Book Review: Orientalism

OrientalismOrientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edward Said Orientalism
A well written book on the subject of Orientalism that the author cuts and slices through in an almost academic fashion. This book is oriented more towards analyzing the work and Europe-centric biases of past Orientalists who helped shape the opinion on nearly everything about the Near East (Middle East and North Africa) and Asia (South Asia in particular). However, the authors primary focus has been on the initial construct of Orientalism being a French and British attempt at analyzing the Near East and its dominant religion – Islam.
The book is not an entertaining read but offers great perspectives to people interested in the history of Orientalism, especially from an analysis of political intent, mindset and European-approach standpoint. However, the book meanders sharply towards just the Middle Eastern affairs towards the end, offering less solutions but putting more questions into the mind of unbiased readers willing to learn from mistakes of the past.
Missing any good commentary on India, the prized British colony, and considering it outside the Orientalism being scrutinized by the author seemed like a big miss. After all, Orientalism and the study of India within its remit was certainly the shift the Europe took after it considered the Near East as a mere passage to its riches by land and sea.
These snippets (in italics) are something I consider as powerful and summarize the intent and message of the book.

“textual attitude towards the Orient” – a common human failure is to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human…

The fact that many Orientalists didn’t even reach the Orient to live there and see life as it unfolded among the natives is underlines by the above statement. European power and institutions never considered it as a shortcoming. In fact, the book highlights how Napolean built an entire military plan to take over Egypt through the recommendations in a book written by a traveler who chronicled how to win over the natives.

Orientalism is a kind of Western projection on to and will to govern over the Orient

Good Old Karl Marx, the darling of many Communist institutions and insurgents in India, had something not so flattering to say about the country-

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerative – the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia

Praising England while attacking her for being the “unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution…”, Marx certainly seemed to have two minds about what he was prophesizing in Communism when it came to people and regions that he didn’t relate to!?

Every European in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric

These words of Joseph Conrad was in mockery of European conquests.

The book also lightly touches upon the “Christian-centric” approach to the rest of the World which was also instrumental in the simultaneous demonizing of Islam and its followers.

But, the final summary of the book can be encapsulated in these words that the author mentions – “Orientalism failed to identify with human experience. It failed to also see it as human experience”.

Needless to say, the author has been praised for his work but also attacked for a “biased” view on the Orient while attacking European hard work that went into creating the idea of Orientalism.

While I generally align with the ideas in this book, I feel that Orientalism was a bold attempt at understanding foreign lands and peoples through the biased lens of self-made perspectives that are after all what makes us humans. The only unacceptable fact is that this was sold as the “truth” to the rest of the World and it still continues to subconsciously build opinions and biases that are uprooting this World as we speak. Our minds need to come a long way from the rigid insular uni-dimensional perspectives of Newton to the relativistic multi-dimensional world that Einstein imagined.

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Book Review: The Tao of Physics

The Tao of PhysicsThe Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wisdom in books never age no matter when they were written. This book, written way back in the seventies, does enchant the reader with its treatment of subjects in modern physics as related to the quantum world and relativity. The highlight of the book obviously is the association of this abstract form of new-age physics with what the author found as fascinating – Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Presenting his motivation for writing this book almost as a vision he got about Shiva’s cosmic dance while sitting on a beach in California, the author goes deep into Tao, Zen, Confucianism and Hinduism just enough to bring the so-called “parallels” with modern physics.

This book was fantastic in the effort it spent to show what was missing in the Western concepts of philosophy, science, thought and of course society. Everything seemed just about fine until the edition that I had also included future commentaries from the author fifteen years after the book got published and it became a huge universal hit. This was by far the reason why I am forced to give only three stars for the book. In a possibly unknown attempt at showing that his thinking has evolved, he has basically killed the very essence, meaning and purpose of the original intent of this book. Every book is just an expression of a thought or opinion and it is brave of an author to keep learning and refining his. But, the below thoughts of his go beyond that to almost trash the very idea of a heavily debatable and incomprehensible conceptual connect – Eastern mysticism and Modern Physics – that he so painstakingly put together and gained immense fame from.

