market. For one, the initial euphoria of the tablet''s potential to replace the PC (!!) esp the notebook, seems to have given way to cautious optimism, and a more strategic approach. Far too obviously, given the Indian Market realities as well as the limitation of  a tablet device, the Tablet was never going to replace a notebook. As I had earlier argued with reference to low-cost tablets (, tablets as a product class can only be a secondary device to a smartphone and a laptop / desktop. As a primary device, a Tablet holds relevance only in the low-cost segment, where people in need of computing power  can have access to a device which is within their reach. Sample this: you can assemble a state of the art system with top-notch components at 20000-25000 approx, which is lesser than a premium tablet! Even branded systems are now available at comparable ranges. 

The moment you talk about a comparison to a PC or a Laptop or even a notebook, you have to compare the superior functionality offered by the notebooks etc with regard to its more comfortable user interface, which is much larger in size. The comparative ease of operation with regard to a keyboard input is another additional point in favour of notes and laps. The presence of large resolution screen is a powerful and core feature, which cannot be easily duplicated on a tablet. Secondly, the ease of operation of a full keyboard is a decided plus. These 2 factors go to the core of a user's experience of the product, and are a very significant barrier that will have to be overcome. It is easier to view  snaps on a large screen, as well as more fun, for one. Next, it is far more functional and easy to create documents and enter data on a full keyboard as opposed to a small pint-sized add on keyboard / touchscreen keyboard. And finally, there is the durability factor. Interestingly, this set of differences has both perceived as well as factual parameters. In other words, you might make a highly durable tablet, for example - but convincing the large majority of users of the same is quite another matter altogether. 

The more developed markets are a different market in terms of some core realities - the penetration of devices and technology, user awareness of technology, frequency and purpose of use, possession of multiple  devices by an average consumer (a function of PPP) - and are thus very different. Given the above, it is only to be expected that there will be some users of laps / notes that find a tablet more useful and functional, and tend to prefer the tablet in addition to their PCs in place of laps. This will of course be dictated by their individual needs and lifestyles. Further, these factors also dictate that this niche segment will be  marketable segment in developed markets.  But extrapolating this to the entire market is being premature to say the least. There is bound to a significant number of consumers for whom the superior interace of the Notebook will provide more value, or will be more acceptable to them. Note that I use 2 terms here: value and acceptability.

Value deals with functions such as large keyboard, durability or screen size, which for some users will be critical - those who deal with large numbers of documents while on the move, for instance; or those who require to see snaps and images on large screens. The parameter of acceptability has more to do with the perceptual factor - resistance of customers to a new interface. Given this twin reality, it is obvious that there will be a need for both kinds of devices in the market. What is more important is the size of each segment and its pace of growth. In mature markets, tablets will a faster-growth segment: that is a no-brainer. But in the other markets, it remains to be seen which segment grows at what pace. And that is precisely why this new-found caution and awareness in the corridors of the companies in the market augurs extremely well, for now instead of  a headlong rush, we are bound to see products with a value proposition involved for the customer; products that have been designed for a specific target audience with specific strategies over the short, mid and long term!

A battle that is going to be fun to follow... as as well as a great teacher to all of us!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cigarettes... An invitation to Death!

Cigarette Smoking is injurious to health… a statutory warning that appears on every packet of the death – stick… Death Stick? {} Well all of you agree that I am right, that I am sure of. But exactly how? And what are the effects? These nuggets of information are always couched in friendly terms – something that I do not agree to. So, my contribution is given below, a no-holds-barred brutal statement of bare facts.
Smoke is inhaled through the mouth, and goes into the lungs, where nicotine is absorbed by the blood and reaches the brain in 7 seconds approx! Yes, just 7 seconds. And no, nicotine is not the only evil involved as you shall note below. {This is for advocates of low-nicotine cigarettes}. And a further no: cigarettes are not the only source of nicotine, there are other household sources - they are only the most potent sources; the other sources are not harmful. And an even further no, I shall not delve more into the other sources as they are a subject unto themselves! The difference is in the method of intake: the cigarette sources bypass all functions and directly reach the bloodstream.
In the brain, nicotine increases the levels of Dopamine, a chemical that attaches to receptors on neurons in the brain when they “fire” {medicos to ignore this gross simplification}: just like cocaine. Yes, cocaine. The only difference is that cocaine replaces the dopamine in the brain – which nicotine does not do. And THAT is the reason why smoking causes better concentration, a feeling of pleasure and contentment. {In cocaine addiction, this is at a higher level, a stage akin to euphoria}. The similarity of the impact of nicotine and cocaine is a subject of research, and there exists a good deal of information in relation to this. 

