Book Review: The Billionaire Raj

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded AgeThe Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book based on rave reviews and strong recommendations in certain websites. I wasn’t aware who James Crabtree was until I bought the book and checked out his super-strong credentials. This topic on Billionaire’s ruling India could have been picked by none other than the author himself. Written during an expat stint in India, while living in the most posh neighborhood in the rich city of Mumbai, he certainly was a “star”journalist and it was obvious from the interviews he managed to get from otherwise reluctant super-rich billionaires of India who don’t see any reason to be chatty with journalists of all people.

This book has grammatical mistakes in certain places. Not good coming from a powerhouse journalist and publishing house. James Crabtree starts with a dramatic Bollywood entry – a story of a crashed Aston Martin, and of course enough hints to show who was behind the wheels and the subsequent cover up by Asia’s richest man and business family. Everything else about the book is a drag on the reader. The author showcases the wealthy, describing their physical features (especially being fascinated by the puny little form of the billionaires of India as if that somehow mattered!?) and of course talking at length about their lifestyle. The little information he shares about what these billionaires did to create controversy, be it the exorbitant bank loans or favors from politicians, is just restricted to already available standard newspaper information. There is nothing investigative about an author who comes from an investigative journalistic creed. Maybe he was also bitten by the Indian bug of passive, judgmental, biased, superstar-image-conscious religion of journalism in India!?

The book is however entertaining to read as James Crabtree is still a good writer. If he wasn’t a “foreigner”in Indian shores, his understanding of the highly complicated economic-socio-political landscape of India would have been just stuff that could be huffed and puffed away. It is certainly impressive to see how the author has learnt so much about the dynamics of power play in India although I wouldn’t neglect the immense help he got for it from people he has acknowledged towards the end credits. But, what was he chasing beyond saying that Billionaires could ruin the fabric of the country? His long prose on the dangers to liberal democracy, cronyism and rising social divide are as old as the young nation- India. With nothing much to offer than just saying that banks were blind to giving loans after the economic reforms of 1991, no names of bank officers or politicians or bureaucratic babus revealed, it is at best a run of the mill emotional saga just like a boring Bollywood super hit movie.

In order to possibly compensate for this lost soul in the book, the author turns his attention with the usual libertarian flair of being on both sides of the fence while attacking the target on the right side of their personal wrong, and launches a two chapter attack on the ruling BJP party (since 2014), almost attacks the Congress party (left of center party) and more particularly on the Indian PM, Narendra Modi. It is easy for even a high school dropout to call out the vagaries of the politician, pracharack and prime minister that Mr. Narendra Modi effortlessly keeps switching between on the Indian landscape. Depending on how much you love or hate him, you can pick your choices from the vast buffet of choices he offers. The author is obviously baffled by this thin character and thick skin of India’s politicians. He chooses to see more of it in the PM and worries at end towards the fact that not much has been happening for the good of the country. Good for him, but the author also knows that India is a land where a day for Lord Brahma is the equivalent of a thousand years. What you can achieve as a nation in five years comes with timelines that don’t have an end date.

The author loses the plot the moment he becomes political in his commentary. What is this Billionaire Raj beyond a few businesses exploiting the situation? This is in no way as draconian and massively stupid as the socialist license raj of the past (and present) that was actually a political axe that landed blunt blows on the head of every Indian for more than sixty years. James Crabtree was inspired to call his book after the license raj (which he is also critical of) but the Billionaire raj is in no way a transition of the political movement in India that governs its people. It is a bad side effect and the author is quick to reveal that it almost ended and got killed once Narendra Modi came to power.

Overall, this book could have been a better potboiler. What about all the billionaire politicians in the spectrum of political parties in India and their “business-regulation” influence? This is by far more dangerous and exposing this link beyond a few references does a disservice to this genuine threat that the country faces. Even here, the author chooses safe names to reveal like mining baron Janardhan Reddy and others. Maybe the expat within him wanted an amicable exit from the country he seemed to love much without ruffling too many feathers.

Two stars for the impressive effort of James Crabtree to tackle a subject that others care not to talk much about. He does come out as honest in his opinions. But, that in itself doesn’t make this a bold effort to expose anything in India as some people have claimed the book does. Summarizing news reports of others and having inconclusive interviews with India’s billionaire businessmen doesn’t cut it. The country needs more journalists who are not verbal spatting goons of the billionaire raj. Maybe this book was meant for them to come out of their safe houses? Only time will tell.

View all my reviews


Indian Tales: So, what did you do over the weekend?

“So, what did you do over the weekend?” Mike asked, as a matter of fact.

It was one of the top questions from a standard list asked by Americans on a Monday morning in office. It is not asked with a serious intention of really knowing what you did over the weekend. It is just a question asked to make sure it has been asked. I loved such questions. It helps you to have a conversation with someone that you otherwise don’t have much to talk about. You can even ask this to someone you hate!

But this particular question always made me nervous. When you live in California, the weekend question is all about who you are! You are a software programmer at Google. Doesn’t matter. You are the Vice President of a startup that is making millions every week. Doesn’t matter. It was your weekend answer that made you. It couldn’t be made up. That would have been easy. It had to be true and it had to be intense. Surfing in the Bay…Trekking along the Pacific coastline…Skiing on the Sierra Nevada…You get the idea. The most physically intense activities top the charts and bragging rights with colleagues in meetings. Things could be less intense too. Like watching television. But then it had to be a game that you were watching and the local team should better be involved. If you watched at home, it had to be with friends invited over barbecue. If you went to watch a game in a stadium, the entire story had to be told with tailgate activities, game statistics and player strategies all laid out as a series of personal opinions and observations.