In selling another book of his whose credentials I am not so certain about, this is what he said – “…Moreover, I no longer believe that we can adopt Eastern spiritual traditions in the West without changing them in many important ways to adapt to our culture. My belief has been enforced by my encounters with many Eastern spiritual teachers who have been unable to understand some crucial aspects of the new paradigm that is now emerging in the West”.

The above sentences suddenly made me realize the narrow-mindedness of the author in ways that shocked me, especially after reading a book that he wrote which talks about walking away from these very biased and closed world models that was the representation of classical physics vis-a-vis modern versions of quantum-relativistic concepts. While co-authoring a new book with a Christian monk who strongly represents Catholic values (which is not a problem and is not what shocks me), he has suddenly looked at his own work and trashed it mercilessly as nothing but absolute Orientalism nonsense attached to Modern Science to somehow sound serious.

What do these thoughts he shared even mean:
“…We can adopt Eastern spiritual traditions…” – where did he cover this in the Tao of Physics?
“…changing them in many important ways to adapt to our culture…” – change them? to “adapt” to “our” culture?? what happened to the universal whole?
“…My belief has been enforced by my encounters with many Eastern spiritual teachers who have been unable to understand some crucial aspects of the new paradigm…” – so you spoke to some teachers and who were they? your “belief” has been “enforced”? What was your belief? Someone was unable to understand “crucial aspects”? of a new paradigm? emerging in the West? which is nothing but social equality and looking at the ecosystem as a whole!? wow!

This very moral high handedness, Orientalist fascination and falsification is what makes him and unfortunately very many great writers and speakers nothing but closet idiots posing as revolutionary change makers in this World. Fritjof Capra writes about risking his career and his future writing this book. Well, it looks like he had taken care of it ever since. The mind of a physicist still deserves stars and there go the three stars.

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Book Review: The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy

The CIA's Secret War in Tibet
There are several books written on secret wars and espionage conducted around the World. Most of the books, I believe, represent some element of truth but could also be just among several books that provide an alternate perspective on what happened at a certain place at a certain time. I am not sure under what category this book falls into, but this book surely seems honest in its approach and the presentation of facts. The book, as the name suggests, talks about a secret campaign conducted by the CIA during the cold war to preempt a potential growth of Communist China by taking up the cause of the Tibetan nation. Tibet was occupied by Communist China when the PLA under the leadership of Chairman Mao laid claim to the vast expanse of mostly barren land for strategic, economic and possibly cultural purposes. The rest of the book tells the story of how the Tibetan’s organized themselves under the Dalai Lama, used India, Nepal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) as a base and worked with the CIA to launch secret operations of resistance against the Chinese.

Assuming that this book was allowed to be published, it is probably anyone’s guess that these operations were probably not a secret for long and they were probably exposed or identified by the Chinese way back in the 60s or 70s. But, there were still some very insightful perspectives or facts offered that I will summarize in points below for those who are interested in knowing what the book is all about. I found these to be personally educative as it helped me realize how far away we are from the happenings around the World unless we try hard to learn more on our own!