In due course, the brain adapts to higher concentrations of Dopamine and probably leads to an increased number of receptors. That is why the craving for a smoke happens: the levels of Dopamine can only by supplied by a shot of nicotine! 
Hydrogen Cyanide 
Carbon Monoxide {The leading cause of death by asphyixiation} 
Hydrogen Sulfide 
The complete list will include more than 4000 chemicals! While some of these chemicals are very “esoteric” and complex, all of us have seen a few in our daily lives: Tar is found on road surfaces and Carbon Monoxide is the leading cause of death {asphyxiation} in cases of fires. Ammonia, too should ring a bell: remember the foul-smelling substance in our science labs? Formaldehyde: well, recall science labs again for specimen samples… need I say more? 
There is not a single part of the body that goes scot – free from the effects of cigarette smoke. The list will include:  
  • High Blood Pressure 
  • Heart Disease 
  • Pulmonary Disease 
  • Vascular Diseases 
  • Stroke 
  • Impotence 
  • Respiratory Infections 
  • Ulcers 
  • Cancer 
  • Skin wrinkling 

There are other impacts… but this is not a medical lesson, just an attempt to contribute to the anti-smoking campaign. If I can influence even ONE person to stay away, I will have succeeded in my endeavour! 
I could, for instance point out that cigarette smoke contains 60 known carcinogens, or that it obstructs the cilia in the alveoli in the lungs. Or, take the fact that nicotine is a known insecticide, and is known to cause constriction of arteries as well as increase the heart rate. Or that CO {Carbon Monoxide} attaches to Heamoglobin more than 200 times faster than Oxygen, and causes narrowing of arteries, Blood clots, Loss of reflexes etc. Or that the concentration of CO in smoke is twice that in car exhausts. Or that it takes upto 24 hours for the CO to leave the system. Or that one packet of cigarettes in equal to more than 200 mgms of tars! Or that Smoking even interferes with the action of certain medications! Or that…. 
The list is long, very long. Too long for this forum. But why am I saying this? Because of you? Why should I care? I don’t even know you! But YOU should – for your own sake, as well as for the sake of those around you. I do not know you, who you are, who is your family… but YOU care. You care about yourself, your family and friends do. Quit for their sake… 
AND, if you don’t, then kindly don’t smoke near non-smokers: as I haven’t even begun the lecture on second – hand smoke! You want to die – go ahead and die. 

(This was first posted on, my earlier blog effort @

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Book Review: Empire Of The Moghul - Ruler Of The World

This is Book-3 of the series Empire Of The Moghul, focusing on Akbar and his life

About The Series
This series is about The Mughal Dynasty - its origins and genesis, growth and lifestyle. The genre of the book is historical fiction. For an understanding of the concept and genre of historical fiction. please refer:
The Plot
The book opens with a newly-crowned 14-year-old Akbar, and deals with his growth from a dependent unsure and relatively naive young king into a self-reliant and confident young emperor. This part has been dealt with very well, and the focus is on the young king's thoughts, impressions and mistakes, the slow but sure alienation with his mentor Bairam Khan and the reason's thereof, his relations with / expectations from / treason by Adham Khan - Mahamanga etc.This has a very material impact on the later part of the book and Akbar's overall character. Of note is the way he grasps the tenets of kingship, his legacy and the role of the principal family members in this phase of his life. You can actually see the development of Akbar in front of your eyes, and begin to relate to the boy-king and understand his various actions

The book then moves onto his early adulthood and various conquests and challenges. Here the Authors' are in their element, with superb coverage of battle-scenes and strategy - especially the siege of Chittorgarh. You could actually visualise the battle playing out in front of your eyes. Fatehpur Sikri has also been dealt with very well indeed and in full details. If makes for  fascinating reading - the selection, planning and implementation of the magnificent town and each individual building. This phase also deals with the young Akbar - his women and his wives, his lifestyle, his marriages and the birth of his children - especially the birth of Salim - the future Jahangir and his early years. The part of his early upbringing is very pertinent to the later part of the story, as Salim's nature and views are shaped very early on in life - something which proved to be of paramount importance later on, as both the book as well as established history proves

The last few chapters of the book are exclusively about Prince Salim - his frustrations, his wayward tendencies, his passions, his hobbies and his mistakes. This seeming divergence from the main theme is actually a central aspect of the story itself, as I shall cover below. Akbar, in this phase, is a grandfather, and concentrates on his grandchildren - which, in due course of time, causes worry and jealousy in Salim - and this very materially impacts the story and the resultant events later on in life. The slowly growing rivalry between Khusrau and Salim has been superbly brought out, and makes for enthralling reading.

The Review
It has to be remembered that this is historical fiction, and not history. So, first of all, let us clear one aspect- the missing Birbal, The name Jalaluddin, the 9 Gems and so on and so forth. One has to remember that this book deals with a ruler who, alongwith Ashok The Great, is considered to be one of the 2 greatest rulers of Indian History, and one of the most celebrated Emperors of World History of all time. Quite obviously, in order to create a story with flow and pace, one would have to pick and choose what to focus on and what to ignore., This is not a history lesson - but rather a story based on Akbar. It is true to history and is accurate in the depiction of the various historical figures and events.  But Akbar would have had a very rich and detailed life - one that is also well documented, and filled with quite a few achievements and happenings. The Authors have chosen a story line and an objective - and stuck to it right till the end.