As you can see, it wasn’t that difficult to answer that question. It was a nightmare for me though. I never did any of those activities as an adult, forget doing it as a kid. The Bay waters in Northern California are very, very cold. I tried dipping my legs in the waters once. I don’t understand why no one gets it. There are sharks too. Salty water on brown skin mixed with heat from the sun makes for a very sticky experience. Why bathe in it? Good conditions for skiing are possible when everything around you is very, very cold. I watched television though. But, I kind of just watched television, if you will. I didn’t intensely live and breathe it. If players played well in one team, they became my favorite for winning that game.

I began innovating in this department so that I didn’t look like I wasn’t cool over the weekends. I also tried avoiding the question if possible, by going for a stable cop out, “Didn’t do much, was busy with the family? How about you?” That was it! Right back at you! At times, I made a visit to the Hindu temple. But it was like going to church. You just do it. You don’t talk about it. I read books. That turned out to be good up until I realized that folks who also read the same book started asking me a lot of questions about the character, the author, the intent and the message. There, yet again came the uneasy part. I didn’t read books to talk about them.

“So, I went to visit Muir Woods with the family. What about you?” I said it, finally.

“Well, that’s wonderful. Liked the redwood trees? Is this your first time there? I’ve never been there before!” Mike said.

That was it. It worked. For now. Up until the question came up again a week later.

There was a catch though. Doing touristy stuff while being a local wasn’t something you could pull off every week. That night, I lost sleep on a particular thought. Did I never do anything exciting in life so far? Something that had an adrenalin rush? Something that was risky, not safe, but was still fun? Was athletic? I thought long and hard. It went on for a couple of hours. I went back to my childhood where there were no skiing lessons to take, no surfing lessons, no family outings in the woods or any place other than a nearby store to buy groceries. Ah, buying stuff. The thoughts rushed like waves in an ocean.

How about, boarding a running bus that refuses to stop even with you waving hands violently while standing at a bus stop. Well, it requires a lot of coordinated running and a focused ability to pick a small gap to place your foot on the board of the bus while holding on to a small piece of metal at the top or end up pulling someone else’s hair. Miss anything and you accelerate into a vehicle in front of you that you missed watching. Jeez! I had a survivor example of athletic ability.

Then of course, getting down a running bus as the driver expects all young men can just get down no matter what and he doesn’t need to waste energy or the brake oil to come to a complete stop. Getting down with a sideway glance while timing it right so that you don’t get hit by another bus speeding on the other side. Maintaining balance and poise so that whoever is watching, which is usually nobody, end up being amazed by your cool moves. And of course, keeping your feet in motion while touching the ground so that science doesn’t make a fool out of you. Check!

Holding two bucketsful of water instead of one so that you save time and take more volume of water to fill in and refill within a stipulated period of time before it is all gone and you wouldn’t have any water to take a bath for the day. Good muscle coordination, extreme balance and dedication so that the water doesn’t spill and go to waste. Firm footing so that you don’t slip and fall while holding a bucket in your hand. Rookie mistakes avoided. Check!

Standing in queue at a shop, a bank, a bus stop, a movie theatre, a temple and using your hands, shoulder power, legs and a foul mouth to stop every person who breaks a queue from not doing it right in front of you. Avoiding being socially insulted by a lowlife, who may be a rich neighbor, from taking your spot. Sizing up the opponent that you threaten with unfulfilled consequences for violating an unknown law around standing in queues with decorum. Avoiding the big sized women and the drunken men by being alert while spreading your hands to prevent others from taking your place. Wow, tears ran down my cheeks. It was a bit too much to take for me. I was impressive and I didn’t even pat myself on the back or appreciate myself for this in the past! Strong character. Check!

Running after a football in a soccer game. Competing with ten or twenty other friends who also just hope against hope that they get to at least touch the ball with their feet. Doing all this while playing on the street where you get knocked down by a passing vehicle or bit by a street dog. Kicking the ball with the singular motive of hitting it wherever it needs to go and even then, somehow manage to score a goal even if it was a self-goal and in the ensuing commotion you just signed up for the opposite team and hence scored it right. Integrity and dexterity in the face of utmost unwanted commotion for something as trivial as a game. Competitive and competent sportsman. Check!

Study for school examinations in failing light that flickers due to voltage fluctuations that happens due to power pilferage. The tube light, an extended piece of money saving tubular structure, fusing out, following which you keep rotating the hot tube up until it automatically lights up again. Keeping a candle on standby but not wasting it as it has to be used again when it really matters. Keeping the bugs and mosquitoes at bay while studying mathematics. Mental focus, acumen, amateur electrician skills. All check!

Bicycling hard on a road while being chased by street dogs that just want to have fun biting humans. Using wisdom in avoiding streets that have a pack of dogs active with a history of biting. Keeping eyes and ears open to warnings from fellow riders and walkers about what streets to avoid. Keeping away from rowdy elements on the street who get into fist fights just when you are crossing them in your bicycle, potentially getting you mixed up in the fight or have your bicycle taken on a free lease. Locking your bicycle and then keeping the key safe so that it is not lost while always having a corner of the eye watching out for the bicycle so that it is not stolen, since locks are for suckers. Doing cardio exercise on a bike under extreme mental stress and threat of physical harm. Check!

Taking cash to buy items in a shop and remembering the mental calculations to be done on the spot so that you don’t get cheated and your money taken away by a cunning shopkeeper. Keeping the one-rupee coin handy so that the shopkeeper doesn’t shoo you away saying he doesn’t have the exact “change” to give, thereby making me sacrifice round off errors. The elaborate circus of money management in life. Check!