  • The title Dalai Lama was given to a monk in the 16th century by a Mongol chieftain Altan Khan. Subsequent descendants kept that title going forward. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th.
  • Earlier Dalai Lama’s had less of a great legacy and didn’t last beyond a few years. The 4th Dalai Lama was Altan Khan’s great grandson -a shrewd decision made to gain Mongol patronage. The 5th Dalai Lama self declared himself as the Bodhisatva of Compassion- the highest celestial authority.
  • Tibet was divided into at least three distinct regions with different topographies and related ethnicity. The central part of Tibet was where the Tibetan leadership existed in the past. There were class based differences between Tibetans from these different regions with people in the central region considering themselves superior to the rest.
  • Chiang Kai Shek laid claim to Tibet by considering it as part of the Chinese Republic. Following a civil war with the communist party and his subsequent retreat to Taiwan, the PRC pursued the agenda of making Tibet a part of the country.
  • American leaders like the then US ambassador to India, Loy Henderson, were worried about the advancing PLA troops far south into the Himalayan regions.
  • The CIA based in India created and executed several covert operations to check the strength of the PLA in Tibet.
  • President Eisenhower began the first of a series of secret US sponsored activities in foreign soil to push the exiled Tibetans towards causing disruption to the PLA.
  • Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not openly support exiled Tibetans from going on an all out war with China as part of his appeasement policy with that nation. India was called as the “Dregs of Humanity” by Beijing in 1949.
  • The CIA conducted several covert operations by working with the Dalai Lama’s brothers to recruit exiled Tibetans who escaped to Nepal and India. India allowed the exiled Tibetans to settle in the country with the condition that they don’t cause any disruption to Indo-China relationships.
  • Several CIA operations were conducted from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) before India officially lent support to these operations after the Chines invasion of India’s NEFA (North East Frontier Agency).
  • Most of the CIA led operations in Tibet were small teams of Tibetan’s air dropped inside Tibet to conduct covert operations. Most of the Tibetan recruits were captured and killed by the PLA before they made any useful impact to their cause.
  • Biju Patnaik, ex chief minister of Orissa, was instrumental in the liberation of Indonesia from the Dutch. He also supported the CIA in partnering at a strategic level with the support of Nehru.
  • Brigadier Uban Singh was instrumental in organizing a strong regiment of Tibetan recruits under the name “Establishment 22”. Nehru and the Dalai Lama had also inspected the operations of these forces during a secret review of the regiment.
  • President John Kennedy was a strong supporter of India and was instrumental in providing support to the country in indirectly allowing the CIA help the Tibetan cause. This support and partnership with India was lost after Kennedy’s death. Subsequent governments were leaning more towards Pakistan thereby alienating a strong partnership with India. India on the other hand, pursued a pro-USSR policy for obtaining arms and other economic support.
  • In the 1962 war with China, the Soviet Union sided with China and dumped India. Indo-US cooperation was much stronger and better at that time, although very few in India knew about it. Anti-US sentiment was politically very active right from the start and continued over the next several decades after India chose to move closer to the Soviets.
  • The US soon adopted a pro-China policy during the Nixon era. US warships arrived dangerously close to India during the Indo-Pak war for Bangladesh’s independence. It was claimed by Henry Kissinger that US would have supported China in case the Chinese attacked India to support Pakistan, following which the Soviets attacked China.
  • Nepal leaned more towards China in fear of being dominated by India. During the closing years of the Tibetan struggle led by the CIA, Nepal, in support of China, was instrumental in destroying the Tibetan operations on the Nepal-Tibet border.
  • CIA funding slowly depleted for the Tibetan cause after a $180,000 yearly stipend to the Dalai Lama charity was shut down. Following that, most of the CIA led operations were winding down.
  • RAW director R.N.Kao later blamed the Americans for the lost Tibetan cause, although Indian support was also not strong enough. He said, “The Tibetans were looking for somebody to hold their finger, and the Americans dropped them like a hot potato.”

Book Review: The Lightning And The Sun by Savitri Devi

The Lightning and the Sun by Savitri Devi
It is a well admitted fact that the Nazi regime was cruel and led to mass destruction and anarchy until its end with World War II. Even if we have been trained over the years to listen, read and learn one-sided stories on the Nazi saga with well crafted allied vs axis propaganda in books, movies, speeches, documentaries and our daily lives; the ultimate truth is that there was large scale loss of life and property during the years leading to the World War up until its end in 1945.