The chosen storyline is the personal life of Akbar the man, and his growth into one of the most celebrated Emperors of documented history, his governance style and tolerance, and his rule. It is not about the Mughal Empire - it is about The Ruler Of The World - as the title quite clearly states. It chooses to focus on Akbar the man rather than his empire. This is indeed a great choice - for from a fiction story-tellers point of view, Akbar had a singularly mundane life. King at 14,steady growth into a celebrated ruler, 3 children, 3 grandchildren, numerous victories and then... oblivion in the form of death. How do you create a winning fiction story out of that?  In order that the story does not lose reader interest and appeals to a large cross-section of the audience, you would but-naturally have to have a focal point and direction. Any events that do  not lie along the focal point and the chosen direction will have to be ignored. The main question is, - have the Authors' succeeded in portraying that era and the story powerfully enough so as to keep the interest throughout? Answer: Undoubtedly, yes. It is a superb enthralling book with   a great story, superb characterization, nice pace, lovely, controlled but explicit emotions and great narrative.

The Characterization
We have been brought up on a staple diet of Akbar- tolerant, humane, far-sighted. This is also a historical fact. Then we had Mughal-e-Azam and Jodhaa-Akbar, with especially Jodhaa Akbar potraying him as sugary-sweet and gentle - a characterization that does not quite gel with the overall times he lived in. The Akbar in this book  is, by contrast, far more believable especially in the context of the Mughal Era. He is tolerant, a liberal in terms of religion, far-sighted, humane, a great administrator and ruler, well loved by the people- but at the same time he is also authoritative, firm, absolutely in control, cruel at times, egocentric in some ways, undecisive in personal matters... this is not too far from our image of Akbar. Further, it helps to develop a better understanding of the man behind the Emperor.

Jahangir is a study in contrast. Because of Akbar having been betrayed by just about everybody except Bairam Khan and his mother, he (Akbar) grows up not trusting anybody, and in full control at all times. Salim is the son of the Powerful Akbar - always under his shadow. This is reflected in Salim' character.. indecisive, unsure, under-confident, always proving himself - both to his father as well as to himself! This also gels perfectly with our knowledge of Salim, hence it sounds logical and is easy to digest. Further, this also develops the central character, since we now connect Akbar's early experiences with his behaviour, and relate to his central worry - who will carry the legacy forward?

Hirabai (The Rajput first wife) is hateful, negative and completely out-of-character. This portion of the story is perhaps the only place where the authors' have not been fully convincing - especially their personal moments, the unconvincing surrender has not been handled too well; her character has also been left under-developed. This is the only jarring note in an otherwise superb novel, especially as it goes completely against our general understanding of that character.  Hamida Begum - the mother - is a very astute, shrewd and balanced person, and has been well developed in the story.

In Summation
As a history book - superb insofar as it takes you into that era, helps you to visualise that era and understand it. You begin to get an appreciation of the administration in those days, the inevitability of conflict, the roots of the desires etc. As a novel - in a class of its own. A racy page turner... a must read!

Friday, 10 February 2012

| Video | Man run over twice by trains - India Today

Graphic Footage - viewer discretion recommended! Disturbing video!

Insaaniyat Kahaan Hai? 

aapas mein gham baantein jo ham phir na rahein aise sitam
kahane ko hum insaan hain ... vo insaaniyat kahaan hai
jaago sone vaalon suno meri kahaani

A man gets run over by a train - these things happen, unfortunately. What doesn't happen is people gather around him - but no one helps him. A second train comes by and runs him over...  Police has been informed - turns up late. Ditto Ambulance. But no one helps this poor guy - and he dies... stomach turning!

And get this: the media is crying out loud - why did no one help him? Will someone tell me why the person shooting the video did not help this unfortunate soul???? What was the videographer doing????  Who took the pictures? And people are blaming the ambulance and the police... what were we, the people doing? A shocking all round display of a total lack of humanity! Where are we heading? Insaaniyat kahaan hai????? To all of you reading this: take a minute from your respective busy lives and think for a second... where are we heading? Insaaniyat kahaan hai????

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Bhagat Singh vs Sobha Singh: You Decide!

This is an old post; to the best of my knowledge, this plan has since been dropped since I have not read anything about it since this article linked above from The Indian Express

Amazing act of brilliance and insensitivity on the part of the "honourable" Government of India.. apparently, they are intending to rename Connaught Place after Sardar Sobha Singh - the man who gave evidence against shaheed-e-azam Sardar Bhagat Singh.....

This is carrying things too far - naming of an important landmark after a person is a great honour, and not to be taken lighly. As it is we are in the habit of naming everything after Nehru-Gandhi, instead of deserving people. Cant we think of any other, better candidates - Homi Babha, Mother Teresa, Major Dhyan Chand, MF Hussain, JRD Tata, Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel etc etc- the list can be literally endless!

Read wiki, and it gets more and more interesting... he was knighted by the British... and this is the guy you want to commemorate! Sick, that's what it is. Why should anyone show patriotism when they dont even get the honour afterwards? Not only that, the people due to whom they were caught are commemorated - both by the enemy as well as by friends! What kind of message are we giving out to the public at large? I dont ordinarily air political views on this blog, but this is too much - the Congress is doing the nation -and the memory of the one freedom fighter who has become synonymous with bravery and the freedom struggle - a huge disservice. Are these gentlemen who are currently in charge doing any good????