Huh, the thoughts were still racing, but I realized it was quite impressive. I did do a lot. It just happened as a matter of fact that I didn’t bother to recognize it with any value in life. This gave me a great boost to my dwindling ego. I felt a newfound energy in feeling better about not doing much now as I had already done a lot in the past. My body took a lot and I think it was fine to take rest watching a game of curling on television without being judged.

A week passed by and the customary question came up on a Monday morning. I saw Mike walking up to me. This time, I took the initiative. I just joined a gym nearby home and went there for a day. I was confident that I would never skip the gym. I can talk about the workouts I did with the help of an overenthusiastic sales guy who doubled as a trainer, eager to convert my membership to an annual plan.

“Hey Mike! Good Morning! So, what did you do over the weekend?” I asked with enthusiasm in my eyes and preparedness in my mind.

“Didn’t do much, was busy with the family? How about you?” Mike said, casually walking away while still looking at me.

That sounded familiar. I smiled back at him. Was it all in my head after all!?


Indian Tales: Grandma’s Gift

This story goes back thirty years but so are the power of memories. They last longer than the thought of what you had for dinner last night. Summer holidays start with great hope during the school years. From the time the bags are packed, to the time the train is boarded and the destination is reached, there is excitement in every nerve of the body. However, soon as the summer heat picks up and the deadly routine of just yet another day sets in, even the holidays start feeling long and boring. You wish for change even when you swore just a few days back that summer holidays must be there forever in a kid’s life. Thus, starts the journey of deceiving our own minds that we carry on as we age even as adults!
This one particular day was different though. My grandmother, my mom’s mother, had been building up the surprise for a few days. She was the most hardworking woman I had ever seen, always busy doing some work or the other, never stopping to rest until darkness set in the village. Prathipadu is a tiny village in Guntur district. Getting there was easy as red buses offered services from the town to the village with good frequency.
“What gift do you want me to buy for you?” she asked me in private.
It was my birthday a few months back and she wanted to gift me with something I liked. My grandmother never gifted me anything until then and the excitement was palpable. What do I say?
My mom warned not to ask for anything expensive. I didn’t know what I could get to have in the village. Maybe I could ask for a bunch of glass marbles to play with? I was never good at playing that game, unlike my uncle, but I loved the colors and random designs of these marbles. I wanted to collect as many of them as possible although my mom declared that we wouldn’t be taking it back to Madras, the city where we lived in. Maybe I could ask for the calendar cards that had photographs of Hindu Gods. The size of a playing card, it had the elaborate picture of a Hindu God on one side, with a tiny print of the English calendar on the other side. It was the latest craze even in the village and everyone had their personal collection to boast of. Gold and silver rings or chains were out of question. My grandparents lived a humble life and weren’t rich by any standard. When I couldn’t figure what to ask for, I froze and my thoughts wandered.
My grandmother was anyways not too curious to know what I really wanted. She already had something planned in her mind. It helped. I didn’t know what to say either. She instructed me to take bath and get ready. She wanted to take me to the place where the gift would be bought. Taking baths regularly during holidays was as difficult as waking up before ten in the morning. I loved waking up early though. But, taking a bath was a different story. After a quick bath, I put on a shirt and shorts and stood ready at the door with my slippers on.
My grandmother was prepared too. Tying a few bundles of money at the end of her saree, she carefully kept it out of sight and we proceeded to leave. She held my hand as we walked on the street perfumed with a coating of fresh cow dung mixed with water and sprayed all over. It was meant to keep the streets fresh. Once you get used to the smell, you actually start enjoying it. I wasn’t sure where she was taking me but I followed her lead. For the first time, she took me beyond the four streets nearby her house that I was usually allowed to play in. We went to the edge of the village that adjoined the main road that connected to the towns. My curiosity grew and I was eager to see my gift. A lot of tiny shops adorned the busy road on both sides. I could see clothes, utensils, plastic ware and many other things that the shops in the inner streets of the villages didn’t offer. This could be my day!
She tugged me sideways as I paced my steps forward. We took a left towards a utensil store. It could be a quick chat with the shopkeeper who seemed to know her. It wasn’t to be. She planned to buy something for me in the utensil shop. I frowned. I had no idea what I wanted but I was sure I didn’t want a stainless-steel utensil as a birthday gift. I played along as I knew it wasn’t turning out to be great! She asked the shopkeeper what kind of a gift would suit me. The shopkeeper started pulling up tiny plates and glasses to fit my size. That was not exciting either. But my grandmother wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to gift me something that she liked. She asked for more options to be shown. I lost interest by then and starting watching the traffic pass us by on the road. One particular plate caught my grandmother’s attention. She immediately asked the shop keeper to pull it up for her. She examined it from all sides for the slightest scratch or dent. She loved it! She turned around and asked me if I liked it too.
It was a stainless-steel plate made in the shape of a banana leaf. It had the imitation of the leaf’s veins and was cute to look. I, in fact, liked it very much. I never saw any plate before that in the shape of a banana leaf. Most of the plates were either circles or rectangles. This was different. It would stand out from the crowd. Yes, I wanted it! I nodded my head in agreement. Immediately after that began the laborious art of Indian bargaining. She was an expert at that and used her energy reserves to full effect. I got tired but was now admiring my plate from far. Many bargaining efforts end up as a no-sale. I didn’t want that disappointment. I tugged my grandmother and nudged her to buy it. She complied as she could see the eagerness in the face of her first grandson. She dropped her demands with the shopkeeper. She then asked him that my name be imprinted on the plate at the back. I never saw a name being carved on a steel plate before. Lo and behold, the village shopkeeper had an electric machine that did the trick. I watched carefully as my name was etched in Telugu. I loved my plate even more. She got it packed in newspaper and off we went.
My grandmother didn’t express her love for her grandchildren the way the typical Indian grandma did. There were no long, wet kisses and big, squeezy hugs from her. She kept her distance while admiring her grand kids from far. She always talked about us with others but not much with us. She must have had her own stories of love and hate. But that day I realized that she loved me and was eager to express that love through the efforts she made to buy me a gift. I still keep the plate with me to this day. It has traveled along with me to all parts of India and the US, too. It stays in my prayer room at home. Memories built with the simplest of acts and the most obscure of gifts last longer! I had mine to keep. God bless her departed soul!


