Category Archives: review

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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Book Review – Madhavi by Bhisham Sahni


MadhaviMadhavi by Bhisham Sahni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A play I read on the insistent recommendation of a colleague at work, Madhavi is the story of one woman’s sacrifices in the face of the duty bound  men in her life. The play is based on the story of Madhavi, King Yayati’s daughter from the Mahabharata.

Munikumar Galav is an accomplished disciple of Rishi Vishwamitra, who stubbornly insists on giving him gurudakshina*, even though Vishwamitra does not want any. Galav’s relentless insistence angers the sage and he demands 800 Ashwamedha horses as his gurudakshina. And so begins Galav’s quest to perform his duty and fulfil his teacher’s wish – it becomes a matter of pride that he fulfil the nearly impossible task and won’t give up till it is done.

His search takes him to King Yayati, who is known for his generosity, and now lives in an ashram after renouncing his title and the material life. Upon hearing what Galav seeks from him, he is dismayed, but at the same time not willing to give up his reputation of being the most generous king in the land. His pride takes over and he resolves not to send the man empty handed; he gives Galav the only thing of value that he has left – his daughter, Madhavi.

Madhavi is a gifted being, blessed with the ability to produce sons for kings and magically renew her virginity and youth. She becomes the perfect bargain for Galav to offer to a king in exchange for the 800 Ashwamedha horses. The catch however is that only 600 such horses exist, with three kings owning 200 each.
As Madhavi changes hands from her father to Galav, to the first king, the second and so on, she becomes the sacrificial lamb, fulfilling her duty towards her father’s command and her love for Galav. She is tormented and torn, but her resilience and sacrifices go unrecognised and unconsidered, obscure in the pride and vanity that each man feels – albeit on her account, because without her they could never have fulfilled their respective duties.

In the end, everyone has fulfilled his duty, but what does this mean for Madhavi? Is she rewarded for her patience and suffering? What does she settle for? Who does she settle for, in this world of proud and conceited men?
Read to find out.

I read the play in Hindi (a rare occurence), the language it was originally written in. But I believe the translated version (in English) is also very well done. Definitely worth a read.

*Gurudakshina – the teacher’s fee

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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 – Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short stories have always been a a challenge for me, and this is probably the most cryptic set of stories that I have read yet.

What is it about these enormously acclaimed Japanese authors of the earlier 20th century. The first I read was Yukio Mishima, who over and above being known for his controversial novels, is most remembered for his ritual suicide by sepukku; and now Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who is called the “father of the Japanese short story” and has Japan’s premier literary award named after him, is also remembered for having killed himself at the age of 35.
Their literature and writings seem to have a cult following, because they definitely aren’t mass market material – and this is what attracted me to read some of their works.

This is a set of 6 tales that essentially explore dimensions of human nature. I don’t want to summarize the stories here, but I have to say that after reading each one of them, I looked up analyses online to understand the latent meanings that were clearly evading me – and in some cases I was surprised that I had almost completely missed the point – which in itself was amusing.

These are good stories to be read aloud, discussed and ruminated over. A good choice for book club reading. They are not very long, but some of them are complex.

The movie Rashomon was made based on two stories from this set and is highly acclaimed even today – with a rating of 8.3 on IMDb. That will be an interesting followup to the book.

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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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Why I’m Still Rooting for Blackberry


Most people I know have written off the BlackBerry. In fact, its more than most people, its nearly everyone.

When people at work (and for that matter at home) see me using my BlackBerry phone (the Z30), its like a novel experience for them to watch someone use what they believe is probably the biggest failure in mobile technology today. The most natural reaction is generally the “but why” reaction. But why must you be using a BlackBerry when there are so many great Android / Apple options!? But why must anyone be using a BlackBerry at all, isn’t the company closing down?

So, while earlier I used to try and defend why I continued to be a BlackBerry user for the past 6 years, I’ve simply stopped doing it anymore. And that’s because until one actually uses a BlackBerry that runs the BB10 OS – which I have been using for the past 4 years, I don’t think they can fully appreciate why some BlackBerry loyals aren’t giving up on it just yet.