These are the words of a person who was once an ardent Congress supporter. The list of scams, misgovernment, idiotic decisions, inaction on the policy front are already on the verge of driving me away.... this act of crass stupidity and abject insensitivity have forced me to give vent to my feelings. You are honoring a person knighted by the british in 1938 - the same person who gave evidence against the freedom fighter the british called enemy no 1. The connection is obvious. Let us put this in the proper perspective- Rabindranath Tagore returned all british honors when he understood their intentions, Sobha Singh - at least from records available to me - did not return them, indeed accepted them with alacrity. Who is a genuine patriot? Are you the Government of India or some other place? Words fail me... they are doing all they can to self-destruct, it seems. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Book Revew: The Case For India - Will Durant - 1930

For every Englishman who came to India with original  thought, there were 10 who were incapable of original thought, and 100 who were capable of only original evil; Satyagrah was known as passive resistance: nonsense - there was nothing passive about it - Shashi Tharoor 

Shashi Tharoor has covered the ground with these 2 brutally frank lines that indict the british; Jaswant Singh far more detailed, as he examined in scholarly detail the divide and rule policy and the eyewash of governance; Versaikar detailed the 1857 reprisals in Jhansi by the british in an eyewitness account; Bipin Chandra covered some of it in his book on independence; Nehru gave in vivid detail the systematic destuction of the Indian People.... All  the above are Indian writers; nearly all are great thinkers and patriots (Versaikar was a simple citizen who wrote an eyewitness account). None has covered the brutal destruction that charactarised colonial rule in vivid detail...  this is where the current book - The Case For India written by a famed American Historian, Will Durant scores

"This was not the destruction of a minor civilization produced by an inferior people. It ranks with the highest civilizations of history, and some would place it at the head and summit of all - like Keyserling.... when the british cannons attacked.... the hindus surrendered at once lest one of the most beautiful creations of mankind be destroyed. Who, then, were the civilized people? (The Hindus or The English?) The British conquest of India was the destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principal, overrunning  with fire, sword, bribery, murder a country temporarily disordered and helpless"

"India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or Asia, producing textile, Metal works, Jewelry, Precious Stones, Pottery, Architecture. She had great merchants, businessmen, ship building - nearly every kind of manufacture known to the civilized world was already in India"

The book describes in graphic detail the atrocities of the so-called "civilized" Britishers (refer definition below!!!!!) in the chapter "The rape of a continent". The difference is that he has quoted numbers and figures; unassailable facts and laws that graphically illustrate the systematic destruction of all kinds of local enterprise. For example, produce was taxed at 50%; the documented fact that tax rates rates were the highest in India across the world; Sample this:

"The fundamental principle of the british has been to make the whole indian nation subservient... they have been taxed to the utmost limit; the indians have been denied every honor, dignity or office".... F J Shore testifying to the house of commons in 1857

"Under their dependence on the british - Oudh and Karnatic, 2 of the noblest provinces in India, were plunged into a state of wretchedness with which no part of the Earth has anything to compare" - Lt Col Brigs, 1830

"The Governments' assessment does not even leave enough food for the cultivator to feed his family" - Sir William Hunter, 1875

"The Rajahs had taxed the people much less severely than the british.... "

"The national debt of India rose from $35,000,000 in 1792 to $3,500,000,000 in 1929. These figures tell the tale"

The book is littered with such graphic details - all taken from western, and primarily british sources. It examines how the economic fabric of the country was destroyed, how for example its textile trade was wrecked; its impact on the prosperity of the nation. It also examines the specious claims of education improvement - there were more schools in India before the advent of the civilized british; how the number of schools diminished and were discouraged;   It looks at the now-famous example of the british gift of railways - in the USA, railways were used largely for goods transport, whereas in India their function was for the imperial class travels; It examines how every activity of the british - right down to the bullets used to suppress revolts were exacted from Indians; It looks at the wages paid to Indians; It details tariffs of 80% on Indian products as opposed to zero tariffs on british imports; "The result was that Manchester and Paisley flourished and Indian industries declined. India was transformed into  a purely agricultural country, and her mineral wealth was not explored; artisans etc were forced to live off the land; no competition was to be allowed to English industries- Kohn". The book looks at the balance of trade,  which was heavily against India and gives numbers - hard core numbers of the draining of wealth from what was one of the richest and most civilized regions of Earth. It looks at how local schools were destoyed by the british; it looks at british salaries and how the wealth from India went to England through salaries and pensions - quoting hard core numbers

So far, the book has dealt with what is largely unknown to us. From here, the book moves into familiar territory, and examines the powers of the so-called democratic institutions - the limited vote-bank; the powers of the british viceroy / governors etc to overrule the local bodies; how the local "elected" bodies had no powers; It looks at the divide and rule policy of the british, with separate voting for each community -issues which have been beautifully examined by Jaswant Singh, Bipin Chandra in their books, so I shall not dwell much on that point. 

