Sunday, May 17, 2015

Land of Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal - A small tribute

I was never really a history buff during school. In fact, one of my favourite lines to dismiss the subject used to be : the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. When it came to viewing the past, I used to prefer reading and re-reading mythology, if nothing else, it was certainly more interesting.

I had seen Sanjeev Sanyal over the years a few times on business channels, speaking with his economist hat on. However, it was only recently that I learnt about the fact that he is also a writer. It was through one of those serendipitous journeys on the internet that I came across this video of him speaking with Amish Tripathi - that I got to know about his writings and specifically this book : Land of Seven Rivers.

This is not a review of the book: Land of Seven Rivers: History of India's Geography, I am no book reviewer or critic. But here are just a few points about the book :


  1. This is not a pure history book per se, but an attempt by the author to give a history of India's geography - about India's changing natural and human landscape, cities and kingdoms, trade routes and rivers and so on. 
  2. As the author himself points out in the introduction, the book also is a little bit about the geography of India's history & civilization - as he tells us about the Saraswati river for example.
  3. The three key takeaways for me from this book personally were:
    • That history books can be written in a way, it is interesting and stimulating to read; I so wish that in the near future, books such as this become more widely read, especially by our young people;
    • That as an Indian, it is a good idea to be more aware, more cognizant about this nation's past, that we are part of a continuum of an ancient civilization with an incredible history and that we can carry forward this unique legacy, not as a burden, but as a gift with all its wonders;
    • That - it is always good to remember that India and Indians prospered during the times when this country and its people were an open culture which was willing to engage with the rest of the world, through trading and cultural interactions. Somewhere down the line, this quality was lost, but thankfully - that quality is back to the forefront now and this can only be a good thing.
Finally, this particular point made - right at the end of the book (which is part of the video link mentioned earlier) is my favourite part from the book. It makes a point about our identity that is worth pondering and reflecting upon. 


I recommend this book as a must read and I look forward to reading other works of Sanjeev Sanyal. Thanks for writing this Sir.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Paraphrasing Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen wrote this remarkable piece in the Guardian yesterrday : Labour would do better if it learned to like the English. It is a great analysis about the Labour party and its failings.

The paragraph 4th from last is this:

The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave.

I found this interesting. In fact, by changing a few words as done below, I thought it paints a rather interesting picture about India.

The intellectuals, liberal press, and the TV media characterise the Hindu upper-class as corrupt, inadequately educated misers, who are sexist, communal and casteist to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the Hindu middle class as filthy, sometimes loony, who are, since you asked, also sexist, communal and casteist. The history of Hinduism is reduced to one long crime of discrimination based on caste and gender, and the notion that the Hindus are not such a bad bunch with many diverse, unique traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A couple of John Stewart interviews

Well we are going through a phase here, in India's social media life, where it is now a very, bitter war between the left and the right wing - with most of the main stream on the left taking a lot of hits. I think this is a rather interesting phase, which will probably blow away. Or perhaps it will not - and become a permanent long running battle like in the west.
In light of this, I think these two interviews of John Stewart - one with Fox News and one with MSNBC make for interesting viewing. It's worth thinking which media outlet is biased based on its ideological agenda or it is partisan or whether they are simply lazy and TRP driven.




Monday, March 16, 2015

AB de Villiers and the time to walk the path

As per the ICC rankings, AB de Villiers is the best batsman in the world right now in ODIs. He is the alpha male of ODI batting right now. Not only is he the best batsman overall, he is also the most dominant. He is slightly ahead of Amla, Sangakarra and Kohli overall I think, but quite a bit ahead of them in terms of the sheer fear factor that he brings to the opposition.

I have not seen a batsman who has made batting look more easy in the one day game than how AB de Villiers has been batting of late. With the new rules in play, AB de Villiers pretty much decides which are the 3 or 4 places that the ball can go and then chooses one of them and does that. Sometimes - he chooses just one place and goes through with the shot anyway. But this is not some new age hitter - like a Keiron Pollard or the new kid on the block - who is conquering all in front of him with his power hitting - Glenn Maxwell. AB de Villiers is a world class batsman capable of playing perfectly normal or what we call orthodox cricket, but often chooses the extraordinary option and makes it look ordinary while executing it.

With Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla - two other all time greats as well in his side, AB de Villiers really should be leading his side to World Cup glory. But the group stages have showed that they struggle chasing, in case Amla gets out early; as AB de Villiers is not getting enough support from the rest of the order under pressure. But here's the thing, unless some incredibly good delivery comes up, AB hasn't looked like getting out to a bowler at least. He seems to have so much time to play the ball, it looks like he is sometimes hitting boundaries as an afterthought. In terms of the physical and technical part of the game, AB is right now - as good as anybody I have ever seen hold the cricket bat.

If there is a weakness, if there is a question mark - it is about his decision making. For someone who has such a range of strokes and so much time to play his strokes - he faces a problem of the plenty - when deciding which shot to play. Or if it comes to a run chase - he has to make decisions like - whether to attack and take out a bowler and quickly finish off the game or sometimes play the waiting game. Or it could be a question of farming the strike with lower order batsmen at the crease. The risk-reward questions is what AB has to settle correctly and there perhaps a look at someone like Dhoni's approach might give AB an easier approach to win games.