There also existed a parallel stream of so called “Nazi sympathizers” too. They were largely unheard of until the internet revolution provided an alternate medium for them to propagate their ideas. Their theories either invite the ire of Nazi regime haters or historians who feel they have already done enough justice to present the reality to the public. To others, they create confusion as the alternate “truth” that they present is sometimes mixed with realities and hard hitting facts that makes you think, thereby making you feel uneasy. The real truth is probably hidden somewhere in between, but the very pursual of that may seem insignificant and unnecessary.

In that light, I consider this book as contributing to the confusing yet delightfully challenging perspective on what could have happened before, during and after the Nazi years in World History. The narrative in this book is even more interesting as it delves into certain spiritual and philosophical aspects of Aryan wisdom and draws a logical map for what that means in the divine scheme of things in life. The author’s primary focus in the book is on three types of men who carve themselves out from the rest in the World- Men in time (drawing a parallel with Lightning), Men above time (drawing a parallel with Sun) and Men Against time (a combination of Lightning and Sun). Adolf Hitler is presented as a Man against time, an incarnation of the creator God of ancient mythology. The author also manages to provide examples in Akhnaton (man above time) and Genghis Khan (man in time) to provide glimpses into the other alternatives the World got to see. The Hindu principle espoused in the Bhagavad Gita on detached violence is also taken as the basis for justifying certain unimaginable acts of death and destruction.

While it is hard to just brush aside the not-so straightforward and not-so truthful acts of the allied nations, I do feel the author makes widely accepted assumptions on Aryan legacy based in Nordic, Celtic, Saxon and Germanic roots that I am yet to truly believe in.

The book is worth a read also because it has been written by someone who is not a German and who didn’t truly participate in the Nazi cause actively in Europe, although her husband and she worked on Nazi propaganda in India. The author’s name can also be misleading as it is a Hindu name -Savitri Devi. The author however was a European with French and Greek roots (no Germanic roots at all) and was married to an Indian, a Hindu, and she believes in calling herself an Aryan Hindu woman. Moreover, she does not really belong to the group of “Nazi sympathizers”. She is more of a Nazi fanatic, a passionate believer in an alternate purpose for that movement started by Hitler. Her commentaries however were all authored well after the World War ended, thereby lending voice to a long dead movement.

I would recommend this book only for people who can digest its contents without taking sides and have the capacity to think through things that go against widely hammered down literature on World History over the years.


Book Review: India, A Short Cultural History by HG Rawlinson

India- a short cultural history by H.G. Rawlinson
Indians do not know their history. European historians who eventually put Indian history on paper did not get over their biased thought process to bring neutrality in their theories, thoughts and information presented.

HG Rawlinson’s book is mostly a compilation of Indian history from other books written in the past. The good thing is that it is presented in a brief, concise manner with mostly a good intent of highlighting the unique cultural history of this nation.

The book presents a historical account that tends to expose a couple of interesting facts about the country’s past and present.
– Indian’s don’t know what their history was as their history books in schools are useless.
– Indian scholars of history largely ape their colonial European masters when it comes to re-rendering India’s history. There is no critical thinking associated with questioning the works of Max Muller or other great European historians and their works.
– India did not and still does not have the resources required to restore the historical accuracy of its past. Nobody knows how to build a consistent chronological account of Indian history as they do not know enough about its past. The author brings this out by highlighting the dark ages of Indian history in different intervals in the past where no one knew what happened in this nation.
– India as a nation never existed in the past. It was a vast compilation of culturally rich, socially divergent and racially diverse groups of nations. Different rulers including the Mughals and the British tried to tie it into a single unified nation with only some success.
– The British and other Europeans passively resided in India centuries before they started taking over the political administration of the country during the fall of the Mughal empire.
– And yes, some of the best accounts of Indian history were documented by the Chinese. We shared a lot more in culture and cooperation in the past than in the present.