Then there is the chapter of Mahatma Gandhi, which first gives an biography of his life till 1930; But even here you find priceless tit-bits: "the british connection has made india more helpless... politically and economically... no jugglery of figures can explain away the evidence of the skeletons in many villages... I have no doubt that England and the towns of India will have to answer ... if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity which is perhaps unparalleled in history - Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi"

Then it goes on to detail in horrific stomach-turning detail the atrocities: "hindus to crawl on their bellies in the street"; school-boys flogged in public; prisoners bound with ropes and kept in open trucks for 15 hours; poured lime on naked bodies; cut off electric supplies to hindu houses; airplanes to drop bombs on labourors; The perpetrator of this very civlized, decent, morally consistent, gentle behavior was retired on a pension; exonerated; public supporters- all civilized, no doubt - raised $150000 as support... "there was not one bullet wound in the back - each bullet had struck home in the chest; not one Indian ran; there was passive submission in the highest forms of non-violence"... The brutal, inhuman retaliation of the british, for which they would very likely have been hanged in their own country, made the passive resistance movement one of the bravest, most active forms of struggle - a struggle unlike any other anywhere on Earth. 

"I felt my skin creep and my hair stand on end as I saw those brave men... testicles crushed... body battered and broken... chest battered... every one whom I talked to gave the same stories of fiendish beating, torturing, thrusting lathi in anus, dragging.... what has become of the English Honour... English Justice - Miss Madeline Slade"

A book that is a must read for all Indians...

(Just to remind ourselves as to what being civilized means:)
civ·i·lized  (sv-lzd)
Having a highly developed society and culture.; Showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement; humane, ethical, and reasonable;  Marked by refinement in taste and manners; cultured; polished.

Pronunciation: /ˌsɪvɪlʌɪˈzeɪʃ(ə)n/
(also civilisation)
the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced; 
the process by which a society or place reaches an advanced stage of social development and organization.;

This book systematically de-constructs all arguments in favour of colonial rule and its advantages. First, India was formed by the british: let us qualify that statement - India was formed as a response to the brutality of the british (in fact, a cursory glance at Indian history - and world history - will reveal that India has been under one rule at least 4-6 times for long periods, and has flourished); Education: there was better educational set-up before the british - and modern education would have come anyway (it should be remembered that India was a massive power with trade links to the entire world - hence simple logic dictates that eventually, modern techniques and methods would have come to our borders!)  just as smelting, musket making, and various other techniques found their way to our nation. It similarly destroys all supposed advantages and exposes the morally corrupt nature of the Raj, which in its nature was the very antithesis of the claims to civilzation that were professed by its practitioners. 

And lastly, this book brings home the fact that among all the ancient civilizations, the Indian civilization stands as the only civilization to have survived all through history - virtually unchanged. We were there during Babylon, we were there during the time of the Greeks, we were there when Rome was at its height,  we were there when Europe was rising... and today,we are still present... with the same culture, same ethos, worshipping the same Gods as we used to 3500 - 5000 years ago, eating virtually the same kind of food... virtually unchanged. We are indebted to the pain of our forefathers, the tortures they bore, the indignities they went through - just so we, their children, could breathe free and with pride, justifiable pride in order that a new, modern India can be built. We owe it to them to make India truly modern, forward looking and progressive, strong - economically, socially and militarily. It is a book that will shake you to the core, brings tears to your eyes and leave you speechless. No wonder, then, that this book had been banned in the UK!

11th February
An internet interaction with a gentleman of opposite views has just made me realise how bad our history education has been... people- Indians - just do not realise what British rule meant; and actually regard it as a boon! I wonder what they will say to the sacrifices of Gandhiji, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak etc! Not only that, they are laying all the blame on Indian shoulders - and pointing to the current rampant corruption as evidence, totally ignoring the advances we have made since Independence in every sphere of life - take the example of Famines - all they have to do is compare famines before and after Independence! I am heartened by one fact, though - I have met a large number of Indians with views similar to mine, and with knowledge of our past that is much better than mine. Sometimes I wish we could make the British return the Koh-i-noor, ask them to apologise for their deeds (which they have never done - and some nations have for their misdeeds) and so on and so forth. Then I remember my teachings - forgive and move on. But forgive does not mean forget! 

Monday, 6 February 2012

Book Review: Tamasha in Bandargaon

The ultimate test of the quality of a book is simple: if the characters tend to stay with you after putting down the book then you can safely bet that the author has penned a story of quality - one that has binding power, with superb characterisation and a nice flow in the plot. And the current book - Tamasha in Bandargaon - has all of that, and more... it slowly grows on you and grapples you, ensnares you in the storyline very much like a creeper vine clutches a tree! (Sorry Navneet - could not think of a more apt description)

Tamasha In Bandargaon is penned by Navneet Jagannathan. He works for an FMCG major, and writes in his spare time. This is his first book

 About The Reviewer
Why? Simply because opinions on each book depend largely upon the interests, intellect and understanding of the reviewer! I wanted to underscore this point simply to highlight the quality of the book under discussion. I am a person who loves to read primarily Thrillers, Indian History, Indian Development, Historical Fiction - point is, the current novel does not fit anywhere on this list. If this book can convert a person of my readng habits to this genre of fiction, then there must be something to it, simple as that. It struck me as being different,  and so I went in for it. I was attracted by two promises: firstly, the simplicity and the setting of the story, and secondly the promise of humour. And the acid test: would I spend my money for it? Answer: Yes, I would.