Indian Tales: The Call For Water

In the 80s of India, one could have had a more resourceful life living in the villages than in the so-called cities. Growing up in one such city, Chennai, was no easy challenge. It had the dubious distinction of being a metropolitan city, one among four other cities in India where something related to development happened in an otherwise laid back country. Chennai however was less crowded and more manageable a city back then, compared to its peers.

This didn’t mean that Madras (as it was called then before being renamed to Chennai) had it all great. A perennial and persistent problem was the access to clean water. To solve that, the local government came up with a system that provided water only during a stipulated time frame. The tool used for accessing the water was a manual hand pump. The time frame chosen was four in the morning every alternate day for about an hour or more.

When you are about ten years old, you sleep well. By that I mean, you sleep more and more as someone tries to wake you up. The desire for getting even a few additional minutes of shut eye is one of the greatest desires a kid of that age has. I had mine too as the sound of water overflowing from the released high pressure valve begins to kindle your senses at four in the morning. This was followed by the overzealous neighbor and his sidekick, his son, starting to pump their hand pump with loud strikes. The pattern of sound is one of the most depressing event of your life, especially when you have to wake up to its inviting music. The neighborhood’s goal is to maximize the volume of water that comes from the pressure that slowly keeps dying until the slackers don’t get any. The more you pump water for yourself, the less the other neighbor gets. Hence, the chimp like strikes on the hand pump by my next door neighbor.

There were two large cement holders in which water had to be pumped and filled in in my home. It then had to be filled in colorful buckets that were all lined up in a sequence for easy transport into the house. This hand pump, painted in cream yellow, had it owns age-related problems. The rubber bracket that enabled water pressure to hold, would give way if not handled with love. You pump too hard, and the whole metal handle could be yours to keep separated from the pump. If you take a break from constantly pumping, you give away the water pressure you have maintained in your pump, and donate it to the neighbor who has worked hard on pumping his own. Water lost by you is water gained by someone. Since all the families in the neighborhood loved each other, we made sure that we never let the pressure fall in our pump. This gives an idea of the privilege one had living in a city, the urban India of the 80s that great journalists like Sainath P have hammered mercilessly in favor of the poor rural counterparts. Indians were all like hippos in a drying river bed. You should get the idea of what that looks like and means!

My mother woke me up at around five or a quarter to five if things looked bleak. This usually meant dad was not at home working on the pump already or the pace at which my sisters were filling the buckets was not helpful in maintaining the competitive position once gained to get water. There was no stretching and snuggling around on bed, which anyways wasn’t available for me as the only twin-sized bed was enough for just my two sisters to fit in. I slept on a mattress laid on the floor. It was all action the moment the eyes opened. I was faster than a wildebeest calf in getting up and running, just after being born a few minutes ago. Once you hold the now warm handle of the pump, the idea of sleep is lost anyways for good. There is something about holding a pump by its handle and hitting it at a special angle to start regaining the lost water pressure and then maintaining that symphony by calling out for the next empty bucket to be ready for you and getting it right under the nozzle and keep chugging along until the final call came from inside that there were no more empty buckets or even utensils to fill.

At around that time, there are a group of kids and women who come from the lesser privileged part of the street on which I lived. They lived in one room houses while I lived in a three room one, each the size of a matchbox. They didn’t have their personal hand pump exclusive to their home. This made you realize what luxury is all about and that wealth is anyways relative. These kids came with their empty buckets and asked around the houses after sensing that the water is still available and is being unused. My next door neighbor’s son somehow could never find a reason to let go of his pump and his pumping action. The water had to be pumped even if not needed for the house as the pump was still giving water. Sometimes you just get used to the act of doing something even if it produces meaningless results. Finally, as always the government intervenes. As dawn breaks, the pressure is gone, the water is down to a disappearing trickle and the mighty hand pump finally gets to rest in its state of complete uselessness, at least until it becomes valuable again.  Water makes you desperate and disciplined in life. Madras had a great lesson to offer everyone so early in the morning.


Indian Tales: A Weekend Road Trip

The state highway leading out of Bengaluru crisscrossed through narrow busy city streets. It was about six on a sleepy Saturday morning. It is generally considered taboo among the Bangalore techie crowd to wake up this early in the morning. If one did wake up, it was considered even more odd to drive a car rather than go for a brisk walk, sucking up all the unsettled dust from last night’s traffic into your lungs. I was driving alone and still within Bangalore limits. A highway, road, street or a cut between two buildings are all considered the same in my beloved crowded city. Can’t complain as the flow of immigrants into the city is the highest, possibly next only to Mumbai and Delhi. Even people from these two major cities emigrate to Bengaluru. Such is the power of the city that offers diverse employment, good weather and a chance for people to lead a better life in the future while suffering in the present. It is better than their past and that is all that matters.

