Category Archives: history

Book Review – The Assassinations: A Novel of 1984 by Vikram Kapoor


4/5 STARS

The Assassinations: A Novel of 1984, is a historical fiction novel based on the 1984 Sikh riots that took place in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. The story takes place in Delhi, the centre of the riots, and follows the lives of two families who are unwittingly drawn into and deeply affected by the event, turning their lives in directions they could never have imagined.

Most non-fiction books on the subject capture stories from the worst affected areas in Delhi – Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Sultanpuri, Seemapuri, Nangloi. In The Assassinations, Vikram Kapur brings the most prime and affluent localities of New Delhi into focus, portraying the immense vulnerability of even those who thought they were, or tried to remain, distant from the worst of the violence in East Delhi and the events that led up to it. The author has weaved key historical facts and events well into the narrative, creating a synchronism in how our story develops and how the characters blend into these events. There is one particular moment in the plot that took me by surprise and is extremely tragic, but it also binds the events happening in Delhi around that time very well.

I enjoyed this book for its simple and fluid expression, and because the story is completely believable and relatable. The characterisations are well done, their emotions and inner turmoils well conveyed. It is not difficult to sympathise with how they feel and why they feel so. I also really enjoyed the descriptive depiction of the Delhi of 1984; it really added to the feel of the period this book covers. There are other small details that add to the picture the author is trying to create in the reader’s mind about how bad the atmosphere in the country had become during that time. For example, there is a passage that describes how a short feature on national integration on television had been modified to include a Sikh boy, though in the past it had only been a Hindu boy and  Muslim boy. To me, this was a really interesting insight.

This is a heartbreaking story of what 1984 did to 8 people, amongst thousands, what they gained and what they lost – and what this one haunting story represents of the pain, loss and tragedy that so many continue to live with even today.

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Podcasts – Probably my most favourite modern day invention


2017 has been the year of podcasts for me. I don’t know what took me so long to give them a shot but I am so glad I finally did and I haven’t stopped listening since. India still hasn’t developed a culture of listening to podcasts, even though we are a nation of radio listeners, and I don’t think I personally know even five people who live in India and are avid listeners; I can think of only two infact. While I’ve been trying to get some of my friends to at least try it once, I haven’t been successful. The most common thing I hear is that they can’t concentrate on people talking on audio and lose track of the conversation. Most people are only open to listening to music on audio, and I feel so sorry for what they are missing out on.

Podcasts are such a convenient medium to expand knowledge, to be entertained, to get new ideas and learn about things you may never encounter in the course of your normal life. Its like reading many different types of books in a very short time, and in a very effective way. Its an opportunity to use every free minute of your day to learn something new, to be inspired, to grow.

But I was a late bloomer too, and there are two primary reasons my perception about podcasts was a bit askew. First, because in India, I only ever saw podcast options on tech websites, news websites or entertainment websites, none of which interested me enough to try. And second, because mobile internet in India was still evolving – using data was not cheap and I wasn’t sure it was strong enough to buffer the audio; so again, I never tried. Its only since last year that 4G connections have gotten stronger and data much cheaper.

So earlier this year, as I was exchanging stories with a friend about true crime shows (mostly OJ Simpson: Made in America, which is such a brilliant documentary and a must-watch), he made some recommendations of podcasts with similar themes that I might enjoy too. Till then, I had no idea about the nature of content being produced on podcasts around the world!

And this brought me to my first ever podcast Serial , which tells a true story, over the course of one season – 12 episodes. Oh what a start it was! The research was amazing, the narration was awesome – the whole production was brilliant. I don’t think I would have loved a visual version as much as I loved it on audio. If you’re a podcast sceptic, this is where you should start. It even won the Pea Body Award for journalism in 2014! I was hooked, I was consumed and I never looked back since. I started listening on a Saturday and I think I finished the entire first season (12+ hours of audio) by the end of Sunday. And then I finished the second season, which was another amazing story, before the week was over. Binge listening is a thing!

As I frantically looked for more content, I discovered this whole new universe of some of the most interesting and well produced podcasts. There is rarely a silent moment in my apartment now, whether I’m washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning or getting dressed for work, something is always playing. And you know what, I am super productive and efficient when I work as I listen. I’m even motivated to exercise if I can do it listening to a podcast.

