Notes on “Dateline Islamabad”

Just finished reading this fascinating account of the tumultous relationship between India and Pakistan. The author was the Islamabad correspondent for The Hindu between April 97 and June 2000. Incidentally, this was also a period of high-drama in the relationship between these two nations: Kargil, the nuclear tests, the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight, the military coup by Pervez Musharraf…. As expected, the author has much to report.

Some notes:

  • There is no such thing as the “state of Pakistan”. It depends on who is at the helm. Pakistan is a heady concoction of multiple power centers taking turns at directing its foreign policy (admittedly, much of this “foreign” policy is India-centric). The Prime Minister and his cabinet, the ever-present military, the President..even the Supreme Court ! Who do you deal with ? What do you frame your policy on ? In its search for peace with Pakistan, the Indian leadership sure has its work cut out.
  • The Pakistan Army (The Fauj) is the biggest conglomerate in Pakistan. It owns sugar mills, huge tracts of property, educational institutions, hospitals, fertilizer units….you name it. It yields such a huge influence over the destiny of the nation that no political leader (not even one with a powerful mandate) can dare ignore or sideline it.
  • The Kandahar hi-jacking: I cannot, for the life of me, understand what it was that the Indian leadership was planning to do. The Aribus A-300 flight was hi-jacked from Kathmandu and was forced to land in Amritsar since Lahore had denied landing permission to the hi-jackers. The lethargic Indian leadership could not act fast enough to keep the plane there. Instead, the hi-jackers flew the plane to Kandahar: the strong-hold of the Taliban. Even at this stage, the Indians were blind to the turn of events. No official was sent to Kandahar to negotiate. When finally, the horror of the threats turned real did the government make a move. And what a tame move it was !
  • Pervez Musharraf has been able to keep the Indians on a leash all through the last few years. I believe it has been a huge failure for the Indian leadership to not be able to push him into a corner even when the tide was against him. I think the Indians need to go under the surface and deal with the General’s real compulsions instead of blindly trying to prise a deal out of him.

I believe the book had a lot of potential. Fascinating as it was, I had expected more from the book when I picked it up. The Hindu has always been my favourite daily and I expected some juicy insider bits from this correspondent. Also, a huge disappointment was the absence of any pictures. A lot of metaphorical water had passed under the bridge during this period and there would have been a lot of photo ops. Also missing is the much-expected account of the workings of the Pakistan media, how it viewed India, how it viewed its own government, what challenges it faced in a turbulent state.

Where do I get all that from ?!?!?!

Notes on “The Great Gatsby”

This is perhaps the most frustrating read ever for me. It was like being invited to a sumptuous buffet with my taste buds on strike. (OK…lousy analogy !)

I believe I was not prepared for the plot of this book; I was not receptive enough to its symbolism. Maybe, I simply failed to soak in the America of the 1920s. So, I did the next best thing : I tried to read the “SparkNotes”.

I think the book deserves a re-read. Maybe a couple of months from today.

It is a pity: there is so much to read in a book…and I am not upto the task ….tsk…tsk…tsk

Notes on “Tuesdays with Morrie”

There are books that make you think, make you question your actions and ambitions in life. Then there are books that come very close to that but, at the last moment, drive you away with an overdose of sentimentality.

This book is an example of the latter kind.

Mitch Albom is a trained musician and a professional sports writer. Casually flipping channels one day at his home, he comes across an episode of “Nightline” where the famous host Ted Kopel is interviewing his dying ex-professor Morrie Schwartz. Morrie was his mentor in college and it is now time for Albom to go back to him for the last class that Morrie will ever take.

The book then hinges on their conversations on various subjects like death, family, forgiveness, money etc as the writer tries to come to terms with his own life in the face of what Morrie is going through. Morrie is diagonized with ALS, a condition which has no cure and which will slowly take away all his physical movements. It starts with him not being able to move and finally comes to a stage where he has to be helped in the activity of answering calls of nature.

I personally found the book intriguing and a page turner, but I have the following issues:

  • There is nothing new. The book reads like a collection of essays from a bunch of spiritual books. If I were to be rude, I would say that the dying man’s last few days could have been spent in a much more fruitful manner.
  • What is it about people on their deathbeds that makes us respect them more than usual ? Is it compassion or pity ? is it respect or a feeling of guilt ? People who are told that they are going to die in a few months or few years time will have a different view of life. As will a person who has just inherited a billion dollars. There is nothing extra-ordinary in that. Every person has a view of life and it irritates me that when a person on his deathbed talks about love, family etc, it somehow makes more sense to people than if it was told by a young man in his twenties. We all will die one day. Yes, I know that. However, that doesn’t mean that we stop the business of life.
  • Somehow, “living life to the fullest just because you know you are going to die” does not cut ice with me. We are all built in different ways, we all live our lives that way. There is nothing wrong or unethical about that. This is a kind of book that strives to make us feel guilty about living our lives the way we do: in the fast lane. That is simply irresponsible.