There is a certain happiness in the heart that comes from doing things that you can only dream of doing on a regular day. Driving with only a few vehicles alongside you is a privilege. When you do so while crossing the infamous barrier called ‘Silk Board junction”, the heart bursts full with pride. I still used my Google navigator so that I didn’t miss the directions for taking the service road that cuts towards Hosur. These service roads tend to be tricky business. You never know you are on one until the Google navigator lady lets you know so in her crisp American accent. She has singlehandedly helped in giving a lot of respect to the road construction talent of BBMP’s contractors. I was supposed to meet my guide at a spot before the flyover began.

My guide and I didn’t exchange much information prior except for calling each other and talking in Telugu. We were meeting for the first time. I described my car and he described his dress. He identified me first. The young chap hopped  next to me and we were soon on our way atop the flyover. Everyone overtook everyone on this stretch of the road. It catches on like the flu. Even I was overtaking a few vehicles in front only to end up charging their competitive spirit as they started showcasing their hunger for speed. I only had a Hyundai i10, a humble car that gave up before me on competing at such levels. The battle was one-sided. The highway cut across a few more roadways as it chugged along towards Anekal. I knew I exited Bangalore as the roads got better. It felt like I was actually driving a car for a change. We had already cut through a turn and were on the highway that took us towards a few village roads. This was no scenic ride. There was nothing much to see except for a few people lazily brushing their teeth in the open.

I was headed towards Tamil Nadu. A village over there to be precise near a town, Thally. Thally is interestingly called as the Scotland of the East. Nobody knew who gave this title except for the person who put it out there in Wikipedia. On checking later with a few locals, it came to my understanding that this place is colder than Bangalore. There could be a better story, but I wasn’t too interested in it. Thally isn’t too far from Bangalore, but is on the other side of the border in Tamil Nadu. A huge lake welcomes visitors to this town. Massive banyan trees dot the landscape on both sides as my guide asked me to take a right turn and then cut through a smaller highway headed towards Jigani. The air-conditioning in the car was switched off. Normally, I turn it on as I roll up the windows while driving in traffic. But, this leads to suffocation and hence the air-conditioner. The air was  much fresher and had the rural smell of cow dung and earth. Curious onlookers fixed their gaze on me. In villages, many people sit on the side of the roads doing nothing. They wear clean white clothes with a colorful towel on their shoulders. They keenly watch the happenings of the day. A few board crowded buses headed towards the major towns.

The locals were used to strangers buzzing along in their vehicles on the Jigani stretch. They still wanted to make sure they knew who was passing through their village. Rose farms with beautiful pink hues could be seen to my left. They are sold to markets in Bangalore, my guide said. A few kilometers further on a peaceful highway, he led me to a sharp turn on the road. I thought I was about to ram into a house nearby. It was a village road. I just had to keep driving. I braked hard as a young kid crossed my path. The guide asked me to just keep driving. The kid didn’t care much either. He just knew when to pace his steps faster. Further ahead, a goat was lying in the middle of the road. On both sides were houses and the gazes of curious onlookers increased. I wasn’t comfortable with the attention. But, the people were friendly. They called out to the goat and it reluctantly gave way to me. I thanked them in English. They stared back at me in amusement. As I crossed the row of houses, the car began to wobble more and more. The village road ended after a two hundred-meter stretch from the main road. It was now technically a pathway that kind of existed there. My guide just asked me to keep driving along. I was worried about the tires as rocks kept getting crushed under the car. An old man was walking his cattle in front and had the right of way. The guide honked on my behalf. The old man signaled the cows to step aside. Cows and human beings were at their laziest best. In the village, nobody was in a hurry. The people knew there was another day coming up tomorrow. As we drove along, the guide asked me to take one more turn towards the right.

“Where to?” I asked, confused.

“There sir!?” turn!!

I still couldn’t figure where to turn. All of a sudden, he let out a shriek and yelled,

“There, here! Now, turn!!!”

I just followed his lead. Lo and behold, there was indeed a small pathway that cut to the right. You could never see it unless you knew it existed there and turned. I was excited. This road was so narrow, it could accommodate just my car. I asked my guide what if another vehicle came from the other side. We would be stuck. Such panic attacks happen to the average Bangalore driver. He looked at me with a bewildered smirk on his face.

“Sir, do you think anyone would come driving in a car on such roads?”

He smiled. I agreed. It then struck us both on the significance of the statement he just made. He immediately took the first initiative.

“Sir, in the mornings nobody comes here. The village people take time to begin their work. They mostly use two-wheelers. They  just wait on a small stretch and let us pass through. The big tractors will be a problem. But, let’s not worry. They won’t be here in the morning.”

My guide wanted to go on. But, I signaled to him that whatever he said made sense. He wanted to feel always appreciated. He talked about his own village and how he left farming to take up this real estate job for supporting his family.

“Sir, there is no money in farming. We find better jobs to do mostly in the cities. Helps us keep going. What do you wish to do sir?”, he asked.

“Farming”, I replied.

We rolled a few yards, hit a big sharp rock right in the middle of the road, climbed over it somehow and then stopped. We don’t park in village roads. We just stop on the road. People are patient enough to wait in case you block their path. This was unlike in Bangalore where usage of crude vocabulary is the norm to resolve such issues.