The Main Characters

  • Chagan: Is he good - or is he bad? 
  • Vinayak: Is he good - or is he bad?
  • Shalini: Shines through with her resolve and her maturity
  • Sitaram Sajjanpur: Politician to the core- but with a coherent agenda

The Supporting Starcast

  • Suresh Borkari: Careless, Carefree, but committed
  • Seema Borkari: In one word - she impresses
  • Shambhu: Gunda. No other way to put it!
  • Lakshmibai: Strong, sure and balanced
There are others who appear in the story - Shimpi, Sultan, Miranda, Geeta, Ramlal, Mhatre - but all serve to push the main stories forward. I could not identify even a single out-of-place character in the book. Quite an achievement for a first time author! Also note my presentation of the cast: much like it would appear in a movie review. Such is the power of the narrative.

Of note here is the way the characters of Chagan, Vinayak, Seema, Lakshmibai, Sajjanpur are developed. The quiet maturity of Seema, the purpose of Sajjanpur and his commitment towards the public as a politician, the doughty obstinate but thinking nature of Lakshmibai, the decency of one suitor as opposed to the anything-goes-and-everything-is-fair-in-love of the other... (Who is who? Is Vinayak the decent guy -who tries to save Shalini from the rough Chagan? Is Chagan the decent guy? Read the book!) And especially, the character development of Shalini- subdued, firm and tough. Each character has been thoughtfully developed, and carries the story forward.

About The Plot
This book revolves around a fictional suburb of Bandargaon in Mumbai, and focuses around the residents of Bhavani Nagar and the nearby slum area of Shankarpada and is supposed to be a series of short stories. Please note: I said supposed to be. What unfolds in reality is one continuous story, wrapped around a series of episodes in the daily life of Bandargaon. The beauty is in the narrative of the main story (or rather couple of main stories) that are told alternatively, or sometimes after an interval of a story, rather like an entwined wire - or to use my previous metaphor, creeper vine. What slowly emerges in front of your eyes is a motion picture, a kaleidoscope if you will, of the suburb of Bandargaon. You begin to relate to the characters, understand them, empathize with them, relate to their emotions... At the cost of  repeating myself, quite an achievement for a first time author!

The first main story revolves around Chagan, Vinayak and Shalini: who gets the girl? Who does Shalini finally wed? Chagan, Vinayak - or someone else? It is the eternal triangle with a couple of twists, narrated in a simple uncomplicated style, bereft of melodrama. No crying, No I-love-you's, No marry-me-please here. No tear-jerking bidai scenes, or any direct villian here. A superbly controlled and mature saga of two people who want to wed, and the problems they face. It all comes across as very real and practical. The choice is between Chagan - rough, runner of a tea stall and a gambling den yet decent, with only a mother; a person who has grown up the hard way; and Vinayak - simple, with a local father - and - mother at Shankarpada - a family man, decent. At least it seems that way. Then you get to see negative shades of each character...  this is the primary story that runs the course of the book.

The next main story is about the local MLA election - Sitaram Sajjanpur who has come to visit Bandargaon with the sole agenda of resurrecting the fortunes of the NWP and ensuring that they win their first election in years. Hi son-in-law is Suresh Borkari - his travails as he tries to win over his father-in- law's approval make for thrilling reading... and then you have Seema Borkari - the one character who shines among all others for her unflinching support to Suresh, for her non-compromising attitude on her ideals while not upsetting the family atmosphere even where her ideals are directly opposed by the actions of her family.

These main storylines run parallel to the short stories - stories of Sultan and Miranda's quarrel, of Geeta and Lakshmibai, of Geeta's unsuccessful love story, of Ramlal the Dhobi. This creates a visualisation of the people, of Bandargaon, of its chai shop, its laundry, its vegetable shop, the lanes - thus creating a kaleidoscope in your mind. These stories in a way serve as the backdrop that enhance the telling of the main stories. The book stops being a simple fiction story that concentrates only on the main events and the main stories - the sub-plots lend substance to the book enabling you to relate not only to the characters but also to their environs and the people around them. The overall impact of this approach is to  engender a connect with the story, the characters, the atmosphere and bring to life the entire suburb in front of your eyes - and further enable you to understand each character. 

Eminently readable and recommended - it is great for light reading. It is a quick read, is told in simple fluid language with simple sentences, straightforward and subdued in its prose. As regards humour - there is subtle evidence of humour in the book - not too much, but just enough - such that it keeps your attention riveted to itself.  At no point does the book diverge from its subdued, controlled style. I cannot cannot think of anything to criticize in the book, except perhaps the author has left some loose ends - that is some stories that could have been wrapped up - Miranda's story; Geeta; The slum water problem; Sunrise Apartments election etc... perhaps the author has left it for a follow-up or a sequel. I certainly hope so... I want to know how it turned out for them. All in all, a great light read!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Online Retail: The New India- A layman learns something new...