This is not a review of the book. I am not qualified enough to review it.

Notes on “13 December: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament”

13 December, 2001. Five unidentified people stormed the Parliament compound in a white Ambassador. When challenged by the security forces, they opened fire. Eventually, all five of them were killed. Also killed in the process were nine security personnel and a gardener.

The Supreme Court has given its verdict and handed over the death penalty to one Afzal Guru and a 10 year sentence to one Shaukat Guru. Afzal’s family has now appealed to the President of India for clemency.
This collection of essays attempts to show how Afzal went unrepresented almost throughout his trial, how the case was made up against him through false evidences, forced confessions and judicial incompetence. Further, there is a hint that there was an ulterior motive behind incarcerating Afzal and that he is just a pawn in the larger game. A game played by the right wing parties to whip up enough passion to go to war with Pakistan (with an eye on the elections). You almost get the feeling that writers are suggesting that the Indian Government stage-managed the whole incident for a few brownie points.

Some notes below:

  1. Most of the essays look at the legal aspects of the case. The idea is to sift through evidence available and question it. Except for , maybe, Praful Bidwai, most of the writers stay away from arguing on the moral implications of a death sentence. This is a good thing since that kind of argument is not really the story behind this book. The common statement across the essays is that Afzal was not given a fair trial, the lawyers representing him at various stages were incompetent (and often hostile to his case) and that he has been wrongly framed by the police and the politicians. The politicians, especially the right wingers, have made hay with this case.
  2. The case made is compelling. However, by the time you are done reading, you get a feeling that you have been brainwashed. The book would have made a lot more sense if we had representation from the prosecution, the police etc answering the questions raised by our essayists. Instead, the book (I do not, for a moment, doubt its noble intentions) ends up as a pamphlet for the “save-Afzal” campaign.
  3. There are inherent contradictions. For example, the essayists are not able to decide why there is a need for clemency in this case. From Ms. Roy’s introduction to the book: “Among the people who have appealed against Mohammad Afzal’s death sentence are those who are opposed to capital punishment in principle. ..”. Later, Ms Nandita Haksar writes “All those who are protesting against the death sentence for Afzal are doing so because they know that he has not been given an opportunity to defend himself. Even the so-called Kashmiri seperatist leaders are not saying that Afzal should not be hanged merely because he is a Kashmiri. They are saying that he should not be hanged because he was never given a fair trial.”
  4. Ms. Haksar has the knack for making outright statements without explaining (maybe because it is too much work to justify her statements). Consider this : “There was a small group of citizens…who were deeply concerned over the fact that the new anti-terrorist law made it virtually impossible for any accused to prove his innocence. And they believed Geelani when he said he was innocent”. We are not told what the reasoning for this belief is.
  5. Shuddhabrata Sengupta takes a dig at the then Home Minister, LK Advani, who told the media that the attackers “looked like Pakistanis”. Consider this piece “…it is important to pause and consider how exactly we know that someone looks like a terrorist.”
  6. Consider this section from Ms. Roy herself “On the whole, most Kashmiris see Mohammad Afzal as a sort of prisoner-of-war being tried in the courts of an occupying power (which India undoubtedly is in Kashmir).” Astounding ! A quick googling tells me that around 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to migrate out of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. I wonder if it does affect the identity of any state when you move such a large chunk of people out. Would these Kashmiri Pandits (had they been allowed to stay at home) also called India “an occupying power”. I am not trying to get jingoistic here, but you cannot make such statements without looking at the issue from all angles.
  7. Nirmalangshu Mukherji (who has himself written a book on this case) presents the bare facts of the case and attempts to show how the whole case was built on flimsy evidence (if we can call it that !) For example, SAR Geelani (who was later acquitted by the SC) was arrested on 15 Dec, 2001 apparently on the basis of records of phone calls made to and from his cell to various people, some of them in Pakistan. However, the court records show that the call details provided by Airtel, Geelani’s provider, were dated 17 Dec, 2001. “How could the police arrest Geelani two days before it got the phone records that ‘led’ them to him” argues the writer !
  8. Praful Bidwai aims a dig at the fact that India still has the death penalty while other civilized countries have long abolished it : “..this represents a definite erosion of liberal values, at a time when the abolition of the death penalty has emerged the world over as a precondition for a country being considered civilized”. Countries such as China, Japan and the US still retain the death penalty. I thought we counted them as “civilized”, no ? Wasnt the death penalty handed over to Saddam Hussein under the auspices of that “most civilized state”, the US ?
  9. Mr. Bidwai further digs in trenches : “Deprived of the spirit of Nehru or Gandhi, there is a bloody mindedness in India today as never before”. Wasn’t Nathuram Godse handed the death penalty for killing Gandhi (with Nehru as our PM then) ?
  10. Mr Mukherji, in another essay argues that the lapses of the investigating authorities were not investigated/questioned by the courts. “.. the microscopic nature of a trial in court, however, means that it is only the accused whose conduct will be interrogated and judged”. There were plenty lapses and some deliberate planting and twisting of evidence (the forced confessions for one) that point a finger of suspicion towards the investigating teams themselves. At no point did the court ask these lapses to be investigated into. There is an urgent need to look into how the entire investigation was completed and arrests made in a matter of a few weeks.