Book Review: India, What Can It Teach Us? by Max Muller

India: What Can it Teach Us? by Max Muller
Max Muller was a Sanskrit scholar and Orientologist who rose to fame with his translation of the Rig Veda and several other Sanskrit literatures from India. He was part of a small group of Historians who sometimes defined and in other times redefined India’s past based on theories that they felt were justified by archaeological or historical evidences. History so well crafted, politically authorized and mass publicized that no other modern historians have been able to break these shackles of preconceived ideas and thoughts to accept anything different about India’s history today.
This book is a series of lectures he gave to Indian Civil Service officers of Colonial Britain at the University of Cambridge, before they were commissioned on administrative assignments in India for 10-20 years. It largely talks about how Britishers’ should not look at India from a biased colonist point of view, but learn from its rich history and heritage dating back to 3000 years or more. Max Muller makes a case for how Sanskrit literature is rich in content and context sometimes surpassing Greek literature that most Europeans are largely appreciative of. He talks about the wisdom espoused in the Rig Veda around concepts such as religion and philosophy thereby attributing cultural richness to the nation.
The author belabors the point that the true India is in the village communities of the country. He talks about how the villages of India have defined the social strata, legal structure and cultural outlook of the nation as compared to its cities and towns that saw years of occupation and plunder from outside nations. The author’s main fascination is however around Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. He talks about Sanskrit as the elder sister of the Indo European languages and urges the civil service officers to learn Sanskrit on their arrival in India. He also laments the bad image created of India by British historians like James Mills and urges these officers to instead seek Indian History from the journals of Colonel William Sleeman, a British officer commissioned to handle thuggery in Indian villages.
Max Muller comes out as a very respectable figure in his brief lectures captured in this book. Whether he made any true impact on the British officers who attended his lecture is doubtful as the intent of British administrators was never meant to shower love on India or Indians. They occupied the nation for economic purposes and maintained their hegemony as long as it mattered for the mother country.
The author generously praises India a lot in this book and probably talks more passionately about the country in some cases when compared with other Indian nationalists of his time. He calls India a “paradise on earth” and a place where the greatest achievement of the human mind under the sky was realized. He however largely talks about these in the context of an India that existed 2000 years before, well before Buddha or Christ, and not the state of the country when it was under British rule.
Max Muller however suffers from using the same convoluted lens that other European historians have used to intuitively capture the history of the East, especially India, primarily based on the Aryan invasion theory. Like other historians of his kind, he comes with a preconceived notion on Aryan history and its origins. He makes glaring assumptions on how Aryans originated somewhere in Europe and their conquests pushed local aborigines (dasyus) further South in the country. This theory based purely on color of the skin of the native inhabitants and misinterpreted lines in the Rig Veda lack any convincing storyline. This mindset in reflected in how his showering of praise for the nation is also intermixed with a call for “sympathy” towards Indians. The other delusion that his work suffers from, like all other European Historians, is to consider “India” as a country in its entirety with a singular cultural or historical identity. This was probably done to provide uniformity in thoughts to its readers and sponsors, mostly rich colonial European administrators. India as a country was a fictitious creation of the Mughal invaders way back, but then even they didn’t consider the Southern part of India as part of the Hindustan that they mapped out. India turned out to be a creation of European invaders and trading companies, who cared less about its cultural diversity, if not the ethnic and linguistic history of its inhabitants. It’s a shame that this theory was well supported by the free India created in 1947 as it helped serve the federal or union building efforts of the then government. A simple way to look at this anomaly is in seeing what the World would have thought if Asian Historians self proclaiming themselves as experts would pool together the entire European nations and call them as a single country called “Europe” occupied by white inhabitants with a single religion tied to the Christian faith! This was how European authorities or historical savants viewed India as and got away with it.
The author also hurriedly tries to explain the antiquity of Indian literature in the context of the Rig Veda by making a case for how writing the Rig Veda onto paper was not the intent of the ancient Indians, but the goal was to have a select group of people memorize them and pass them over the years. But, he struggles to confidently claim that the Rig Veda shows an advanced culture dating back to 1500BC or even earlier. I believe the tendency for European historians and archaeologists to pick an earthen pot and use flawed carbon dating to confidently attach chronological evidence also forced him to still consider literary evidence as those scribbled on paper, wood or rocks as true beacons of dated history.
Overall, this book is a good read for anyone interested in the works of European orientologists and Indian History. At a bare minimum, this book reflects the historical fact that British colonists did organize a series of lectures to outgoing civil service officers by calling in noted European historians for sharing their perspectives on India. Sometimes, it’s the intent that matters rather than the results. The British government had a good intent in teaching its select cadre of talented people something more about the nation they occupied, although that knowledge, to Max Muller’s disappointment, didn’t percolate well enough to the British public in general.

Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Well, after a long break where I spent most of my time driving a strategic priority project towards completion at work, I am back to spend time talking about my favorite topics. I have recently experimented with video blogging and this is my first attempt at it.

I read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond several months before but never got a chance to share my viewpoint on it. Now, I have tried to express some of my opinions in the form of a video blog. A lot to work on for me, but at least I have given it a start.


Book Review: Autobiography of a Yogi – A Story of Mysticism and Spirituality

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda

Reading through the pages of the book “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda is like a magical journey through times past, present and uknown! A journey that describes the pursuit of a yogi towards God realization and the adventure he embarks upon in a mystical India that is relatively diminishing over time.
The yogi’s tale is a very engaging account of how the science of Kriya yoga was initiated by a God saint “Babaji” (and originally by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita) and passed on to his mortal disciples who in turn carried on the tradition of passing this art to the following generations, in turn becoming masters in their own right.
The biggest challenge with anything that the human senses cannot easily perceive becomes unscientific as per the modern world. Walking along this trend, it is very difficult to ascertain the “truth” or “reality” of the various superhuman and God-like saints Swami Yogananda talks about. Nevertheless, it is very comforting to know that there have always been people on this earth renouncing materialistic gains and seeking unison with their spiritual self.
The book as such however meanders into areas that makes one doubt the seriousness of the Kriya yoga initiative. The Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) founded by the Yogi in the US is described in grand details- materialistic acquisition of property the exotic locations of the Pacific West. Sometimes, the book seems more like a sales pitch for Christians to join the SRF. However, I liked the subtle references to Christ’s sayings in the Bible, the yogi’s interpretation of them, and how all spiritual teachings were meant to be the same for the entire people of the World.
No matter what mistakes a skeptical human mind can come up with, there were unique perceptions of the yogi on some topics that were a delight to read. He laments on how the true form and value of education embedded in the ancient guru-shishya form is lost in today’s world. Education by rote has become the order of the day and there is no genuine pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. His comments on India’s misinterpreted history and true wealth (spiritual superiority) also delves into how misguided Historians created an Aryan invasion “theory” to discredit its unique past.
The yogi also studies the power of human beings in achieving superhuman capabilities for non-materialistic purposes. His explanation of some of the abilities of yogis to materialize objects out of thin air is fascinating. The base theory that objects are made of atoms, packed into matter and emanating energy is used as a basis for explaining how certain highly trained yogis (who control prana) could recreate the same objects from thin air by rearranging those atoms. He also delves into the Law of Miracles by explaining how certain yogis can materialize themselves in different places at the same time and as and when they wanted.
Quoting straight from the book, “Einstein proved that energy in any particle of matter is equal to its mass or weight multiplied by the square of the velocity of light. The release of atomic energies is brought through annihilation of these material particles. The velocity of light is 186000 miles/sec. Only a material body whose mass is infinite can equal the velocity of light! Great yogis achieve materialization and de-materialization by utilizing this concept of light to manifest themselves in any form they want – their mass is infinite.” All this has supposedly been explained in the acient texts of the vedas. According to the yogi, “The Law of Miracles is operable by any man who has realized that the essence of creation is light”!
Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda has indeed opened up a new insight into a forgotten history and lost cause. I’m not sure how the Self Realization Foundation is truly working today to help people use Kriya yoga (never explained anywhere in detail) as a path to human upliftment, but the yogi’s biography is worth knowing about. It is definitely delightful to read the life account of people who came and left the Earth with a unique purpose in mind.