While true crime stories are awesome, there are also some super interesting podcasts that cover otherwise heavy subjects like economics, politics, analytics, human behaviour, self improvement, motivation, history and psychology, and much more, that I’m sure I haven’t even discovered yet. And you know what the best part is? Its completely FREE! You do not have to pay to listen! Imagine getting to listen to all this amazing stuff at zero cost! The only thing you pay for is your internet / data use, which works just like any other streaming service, like Youtube. Just download an app (I use Podcast Addict – I feel like it was made for me :-)), search your podcast by title, hit subscribe and listen to your heart’s content! OR got to the podcast website and stream from there.

The only thing that I wish I would find more of are Indian podcasts, as well produced and as well narrated as the (mostly) American ones. Because while I absolutely love those, the context is completely American (obviously), and not always relevant for an Indian listener – especially when it is historical or legal in nature. I would absolutely love to hear similar stories from India’s rich legal and social history, I’d do anything to be a part of the research!

So before I close, here’s a list of some podcasts and their genres that I’ve heard extensively, loved and highly highly recommend (in no particular order):

  • Serial – True crime / investigative journalism
  • Freakonomics Radio – Economics / analysis – exploring the hidden side of everyday life
  • RadioLab – Curiosity / science / philosophy / history / human experience
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno – humour – if you don’t want to start with something serious, then this is the perfect way to start your podcast journey. Its British and its hilarious! Imagine if your dad wrote a dirty book. Most people would try to ignore it – but not Jamie Morton. Instead, he decided to read it to the world in this groundbreaking comedy podcast. With the help of his best mates, James Cooper and Alice Levine, Jamie reads a chapter a week and discovers more about his father than he ever bargained for. It was my favourite podcast to listen on my way home from work, sadly I’ve finished the third book and the next one comes out next year.
  • TED Radio Hour – TED talks repurposed for audio

Though I’ve listened to a lot more than this (including several from India), there have been a fair share of hits and misses. Of the Indian ones, I only liked The Intersection podcast recommended to me by RadioLab on twitter. But their episodes, though interesting, are just 15 minutes each and I haven’t seen them update feed since April this year.

Some new ones I’m looking forward to include Invisibilia, CRIMINAL, The WIRED podcast and The Anthill. I think I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg here, so I’d love to hear suggestions on other interesting podcasts that you think I should try!

Happy listening!

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Book Review – I Accuse-: the anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 by Jarnail Singh


I Accuse-: The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984I Accuse-: The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 by Jarnail Singh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember the journalist who threw a shoe at P Chidambram at a press conference a few years ago? That journalist, Jarnail Singh, is the author of this book. He was just an 11 year old kid, a resident of Lajpat Nagar, when he witnessed the vicious violence against the Sikhs in Delhi in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Many books have been written on the incident and the long pending justice that is still awaited by its victims and survivors more than 30 years later. I have not read most of those books, but there is something very emotional and personal about this one. For Jarnail Singh, this is too close to heart. The narration of first person accounts is simple but direct. It is difficult not to picture the carnage, the brutality and inhumanity of the unimaginable attacks. Men turned to monsters.
More than 30 long years later, the victims’ families continue to live in the long shadow of the attacks , their lives upended, their futures ruined, relegated to peripheral rehabilitations, survivors still struggling to survive, though many have succumbed.

The administration’s evident involvement and yet painfully slow and reluctant action to bring justice is outrageous. Khushwant Singh writes in his foreword to the book, that it is a must read for all those who wish that such horrendous crimes do not take place again.
And yet we see more examples of the same things happening today. Human life continues to hold little value in the face of what is manufactured belief, asserted boundary, wrenched legitimacy.

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Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran – Marina Nemat


Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside a Torture JailPrisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside a Torture Jail by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It amazes me to read stories from around the world that reveal how in the name of religion, power, politics, revolution…. innocent people who choose not to comply end up paying such heavy prices to maintain the most basic of liberties.

It is not that I live in an idealistic world, oblivious to the realities and sufferings that result from war and violent conflict – but when one reads in such detail, the ordeal of an individual who survived a conflict, the gravity of what he/she endured really hits home. From a statistic, this person turns into someone who you get to know almost as intimately as your own family and friends, and it is that connect that provides such perspective into the silent suffering and strength of millions trapped in conflict zones.
I think with war continuing to carry on in so many parts of the world for so many years, one dismisses it as an event beyond one’s control and in the process also loses sight of all the lives that are changing and getting lost everyday.

This is an important story, one that took so much courage to tell.