BlackBerry released the BB10 OS in 2013 taking a leap from its BB6 version, which everyone said was a desperate attempt at bringing itself at par with Android and iOS. And maybe it was,  an attempt to re-imagine and re-position the BlackBerry on an equal operating plane.

But consider what BlackBerry did with BB 10. It actually innovated! And it out innovated Apple as well as Android.If we leave the app world factor out, BlackBerry actually delivered a much more sophisticated, productive, thought through and streamlined operating system. The Hub, which is the central feature of the BB 10 operating system, is such a simple, efficient and practical solution that I cannot imagine functioning without it. It is immediately intuitive, integrating all notifications from SMS and emails, to social media and instant messaging. I never have to actually enter the Gmail, Twitter or Whatsapp apps to check and respond to my messages, which if you think about it, is a huge convenience.

BlackBerry Flow – gesture control. When I first started using a BB10 device, it took me about a week to get used to having no home, menu or back buttons on the phone. But pretty soon, I realized what a blessing gesture control was! True to its name, BlackBerry Flow allows you to run apps side by side; you can hop from one to the other without losing any content or progress and pickup exactly where you left off without having to exit and enter apps repeatedly. Try doing that on the iOS or an Android, and tell me if it isn’t super annoying to constantly get in and get out of every app you’re using. With Flow, BlackBerry nailed navigation. It is the single most fluid operating system and interface I have experienced across devices – and I’ve used both iOS and Android.

Don’t they call Blackberry the king of the keyboard? Yes they do, and for good reason. Whether its the touch keypad or the iconic physical keyboard, BlackBerry knows what its doing and is hands down the king of keyboard design, so lets not even get into that.

And finally, the handsets. BlackBerry launched a whole new generation of handsets when it released the BB10 OS. And while some of these had a bumpy start, almost every flagship device won accolades for its design and performance. In 2014, the BlackBerry Z30 won gold in the ‘Consumer Product of the Year’ category at the Best in Biz Awards 2014 International. The same year, it also won the WIRED’s CES Smartphone Thunderdome Challenge with a 110 point lead on Apple in the second place (hah!). CES is a global consumer electronics and consumer technology tradeshow that takes place every January in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2015 the BlackBerry Passport won the Red Dot ‘Best of the Best’ Award for Product Design – I could start gushing endlessly about this device, so just go and read what the jury had to say about it here. And in 2016, the BlackBerry Priv won it again.

My only regret would be to miss out on the BlackBerry Passport, which was going to be my next device – and that too only because it wont get Whatsapp support, which I use extensively like everyone else. But for more reasons than that, Blackberry shouldn’t let this premier device slip through the cracks, and I can only hope they bring an Android integrated version on it too.

So yes, I have more than “some” hope in BlackBerry’s revival and I am waiting to see what they bring out next!

Featured image: 4hdwallpapers
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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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Book Review: The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons


5/5 STARS!!!!!!!

27239265Well…. that was pretty intense, exciting and enjoyable!
Gibson Vaughn is like the American equivalent of Cormoran Strike – in a refreshing, believable and non-super hero kind of way; and this first book builds a great back story for him. This is not a James Bond / Mitch Rapp equivalent and I’m so grateful to Matthew FitzSimmons for keeping it real. I am definitely looking forward to the release of the next one in October this year.

The story hooks you from the very first page and keeps the tempo up throughout. There is something about surveillance videos of missing persons that just keeps you glued and I’m sharing no more than that. Though I was able to guess the plot before the big reveal, that didn’t spoil it for me, it was still super interesting till the end.

Usually, in this genre, the lead character is either unbelievably ‘uber cool’ or so ‘flawed’ that it doesn’t seem real anymore and I find it hard to relate to. But I liked all the characterizations in this book. They are well balanced, and don’t fall into the usual cliched territory. The other thing that sets this one apart is that while the book is so fast paced, its not a shallow story and makes one care for its characters. It will stick in the mind for a while.

I think this story is perfect for American TV or at least a movie, though I think 2 hours wouldn’t do justice to all the plot lines.

Read it!!

Featured image: Goodreads.com

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