Book Review: Greed and Glory on Wall Street – Kids on the Loose!

Greed and Glory on Wall Street by Ken Auletta
I recently completed reading “Greed and Glory on Wall Street” by Ken Auletta. Set in the 80s, this book has already been reviewed by many over the years. Although decades old, this book is still an interesting read, especially the final chapter that talks about lost glory and the changing face of capitalism. It is interesting to note that, given the new fate of Lehman Brothers, it doesn’t surprise one that Investment Banks have been a symbol of “desperate greed” since ages. Desperate since experts put the blame on a changing society and growing complexity in capitalism as the reasons for such greed.

The author is definitely impartial in analyzing happenings that led to the then collapse of Lehman Brothers in 1984. However, throughout the narrative, there definitely was a sense that the truth is still hidden somewhere in between. After all, the people who interviewed must have planned out a strategy for keeping their names intact. Anyways, it’s exciting to understand how the job of “raising money” can be so convoluted in reality. The fact that it’s just a bunch of gluttonous individuals managing that process for an entire nation (or world depending on how one sees it), makes it all the more shocking. The mess in Ken Auletta’s version of Lehman Brothers is just one such example. A bunch of fighting kids with a singular motive to get rich quickly, empowered by a system that promotes easy handling of money, led by a management that believes only in making money, can only be nothing but a perfect recipe for disaster. It’s interesting to note that when people in Main Street don’t get a hold of how they are getting rich, they obviously can’t raise their voices against what self-proclaimed “bracket” firms in Wall Street bulging with money are up to.

This book never gives a clear picture of who the culprit was in orchestrating the demise of Lehman Brothers. In fact, I felt there was none. Pete Peterson, the Chairman, did his best to keep up his reputation as a proud investment banker. Money and fame go hand in hand, and he embraced it dearly. Lew Glucksman also did his part to keep up with his desire to mint money out of selling bonds. While one believed in prestige from corporate finance, the other believed in sales & trading. Nevertheless, both dealt with a board and a bunch of partners, who when combined together, were nothing more than a bunch of kids boosting capitalism and their bank accounts with unimaginable chunks of money.

Just when I was adjusting myself to the end result that Lew Glucksman, was brought down by a board that just wanted to keep its money safe, I read the book “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis. That further changed my perspective on Wall Street banking and what could have truly happened to Lehman Brothers. In short, I would put it as nothing but changing market forces killing the super strong bond market growth in the mid 80s. It eventually led to severe losses for all firms that made boat loads of money creating and selling bonds, led to Lew’s team losing their shirt and of course Lehman, its pants.

In a capitalist world where the rules are meant to be broken, super bright men (unfortunately women didn’t have a recognizable place at that time) with IQs that help them understand how a home loan can be transformed into a completely unknown package of securitized bonds, keep changing the rules of the game. When governing bodies are slow to react (which I feel will always be the case in the fast paced world of Wall Street), a kid who can handle or break a bunch of telephones while buying and selling financial instruments will always call the shots. A 23 year old college graduate will guide the fate of an investment made by a large insurance firm through money sucked from a “not-meant-to-be-understood” health insurance premium it has been charging drug-dependent citizens stuffed with one-a-day pills for a new syndrome defined and marketed by a big pharmaceutical company trading in Wall Street to feed multi-billion dollar blockbuster drug research and become a profitable company.

I never realized money was so easy to get as long as you have a fool that you can take a ride for. The investors in the 80s obviously fell in that bracket. The investors of today may be different, and a bit more diverse (or global as some people describe today), but when they deal with Wall Street, they cannot get a better deal. After all, you make money by taking away someone else’s. Of course, Wall Street gives investors the money they desire. It’s just that as the dollar moves from one hand to the other, a few pennies slip through a small hole in the pocket. The less you feel bad about orchestrating it, the happier you feel buying large mansions in overpriced locations and smoking large chunks of expensive cigars with the arrogant belief that you are the smartest guy on the planet.