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Book Review – Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim


Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was meant to be investigative journalism, but it certainly does not read like one. Infact there was quite a controversy around it being publicised as a memoir – a woman’s journey of self exploration, much against the wishes of the author, who protested that tagging it as a memoir stripped the book and the author from its journalistic expertise.

While this may well have been the effect for many readers, it did not really change my perception about the book or the author’s journalism expertise. I still picked it up believing that it would provide a rare and engaging insight into this unexplored section of the North Korean society.

But the irony is that it reads exactly like a memoir, and not an interesting one at that. First I almost quit at 20% and then at 60%, and then just trudged on to the end because I wanted to read about what the author witnessed when Kim Jong Il died. But the details she shares from her two teaching months come across as so superficial, that anyone who has been reading about North Korea or has watched enough videos on YouTube, won’t be surprised by or find anything new in her reporting. There is so much of herself in there that all of this taking place in North Korea almost seems like a sub plot.

So much lost opportunity, not just in the writing but also in the information / investigation of information, especially since the book is a result of ten years of work.

People read about North Korea to understand it beyond the generic assumptions we have or make about the country, it’s systems and people. Investigative journalism is probably the most potent and dangerous means of getting the real picture. But how does it work in a country like DPRK when your every move is being watched, every word heard. So I understand that this is a big challenge and carries immense risk and may not actually provide the results one hoped for.

But a nearly day by day, lesson by lesson account of her time teaching English there adds no value to the larger scope of information that could have been gleaned and what one actually learns from this book could easily have been wrapped up in a chapter or two.

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Book Review: Dear Leader – Jang Jin-sung


Dear Leader: North Korea's senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regimeDear Leader: North Korea’s senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime by Jang Jin-sung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What made this book so interesting was the fact that the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they have managed to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question.
In an article with the Guardian, he describes the regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the center of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

After working as an expert analyst on North Korea for the South Korean government, Jang Jin-sung now runs an independent reporting website out of South Korea, with the primary agenda of dispelling myths and assumptions about North Korea and helping shape a picture that is much closer to reality – all as he continues to be a wanted criminal in North Korea on false murder charges.

The story of his escape and final entry into South Korea via China is amazing, bewildering and exciting and forces you to think about how such a country continues to exist even today, and the people who continue to languish there, stuck and stagnant.

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Book Review – Belonging by Umi Sinha


5/5STARS!!!!!!!!

Probably one of the most undiscovered and underrated books from the past year. I would never have discovered it myself, but for a completely unplanned (impulsive) trip to the local bookstore where I made a very poor choice and was back to exchange it for something better. And this time too, with the bookshop owner waiting to close shop, I almost randomly picked up ‘Belonging’. The cover was beautiful, but the author and book were completely unheard of, and a quick check on GR told me that with a 4+ rating it was a safe buy.

But I was not prepared for this book to be as fantastic as it was! Why hasn’t it showed up on any lists!? And I am surprised that even the Guardian hasn’t done a review on it, when it seems to review every new book that comes out! – – especially since this one has such a contextual British-Indian theme.

I seldom describe a book as “well crafted”. Many are well written but this one has something beautiful and intricate about it, much like the fine embroidery that adorns its cover and is a pivotal part of the story. As a debut author, Umi Sinha has set the bar very high and admirably demonstrates, by example, her background as a creative writing mentor and manuscript appraiser.

There is something about epistolary novels and I loved this one even more because nearly two-thirds of it is written in the form of letters and diary entries – making the reader so much more involved and engaged with characters and their deepest emotions. Sinha treats her characters with a lot of compassion and sensitivity and one comes away understanding each one – why they became who they were, what shaped their lives.This is a book worth reading again. Beautiful and elegant.

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Five Days in November – Book Review


Five Days in NovemberFive Days in November by Clint Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a time when I couldn’t read enough about the JFK Assassination and the various conspiracy theories about it. Traveling from one link to another on Wikipedia to buying an original DVD of JFK-the movie, only so I could watch and have a copy of the Zapruder film, like many people I obsessed on this event to an unhealthy degree. The last related book I read was 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which I loved.

‘Five Days in November’ was published 3 years ago, but I missed it somehow. When I did finally get it, it was like an after thought, and that too only because of the cover. So yesterday, when I finally picked it up, I was pleasantly surprised and very glad that I had not let it slip.

‘Five Days in November’ presents a very personal and intimate account of events from the inside. I’ve not been reading anything on this topic for years, and never picked up a book on it either, so for me the details in this book are a revelation. It is easy to see the high level of regard and respect Clint Hill had for the President and more so for the the First Lady, whose safety he was responsible for. I think it is not only well written but also sensitively written. Even though he is talking about personal details and emotions, there is no attempt to exemplify drama. There is no need.