My guide showed me a plot of land. It was dry and the soil was a rusty red. In a corner of the land, my eyes caught sight of an ant hill. There wasn’t much to see in a barren piece of land. However, I stepped down a slope and walked. It was exciting to walk barefoot on mud.

“Are there any snakes or other insects that can bite you?” I asked my guide.

“Why not sir? You will certainly find them here”, he said.

He didn’t get the intent of my question. I put back my slippers and started walking.

“Now, what about water?” The adjoining lands seemed to have borewells, but this land had just dirt and nothing else. A mango farm opposite the land looked healthy. The leaves were dark green and young fruits were hanging down the ends.

“Water you will get sir. You have to dig a borewell. There is plenty of water here”, he said with confidence.

That was reassuring. I checked on who were the owners of the adjoining lands. My guide was unaware of that. He basically didn’t know anything about the village or its villagers. He just knew how to take someone to the land that he had to sell.

“What about that piece of land? Is that also part of the same parcel of land you are offering?” I asked out of curiosity.

“No, sir! That belongs to someone else. They will also sell one day. Not right now!” he said.

“Why is this land being sold? Doesn’t the farmer not want the land?” I asked out of curiosity, realizing that I was a stranger to this place trying to buy land.

“What’s the name of this village?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I didn’t care to ask where this land belonged in.

“Sir, we need to check the land records for that. The village names all keep changing every hundred meters.” He said as a matter of fact.

“Don’t worry about the owner of the land. This is barren land that no villager has used since decades as it sits on rocky hilly terrain. The villagers think only a fool would buy such land”.

I nodded my head in agreement. It again took a while for us to understand what just happened.

“What I meant was they don’t appreciate the utility of converting barren land for agricultural use. You can bring technology and make it great. They don’t trust technology much. Sir, but, the locals are friendly. They are finally happy that people from cities are coming and trying to do something good for the rural areas.” he belabored his point.

I smiled at him. I always wanted to test my hands at organic farming. I wanted to harvest vegetables and fruits on a land that I could call as my own. Using my own two hands, to till, plant seeds and to grow green life. I wished to eat healthy food that you could produce on your own, share the surplus with the village and do good for India, for humanity and for your ego. Such thoughts always crossed my mind. I could make it a reality.

“So, can I grow vegetables on this land?”I asked my guide.

“Why not? This is barren, dry land. You can grow anything on it, sir.” He said in a convincing tone.

I was convinced. It was either his voice or the blazing heat of the open sun. It made me listen to him with keen attention. Back in the city, we tactfully avoid the sun, over here in the village, you just get baked.

“This looks good. But I have to think further about buying the land. Why don’t we head back and I will let you know about my decision”, I said while picking a bottle of water from my car and quenching my thirst.

Just then a person who looked like a villager passed by. The good thing about these villages along borders is that people talk in three tongues. I asked the villager in Telugu if water can be found if we dug a borewell on this land. He stopped his bicycle and parked it on its stand. My guide was also curious to know what the locals said so that he could adjust his facts for future clients.

The villager asked me to repeat again. This time I tried in Tamil. He picked it up immediately. My Telugu didn’t work for him. My guide didn’t know Tamil though. He now turned to me for translation.

“You see all the farms on all sides of this land? Do you see the Eucalyptus trees right next to your land? Do you think anyone would have left this acre of land idle if there was water to grow something?”, the villager asked with a serious look on his face.

“Well, the huge mango farm seems to be doing just fine nearby. So, I thought maybe it will work?” I said with a sheepish look on my face.

“That is on a slope. That slope ends just right here before the land. Even rains can’t help you.” He warned to my obvious discomfort.

Even my guide picked the gist of what was happening. He tried to assure me. We thanked the villager and wished we never met him. My guide sat in the car.

As I was about to sit, the villager called me by the side and said, “Let me know if you want to buy the land that sits next to the tomato farm further ahead. I will give it for less than what this guy is offering. What is this guy offering this land for anyways?”

I smiled and said I was visiting the place just checking on things and didn’t go that far in negotiating a deal. The villager asked me to call him and I said yes and drove away. He didn’t give me his number. I didn’t take his nor gave mine. I wasn’t sure how we imagined calling each other. It didn’t matter. He didn’t look too eager to sell me anything.

“What’s ahead of us if we keep going on this road? Does it lead us back to the main road?” I asked.

“Who knows sir! We just have to try. Google maps doesn’t help here.” he said.

I drove along hoping to avoid the horrible conditions we came through. We passed along a narrow-abandoned stretch of thatched houses that were made of mud walls. It looked like a small dwelling that once existed on the periphery of the main village. I wondered who lived there and why they left the place now! The villages here had varying shades of affluence and poverty. I wasn’t sure what I could achieve by being a stranger among them. I drove along as the car passed along a road that led to an Israeli mango research station. It was reassuring to see that there were initiatives in place to help some farmers.

We soon caught the main highway and were on our way towards Bangalore. The journey seemed tiring now. I was eager to go back home. My guide pushed me to make a quick decision as apparently there were many buyers from Bangalore looking to buy land. They do farming, build farm houses or sometimes keep the land idle. I wasn’t sure where exactly I fit in. The heat of the pre-monsoon summer made me realize it wasn’t easy business growing crops. I decided to take my time. I was at least lucky enough to make such choices. For a farmer, there isn’t any.