Online Retail... frankly, only a few months ago I would very likely have thought of it in utter disdain - not for India; long way off; etc etc etc...

One fine day, I got a mail in my inbox - A voucher offering 2 mocktails at Barista @ 99/- (or some such); Pay Cash On Delivery. I was surprised, and frankly tempted- COD. No security issues, I thought. Unfortunately, I still did not make the connection, and put it out of my mind as a sales promotional effort undertaken by the host organisation. Well, as it turns out, gmail (or any other mail for that matter) had other ideas, it seemed. A few mails from other such examples later, I cottoned onto an online site stating Pay Cash On Delivery! Hold on a minute, I thought. What's going on?

To my mind, and to be honest - to most other people's mind, the biggest stumbling blocks to increased penetration of online retail in India lay in the low penetration of Credit Cards / Debit Cards, Low Consumer Awareness, Resistance towards and distrust of online payments due to security issues / doubts. In one masterstroke, 2 of the objections stood removed, thereby unlocking a potentially vast market. This experience brought my mind to an article by the redoubtable David Aaker:, wherein I had expressed my reservations on the following grounds - namely,  payment gateways, trust, time, touch/feel factor and safety.The COD system deals with 2 of these, still leaving trust and touch/feel factor.Our conversation is given below:

Vishal V Kale 10/23/2011 08:46 AM
Hi David...

Interesting Article, and food for thought - there is no doubt about that. The twin combo of smartphones and e-retailing is indeed interesting.  Even 2 months ago, I would very likely have dismissed your article as new - world stuff, and applicable only in the new world etc etc - this, despite being quite adept at, myself a user of,  and well versed with -  the latest developments in Technology. Even so, I still have my reservations. 

But first, the plus point: About a couple of months ago, we decided to visit out ancestral town in Ratnagiri. (I am an Indian residing in India). Ratnagiri is about 240 kms south of Mumbai (Bombay). While planning for the trip, we decided to do a google search of the town and the hotels (It was our first visit in my 39 years). To our surprise, we found a very detailed representation of the same. Not only that, we were able to book tickets for a local AC bus service, obtain hotel reservations in a mid level hotel - all from the convenience of our home. This is a case of a small district in Maharashtra, India. The penetration of technology is indeed rapid just about everywhere. Lesson: if you are not on the internet, you may indeed be missing business...

However, your article is more about commerce through the internet, and harnessing technology in a more powerful way. I still have some reservations about that: payment gateways, trust, time, touch/feel factor and safety. While technology can be a powerful search tool - like, searching retailers over net, contacting them and checking availability (something that we do as a matter of course nowadays), making payments over the net is still associated with a high amount of risk in a customers' perception. Then there is the trust, touch-and-feel factor and safety which go hand-in-hand together in a customers' purchase decision. So while we may see a major shift in some categories - like books for example ( esp when combined with pay-on-receipt ), I very much fear that a large scale shift is not going to take place anytime soon - and maybe never. 

Quite simply, there will always be a category of products where these 3 factors will still be critical. As to the rest - it has already happened. With the exception of Grocery, we already harness the power of the internet on a daily basis for our purchases with the objective of searching options. I would like your opinion on these thoughts that have occurred to me...

Vishal V. Kale
 Like   Reply
David Aaker 11/11/2011 01:52 AM in reply to Vishal V Kale
Vishal, you are correct to be spectical,  the checkless society 50 years later is still not here.  However, there is data showing that the effect I discussed is occuring.  The extent to which it penetrates is still unknown and it might end up being less than earthshaking

My thoughts were on the lines that the time gap in receipt of product, combined with the fear of in-transit damage would be a significant stumbling block for online commerce. Additionally, the lack of touch-and-feel and the attendant inability to compare products and features as well as experience them personally would still ensure a muted response in a large majority of product categories. There would, of course, be a significant impact in categories like books, or some gift items where the above 2 factors do not play that significant a role. The other major factor in favour of online retailing is the price differential - companies are able to pass on price savings garnered by by-passing the entire distribution chain to the online retailer, which means cost savings for the consumer, and price becomes a pivotal advantage - and indeed - a USP for this format.

Online retailing, is however, also beginning to make inroads into other product categories. I have seen people pick up consumables like printers refills etc for their home computers, other gadgets - and today, I learnt of one of my personal relations' intention to pick up a couple of durable products online. This is an interesting change, and has major implications for business as a whole in India, and is bound to grow as the penetration of computers and smartphones in India increases. The twin combination of complete product information and convenience, in addition to price savings, is ensuring its steady penetration. Perhaps the most critical aspect of this is that this is one trend that does not have boundaries - the likelihood of an online transaction will be equal in the metros and non-metros of India. While today, the scenario will per-force be skewed towards the metros, I see equal growth coming in from the tier-2 cities as they bridge the awareness gap, and as purchasing power increases.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which this trend penetrates... in the words of Mr Aaker, "Vishal, you are correct to be spectical,  the checkless society 50 years later is still not here.  However, there is data showing that the effect I discussed is occuring.  The extent to which it penetrates is still unknown and it might end up being less than earthshaking" Yes, the change is happening - that is indeed true. If you add to this scenario the power of a smartphone (whose penetration is going to be far greater than, as well as grow far faster than computers) , as argued in the article, then the potential is indeed tremendous.