It doesn’t go into any speculative deviations, but simply delivers fact and narrates a minute to minute account of what happened two days before and after the assassination.

Easily a single sitting read.

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Daughter of China – Book Review


Daughter Of ChinaDaughter Of China by Meihong Xu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The remarkable story of a military spy who is then treated as an enemy of state, in the backdrop of a cautiously protective and paranoid China in the cold war era. No wonder they say that if this story wasn’t true, a Hollywood script writer would have written it.

The simple language and first person narrative transports you into that time and place in China, when the country’s most defining transitions take place and where Meihong’s life path unfolds. Reading the first hand experience and perspective of a former ‘red’ citizen is an eyeopening account of the fear psychosis that was built under Chairman Mao’s rule – something that is deeply reminiscent of how North Korea functions even today.

The stories of the two women, other than Meihong, that impacted me a lot were those of her aunt and her paternal grandmother. Those are extraordinary stories of principle, courage and endurance… and make you wonder about the measure of human capacities for tolerance. I like this story because it is true and honest, and becasue it shows you how the worst can happen to the best of us, and how even the worst will one day be behind you. Yet there will be more to come and the only thing you have to do is try and keep your courage, trudge on and make the most of what you have.

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The Blood Telegram – Book Review


***** 5 STARS

The Blood Telegram may possibly be one of the most important and well written books I’ve read on modern Indian history so far. As someone who is almost always incurious, indifferent and unenthusiastic about politics (national and world) in general, reading this book has been a revelation on international diplomacy as well as a completely new perspective on the maneuverings that take place in the highest offices of the world, and the decisions that set in motion a series of incidents that alter the future of generations to come.

I’ve read this book like the history student I never was, completely absorbed in the details, wanting to take down notes, watching simultaneous interviews on YouTube (bringing to life the pages of the book) and constantly resisting the urge to underline complete paragraphs on nearly every page in the book. In the end, I had to make an exception to my ‘no markings in books’ rule – to highlight passages that I knew I was going to want to refer to again.

 

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My interest in modern Indian history is a fairly recent development, sprouting in the last couple of years mostly because of the extensive research I did for a project at work. Before this, my world view was limited to what we studied (or were taught) in school, which was nothing short of propaganda that the ruling party wants to feed you, and therefore hardly worth basing lasting opinions on. And so for a long time, reading history was not even on my radar.

It is laughable that up until now, I did not even know that the major part of the 1971 conflict was actually on the eastern side! It is the western side of the war that I’ve always remembered hearing about and being born just over a decade after this war, it is appalling to realize how little I knew about ‘India’s greatest triumph’ and what led to it.

This is why ‘The Blood Telegram’ came as such an important lesson for me on not just the 1971 war and the history of the birth of Bangladesh, but also as a lesson in world politics, the Cold War context, international relations, foreign policy and the hidden motives that define the realms and repercussions of international conflict. 

Gary J Bass’ research is detailed and expansive, and while there is always the danger of the author’s opinion coloring the inferences in the narrative, I think he dealt with every aspect as objectively and un-biasedly as is possible, basing all his interpretations and conjectures on hard facts. This is one of the reasons I am so taken by the book, because every fact literally comes from the horse’s mouth.

The one thing this book would not have been possible without, is the Nixon White House Tapes. Another fact that was news to me. I find it hard to believe that in the era of the Cold War, when secrecy and confidentiality were paramount, a US President would decide to have his office bugged and all his conversations and confidential meetings recorded. A tradition that continues to be practiced even today. In the Indian context, I can totally picture the author and his researchers diving into archival records and microfilms at the Nehru Memorial Library – a place I think is frozen in time from the 70s… and one I have spent several blissful days doing my own historical research in. Oh what a pleasure it would have been to be a part of the research team for this book.

In the end, we are ruled by our personalities, our temperaments, identities and insecurities – and I think what hit me most from the book was the interface it provided with Nixon and Kissinger in their revealing closed door conversations. Ultimately, it was their convictions, preferences and personal opinions that largely affected the outcome of the events in 1971, which despite numerous warnings and evident indications did not waver – and set the stage for a continuing conflict between India and Pakistan.

A #highlyrecommended book for anyone who would like objective and detailed insight into one of the largest but forgotten conflicts of the Indian subcontinent.

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