Book Review: The Idol Thief

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful book by the first time author and most importantly a passionate volunteer who has worked very hard to protect the rich, cultural heritage of India. This is compelling given that within the country, there are enough people highly enthusiastic enough to destroy India’s past without batting an eyelid. Of such characters in real life is what this book is all about.
It is sad to see that thieves come in all shapes and sizes across all facets of society. The fact that justice is yet to be served in full, the looters may still go unpunished and many lost relics may never be found again is very unfortunate. The sophisticated thieves sitting merrily as buyers of art in museums across the world show the depth to which greed can manifest itself, all for the sake of satisfying pride and increasing ticket sales in curated exhibition shows.
The story could have been spun more tighter by bringing the stories of the various investigative forces, including the author, in a more cohesive form. The Editor more than the Author is to be blamed for it. I do hope more and more of such daredevil and enthusiastic lovers of India and even more, protector of cultural and historical relics are born in this world. These people are more valuable to humanity than the endless battalion of spineless journalists and greedy politicians that the world seems to be producing more of today.

View all my reviews


Book Review: On Education

On EducationOn Education by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bertrand Russell enchants the reader on the topic of education too. While this book touches on topics very briefly and much focus is on early education, it still leaves a good impression. He even studies the effects of education from a Chinese and Greek attitude standpoint by focusing on two contrasts – laziness and being energetic. He goes on to make a point that passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, while not giving stability.
The author is appreciative of the Montessori model while being heavily critical of the aristocratic system of education in England that came to being under Dr. Arnold. A powerful observation he makes here is that all European countries are less subject to herd domination than in America.
Also impressive is his take on the four characteristics of an ideal character that he emphasizes as one that children need to be equipped with as part of a well rounded education – vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence. I love his explanation of the concept of abstract sympathy, a form of sensitiveness where you feel for someone even when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, even if not sensibly present. This he declares comes from a higher form of intelligence and is no wonder rare in today’s world.
Another gem of his is the statement that poverty, since the Industrial revolution has been only due to collective stupidity. To continue on with some more references that make this book a reading pleasure are:
Fear has been thought the only way to make women ‘virtuous’, and they have been deliberately taught to be cowards, both physically and mentally – Sounds like today’s modern religious dictum?
Shyness is a distressing form of timidity – well, it does have a correlation for sure.
Subjects like literature and everything that can be put into a handbook is worthless – well, A.I is fast catching up for a reason.

The book doesn’t holistically cover the sphere of education. It does give a good sense of what can be built into the early years of a child knowing that today’s education system in most parts of the world are still stuck in the past or a broken present. The future still looks bleak in the realm of child education and the reformers at best are mostly misled politicians, activists and deluded beings. Hope there is a Russell who comes up soon with the power to wield change for the greater good of children.

View all my reviews


Book Review: Everybody Loves A Good Drought

Everybody Loves a Good DroughtEverybody Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading and reviewing a 20 year old book on the state of Indian affairs in the poorest of rural areas is tough. On one side, it is fascinating to see that nothing much has changed in the state of the rural poor especially in the poorest districts where the government machinery cannot reach or doesn’t desire to reach. Thousands of readers and fans of the author have pushed this book to super stardom and I am one of those enthusiasts who bought this book to meet my curiosity over why the author and the book have reached a cult-like status.

I never knew the author prior to reading the book and imagined him to be a very humble, kurta clad, cloth-bag bearing typical journalist from simple origins and level-headed beliefs. For the most part, Sainath comes up as that. Except that this work of his was a fairly well-funded (by Times Of India) and well-supported (by none other than Sitaram Yechury and N.Ram to name a few) piece of classic. It is also a soft push for supporting the Communist agenda and activist mindset of Leftist groups that while the journalist doesn’t imply in this book, has well showcased in the more than twenty subsequent years of his “rural reporting”. He of course, is one of the cleverest of that bunch (the likes of N. Ram and other good journalists) and also calls out in the book that he and journalists of his kind may be called so. This distorts the excellent storytelling in the book, especially if you smelled the Communist curry being cooked in the kitchen in a quiet corner of an otherwise excellent feast of great lavish food to consume for the reader.

Sainath was forced to name and shame Manu Smriti at least once in a completely unwanted story line, pick a brahmin and call him one when exploitation of the really underprivileged happened while choosing to not call a brahmin by his caste when he or she did the regular good work in other chapters of the book and of course, going all guns blazing against the government at every single chance while keeping it simple when it came to certain members of the Congress party and the militant ultra-left extremists who somehow have a helpless story to tell for every rupee they charge through extortion.

Now, setting that aside, the book is a collection of rural India based articles that were published in the Times Of India back in the 90s. The reference to drought actually comes very late in the second half of the book, while it can be a metaphor for exploitation that happens in the name of development in the country. The rural India that Sainath chooses are of course the worst of the worse in terms of human development and I felt it was way too easy for someone to script a storyline there especially with the writing chops of Sainath and the geographical landscapes of remote land near good water or minerals. His reference to the “urban India” that doesn’t care about the poor rural belt in more than one occasion annoys someone who has seen both sides of the coin. The author should have been able to understand the simple fact that a good portion of his book covers exploitation of water by the mafia in several stories with a poor dalit or tribal affected by it, which by the way, is one of the biggest problems affecting any person of caste, creed, skin or other diseases even in the most urban of urban India. Yes, it is true that people with money get more access to resources. Yes, it is exactly what is happening in the rural areas of India too and his stories capture them while getting intertwined in how to sieve and squeeze the caste angle from it. It is however a blatant truth that caste as a political, economic and social system still exists in India and is certainly a stark reason for how limited resources are further exploited and barely shared among sections of the rural and ‘urban’ societies. The author’s fascination for the rural stories masks the blinders he has put for urban India and Indians overall. Kudos to the author for depicting the beautiful life of India’s “tribal” societies and cultures. I was proud to know that we had such wonderful diversity of people with phenomenal connection to nature and art. The fact that they are the most suffering lot does cause pain and a sense of rage at the inability of the system getting fixed.