Add to that the final clincher - the same levels of loyalty and conviction are shown by consumers who are habituated to the new mode of retail as compared to traditional purchase behaviour. These consumers do not do it as a one-time action; rather it is a time saver and a convenience for them. Why should I spend time shopping around, when I get it done at my own convenience is the common refrain of these consumers. (Yes, price is not the most important factor in their criterion - they are the creamy layer of society; they are also aware of and used to technology). We can safely draw a conclusion from this: that there is now a core set of consumers who have crossed the novelty-factor threshold, and are hooked to it for the value addition it gives to them. There is another learning here: how many people- consumers, if you will - are there in India as of today, who fit the bill? Among this target segment of well-heeled (to use a layman term), educated class, what is the percentage of penetration? Certainly not 100%; perhaps not even 40% is my take. And even 40% may be stretching it. For the rest of the market - traditional models of retailing are still paramount

In conclusion, I can now understand the Brand Guru's statement, as well as articulate my own doubts and position more lucidly: While the change is indeed happening, the extent and the speed of the change remains to be seen. Will it be a niche industry? Or will it topple the traditional models? If so, by when? Interesting questions... time will tell. It may turn out to be less than earth-shaking. But one thing is for sure, the advent of 3G, Smartphones, Online Retailing and its attendant strategies (Cash On Delivery, Pricing etc) are posing the strongest ever challenge to the traditional models... Let us see what the outcome will be. Time Will Tell... Time Always Does!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Book Review: Goodbye California - Alistair Maclean

"Goodbye California" is a rare book from the Alistair Maclean Stable - you will not find it available in most book stores. It might be available in the online stores, though. I had picked this book up  last year, read it and kept it away... my attention was drawn to it when I was  looking for a change from my usual genres.

How do you review an Alistair Maclean Book? Close to impossible, with each story being a roller coaster ride full of twists and turns. You cannot give any details of the plot - delve into it in any level of detail, and you run the risk of spoiling the reader's fun. In a review, you have to give the reader a reason to either pick up the book, or stay away. To do that, you have to peel away some of the story. And in the case of the present author, doing that requires a delicate balance and precaution as to how far you can go with your words. Yes, I am enamoured by the style of Alistair Maclean - let me admit that at the outset. Despite that, this is my first attempt at reviewing Maclean, although I have read nearly all of his books. However, in the case of this particular book, having read all of his books proved to be a distinct disadvantage, as the comparison factor kicked in, lessening my overall enjoyment of the book in hand. Perhaps that is the biggest drawback of being an author- your works tend to get compared with your best works, rather than on the merits of each individual work in a standalone mode. 

The italicized line above needs to be kept in mind by all Maclean enthusiasts and fans. If you are not a Maclean regular, then no worries- the book under discussion is a classic, an unputdownable page turner. Maclean specialises in suspense action thrillers, with the suspense being revealed a little before the end of the novel. Get that point: despite the suspense being revealed, the book manages to attract and keep your attention to the last page. That is the hallmark of Maclean, his signature style. The action and / or the suspense continues till the very last page. This book is no different. As usual, the plot is laid out the first few pages - and then the action picks up. 

The story revolves around a nuclear threat to California, as large amounts of Nuclear Material - Uranium - gets stolen in a daring daytime raid. Simultaneously, several highly qualified specialists and nuclear physicists are also kidnapped. At this point, the author makes his signature felt: the key investigator turns out to be a father-son combination whose family has unfortunately been kidnapped in the same raid as hostages instead of a top-level investigation by the official forces. The main drivers, contributor to the investigation are these 2 local policemen. We are treated to some good old-fashioned simple brainwork: how did the perpetrators of the crime have specific inside information? How and where did they escape so totally? The main protagonist is a sergeant on the local police forces who has very recently written a severe critique of the security measures at the nuclear plant, and is thus in an ideal position to investigate. This fact makes the whole plot believable, especially since the sergeant also has the greatest motive: his wife and daugher's security. The problem at hand is compounded by the rather uncomfortable fact that California is sitting on a major fault of the earth's crust, and is thus earthquake-prone. The criminals threaten to explode a nuclear bomb in the fault, this causing a major earthquake. In usual Maclean style, public fear is used to get this message across as the plans are made public on television

If you have not read Maclean before, or have read only one or 2 - go for it. This is a truly superb book, will keep you glued to each page and keeps the momentum going throughout. It sets a racy pace and maintains it, in classic Maclean style. For Maclean regulars - remember my italicized line above- judge each book on its individual merits. If you start comparing this with the Navarone series or the Golden Rendezvous, then you are going to be disappointed. On the other hand - approach it with an open mind, and you will find the Maclean stamp over every page: A racy pace, a protagonist from normal citizenry, a tight plot, action-filled suspense,  low on melodrama, edge-of-the-seat climax, a massive threat to peace, superbly organised and well-coordinated criminals and a believable plot. What more can you ask for? My verdict: Go For It! It is a great book!