Book Review: The “Invisible” Continent – Politics at Play

The Invisible Continent by Kenichi Ohmae
Recently I read a book by the famous strategy consultant Kenichi Ohmae, called “The Invisible Continent”. Although written for audience in the early 2000, it did provide interesting insights into a changing world. A world defined by entities that do not physically exist, but still control the economic direction of participating nations. The book definitely provides insights into how structure needs to be established in the uncontrolled cyber environment, with globally acceptable legal laws defining the ways of the business.
I found the author admirable and highly inspirational, a nobrainer given his phenomenal success at McKinsey. However, what I found interesting in the midst of all the business-economic recommendations he generously provides (without a consultation fee!) to companies and countries in the book, is his political viewpoint on nations. This makes me wonder if a business personality is highly successful only if he can rope in political views to answer business dilemmas!
Nevertheless, what excited me when reading this book was the validation of nationalistic feelings of a Japanese citizen that another author, Chalmers Johnson, had portrayed in his book – “The Sorrows of Empire”. Kenichi questions the bureaucratic stodginess of Japanese political establishments and their reluctance in questioning the unwanted high costs of “maintaining” a foreign army (the US military) to “protect” Japan against its “enemies”! The dilemma lies in who the enemy truly is and why. Kenichi also talks about his association with Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad, described as a visionary who repeatedly challenged financial markets badly influenced by the West and at the same time promoted investments to allow Malaysia enter the information super-highway. The Asian financial crisis and the crisis in Latin America were explained by the actions of fickle minded global investors (primarily in the US) pulling money in and out of a country triggered by the slightest economic provocation. How the Japanese funds into American markets indirectly influenced it is interesting to learn.
But the biggest surprise I had from reading his book was his veiled attack on American economic policies in an otherwise highly appreciate prose on the American economy and their willingness to make bets on the next big unproven money machine. His take on how the United States dominated the world on two platforms – the dollar and the English language is worth reading. What I loved the most about it from a personal standpoint was that, even before I read this book, I always had this notion in my mind – if you would appreciate a single American who transformed the destiny and fortunes of the country for decades to come, it would be the guy who said – “let’s make the US dollar the global currency for exchange in the World”. This happened shortly after the “World” Wars (I’ll explain in an other post as to why I put the World in quotes) and led to global recognition of the US dollar as a powerful currency in the market. However, my thinking capabilities stopped at that thought and I didn’t have any intellectual inputs to back or further that view. Kenichi has a similar opinion on the power of the dollar and how the country is protected from inflation due to the constant inflow of funds from safety seeking investors (both legal and illegal), a privilege that allows the Fed to mint money without fear of ending up with large unmanageable cash reserves. He proposes a new currency similar to the Euro, a more expanded conglomerate of currencies from participating nations to alter this platform. However, I do not personally see a huge benefit from it apart from displacing the US dollar from its platform status, in turn, reshaping the World as we see it today, for good or bad!
On a final note, there was one aspect of the book or rather Kenichi’s thought process that I wasn’t comfortable with. In all the political talk of borderless nations, an economic system that has no place for politics, a continent that transcends cultural and regional biases and a system of universal opportunities for all, Kenichi repeatedly exposes himself to the inability to hide his nationalistic feelings as a Japanese and a “developed” nation psychosis of partnering with the developed West (the “Euro” nation and the US) to improve the lot of the “developing” World. I felt that references to this inherent belief contradicts the recommendations and feel-good moments that he tries to portray through the Invisible Continent. If the Invisible continent is indeed for everyone to enjoy, why should the skeletal structure of that continent and life into the continent (rules, regulations, laws, players, benefactors and beneficiaries) be molded by the so-called “developed” nations? If playing in the invisible continent is one that favors intellectual tenacity, why should other nations be restricted from framing the constitution of this continent?