The book offers very few pointers on what can ail India. This of course would have been fine if he was just a reporter and was just writing an article in a newspaper to show the plight of exploitation and suffering. But, that was done and dusted in the Times of India newspaper. If it was a book, it should have at least touched on the subject of what to fix with some seriousness, even if it followed a Communist or Socialist agenda. Typical of an activist (which I didn’t imagine him to be before reading the book, then suspected of so while reading the book, and then eventually realized so after checking his ‘future’ state), he breaks the pots but doesn’t tell how to fix them or best, make them. He does have a giant passion for serving the under served and does mention the typical solutions of land reforms like in “we need land reforms”. Yes, well, isn’t knowing and doing the “how” one of the biggest plagues of this nation? Yes, the trader network exploits the farmer. So, what next? Shoot them all? what is their story? The trader-politician nexus touches all political parties in India. It is however, too harsh to expect the author to showcase solutions for all maladies. He knew it wasn’t easy. But, he knew it was easy to talk and that he did with the pen.
I am however a fan of this author for the writing style which is riddled with sarcasms and pretty honest observations of what he is seeing on the ground. Journalists like him keep the exploiters of capitalism at bay. But, I hope he doesn’t mix his political leanings with them. As, if he does so, which in fact he is doing today, he can no longer humbly pretend to be just a “rural reporter”. He is just another exploiter, not of the materialistic kind, but of the mind – the fickle, emotional and angry mind of Indians.

View all my reviews


Philosophy & Religion

Philosophy and religion are not one and the same. But, of what use is philosophy if it doesn’t touch religion? and of what use is religion if it has nothing to do with philosophy? Well, that is at least how my thinking works.

My favorite philosopher of the modern age is Bertrand Russell. I don’t understand or follow the philosophers of the past be it Aristotle, Plato or even for that matter the relatively modern greats like Nietzsche. What philosophers say sometimes seems to make sense only during their times and their personal perception of the past as seen during their lifetime. They don’t make much sense anymore. Bertrand Russell on the other hand stays on topic and doesn’t veer off into prose that betrays yours senses. To him and others that I will come across, I do feel inspired by what they have to say about the human mind and our social behaviors.

It is my personal belief that philosophers created God and politicians (kings) created religion. It can also be assumed that only kings listened to philosophers. Hence, who patronized whom and when God and religion became one is difficult to comprehend.

I was deeply religious as a kid. Everything was about God. My success was because of God. My failure was because of God. Luckily, in the Hindu religion, I could chose from thousands of Gods. So, it wasn’t as depressing as locking yourself to one person and that too a man! Women are more comforting and better as Gods. Of course, who my favorite God was kept changing with time. One day, I wondered why so? It didn’t seem to make sense. Something was flawed. I also realized that each one of us have a certain interpretation of God and religion that doesn’t match with any other person’s belief. Even if it was the same God, the same religion or even if it was your parents and siblings. That didn’t make sense either! Something seemed tricky about this entire God business. Since then, I have been reading the works of strong anti-theists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Great and refreshing perspectives came from this side of the Godly business. However, I haven’t turned anti-God although I have been losing respect for religion of any kind as such.

Religion has a lot of good teachings and stories of the good life. For me, they are all philosophers and their works are of philosophy. Not religion. It cannot be stolen by any particular religion as its own. Sankaracharya to me was an Advaita philosopher. The religious identity comes from the fact that he was in Hindu India at that time. Of course, political patronage meant that this was eventually carried forward as a religious belief.

Inspired by one such thought was my interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic, as an actual work of religious philosophy. I stretched that thought further to write a book and self-publish it. I called it AHAM, the sanskrit word for “I”.

So much to enjoy learning from the greatest thinkers the world has produced. A never ending journey…A beautiful ride in the mind-bending realm of human existence in this universe….


Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is certainly a strong influencer of rational thoughts in the human mind. It singularly targets religion and shows the hollowness of several beliefs that are no match to the encompassing reality of the theory of evolution. So much to the point that the author mostly talks about the topic of evolution, a specialty of his as a scientist.

Can this book challenge religion in its entirety and dismiss the notion of God? I think not much! It just misses it by a mile. This book is a great and honest attack on militant Christianity and Islamic beliefs through the busting of the holy books and the inherent superstitions. The author disappointingly sets aside other world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism by calling it as all the same in about three lines of text dedicated in the entire book. This makes sense when the modern version of militant Hinduism or Buddhism is taken into account. So, all is not lost in this attempt at sending God to where ‘he’ belongs- nowhere!

But, does God need to be imagined in a human form, with emotions, with human flaws and masculine domination? The author avoids this confusion early on in the book by defining religion and God in the narrow dimension and broad acceptance of human stupidity. Hence, to that extent this book should be a must read and an eye opener to every pseudo-intellectual who calls out the greatness of God but only if he is white, with a cape, a special hat or if he sells a specific special book that is the only acceptable truth in life.

What if God is that scientific mirror outside the human flesh that gives man the power over every other creature that has also been competing on the same evolutionary plane trying to outwit humanity in vain? Science gives acceptance to our human senses to perceive reality. But, what if our senses are also on an evolutionary journey and need to perceive more to accept more?

For all people blinded by the weakness of today’s religion and a weaker God perception, the God Delusion is a must read. But…but….but, will these deluded beings be ready to read this book with an open mind?

View all my reviews