To end, this is a good book addressing an issue which is urgent and critical. Not just from the perspective of this particular trial, but from the much larger perspective of the miscarriage of justice in our courts. The book tries to bring out the brutality of the STF (State Task Force) in J&K and how they extort money from surrendered militants.

The attraction for investing time with this book was Ms. Arundhati Roy’s writing; it stings and gives the whole issue a voice which is somehow missing from the other essays.

“To hang Mohammad Afzal without knowing what happened is a misdeed that will not easily be forgotten. Or forgiven. Nor should it be

Notwithstanding the 10% growth rate. ”

Note: This is not a review of this book. I am not qualified enough to review this book.

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Notes on “Hard Times”

At 230-odd pages, this is the smallest Dickens novel I have read.

Very annoying and difficult to read at times because of the accented spelling used (especially in conversations involving Stephen Blackpool and Rachel). Also, partly difficult to comprehend is the spelling used to characterize the toothless (literally speaking) speech of Mr. Sleary

The small size of the novel probably does not give the characters the required space. It almost feels as if the author suddenly remembers that he has lost touch with a few characters while narrating the main story (that of Louisa and her brother, “the whelp”). Case in point is Sissy. Her conviction during the small dialogue with Mr Harthouse is brought upon us without warning. The last we read of her, she was a demure, shy girl who was short on confidence.

Similarly, we do not learn enough of Stephen Blackpool, on why he has his disagreements with the union, on his affection for Rachel.

The true hero of the book is Mrs. Sparsit.Her “staircase” gives you a perspective that could not have been brought on with a thousand words. The need to pity others, the satisfaction that she gains out of it: this is a character written in true Dickens style.

The author moves out of London for this novel. But the undercurrent of class struggle remains. We are reminded of the drudgery of the “Hands” whenever we visit Coketown.

One thing I found odd is the author’s insistence on tying up all the lose ends of the story: the mystery of the old woman, the re-union with Sissy’s old vagabond family. This is true Bollywood style story !

Note: This is not a review of the book; I am not qualified enough to review it.

The reading list — an open thread

Friends..It is time to celebrate the passion of reading !

As someone who loves reading and loves the feel of a new book in my hands, I would like to know what you are reading, what you find interesting and what you would recommend to your friends.

Drop in your comments, your favorite books, books that you would love to read, books that are waiting on your bookshelf…anything.

Here is my list:

Books read this year:

  1. Faster — by James Gleick
  2. Black Friday — by S Hussain Zaidi
  3. No Onions Nor Garlic — by Srividya Natarajan
  4. Getting Past NO — by William Ury
  5. The Richest Man in Babylon — by George S Clason
  6. One Night at the Call Center — by Chetan Bhagat
  7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist — by Mohsin Hamid
  8. Hard Times — by Charles Dickens
  9. 13 December: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament — a collection of essays.
  10. Tuesdays with Morrie — by Mitch Albom
  11. The Great Gatsby — by F.Scott Fitzgerald
  12. Dateline Islamabad — by Amit Baruah
  13. Going To The Movies — by Syd Field
  14. The Purple Cow — Seth Godin
  15. The Search — John Battelle

Currently Reading:

  1. The Intelligent Investor — by Benjamin Graham
  2. Event, Metaphor, Memory — by Shahid Amin

Waiting in the bookshelf (my neglected list):

  1. Why I am not a Christian — by Bertrand Russell
  2. The God of Small Things — by Arundhati Roy
  3. Eats, Shoots and Leaves — by Lynne Truss

So, there. That is my list. Waiting for your list(s).