The World Cup hangs by a thread - that of AB de Villiers' bat. It hasn't been like this - since Sachin Tendulkar in 1996, but an accident of a run out cut short that dream back then. Accidents can happen again, or so can mistakes. The margins of error, are very, very thin right now. But the fact of the matter is very simple - if AB de Villiers plays a big knock -(i)  batting first it will mean he has probably out batted the opposition or (ii) stays not out till the end - South Africa are going to win their matches and consequently the World Cup. It's like Messi and 2014 all over again - the greatest player of a generation at the peak of his powers, seeking World Cup glory. Can he take his country, who are yet to win a knock-out game ever in their World Cup history - through 3 games and to the Cup is the question.

To bring in a Matrix phrase: - AB by now, knows the path. It is time he walks it. 
The World Cup hangs on that bat
PS: Bonus Reading: How AB turned around his career a few years ago.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Atlantic piece on ISIS


  1. A few days, back The Atlantic magazine published a really detailed piece by Graeme Wood titled: What ISIS really wants. It is a detailed research piece, well worth a read. 
  2. The article has faced some criticism. Two of the better pieces are:  
    1. The Clash of Civilizations That Isn't in The New Yorker ; &  
    2. The Phony Islam of ISIS in The Atlantic, itself.
  3. Another most interesting piece is the discussion on the article between Sam Harris and Graeme Wood : The True Believers.
All of them are well worth your time if you are interested in learning about ISIS and how they are being perceived at the moment. What is most disappointing is that there is no semblance of any concrete ideas coming up on how to take them on.

PS: This geography based article on ISIS from some time back is excellent to know how and where - they captured so much land. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

The PDP - BJP Alliance and a willing suspension of disbelief

The PDP - BJP alliance has got off to - well - let's say an inauspicious start. Within minutes of taking his oath as the new CM of Jammu & Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayed allegedly thanked Pakistan, Millitants and Hurriyat for "allowing" elections to take place peacefully. The actual clip is here and perhaps what he was saying was slightly more nuanced. Nevertheless, apart from causing a lot of heartburn to BJP's supporters, it also provided ammunition to the opposition to corner the government in the Lok Sabha and then stage a walk-out !
It has required some real imagination and actually working on that famous saying : Politics is the art of the possible - to make this government happen. The fractured mandate reflected the fractured polity of the state. This article by Ram Madhav - BJP's chief negotiator gives an insight into what it took for realizing the art of the possible here.
But the early signs are not encouraging at all. Apart from the above mentioned comment on "allowing elections to happen", the new CM has talked about "making the army responsible for its actions", while some PDP folks have allegedly demanded the return of the mortal remains of Afzal Guru. Also, the early news coming in on the allocation of portfolios is not very encouraging for the BJP.
There is very little doubt that the average BJP supporter - who has seen Article 370 being shelved for the time being for instance, will be quite aghast at these statements. I feel that the patience of the BJP leadership will be severely tested - time and again over the coming weeks and months and it will require either a willing suspension of disbelief from the supporters or incredible verbal gymnastics to make this alliance continue for any significant length of time. Stranger things than a PDP-BJP alliance have rarely happened in the past - it will require more strangeness to allow these two strangers to work together in any sort of constructive manner. A lot of heartburns and some humble pie eating will be needed to sustain this for a long time.. Interesting times ahead. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Some thoughts on the "terror boat" incident

The "terror boat" incident has brought about some very "interesting" reporting from the media and reactions all around. Here are some of my thoughts.

1) It is now abundantly clear, that a large and more importantly an influential section of India's media is opposed to this government at a very basic ideological level. Hence, communicating events in an even handed, objective manner from the government becomes crucial. The very semblance or suggestion of the government (and more particularly this government)  taking any credit, due or undue, (which I think is the basic issue in the terror boat controversy) will be questioned by sections of the media and will also be piggy backed by the opposition.
In light of this, it is imperative that the government and the armed forces must ensure that all agencies involved speak in a consistent manner. Let complete investigations be done - before taking credits or apportioning blames. The downside of the suggestion that the government is trying to get political mileage from military incidents - in terms of adverse press and consequential fire fighting is not worth the risk of making premature, self congratulatory assertions, which are hard to prove.

2) Irrespective of one's political leanings, I think it is a fairly safe assumption to say, that for large sections of India's population - India's armed forces remain the most credible and trustworthy institution of the Indian state. For some - still a substantial proportion, India's military goes beyond just the credible and trustworthy tag - it is a positively "sacred" symbol. And so, it is a rude shock to such people - when pointed questions are asked of the armed forces by India's intellectually "liberal" parts of the media. Many of us look at strategic affairs with a very binary mindset : namely "us (India, India's military)" vs "them (the enemy, Pakistani terrorists or Pakistan)". For this mindset it hard to even believe that it is indeed just intellectual curiosity and pursuit of the truth and not some sinister design behind sections of the media's "investigations" into incidents such as the "terror boat". Seeing India's media people speaking on Pakistani news channels discussing military incidents is for some - crossing a line when it comes to strategic affairs. (Incidentally - I have never understood the purpose of calling Pakistani ex-military folks on The News Hour and having arguments and scoring points either).
This is a very basic difference in world view - which is not easy to reconcile with. To see one's sacredly held institution or belief be questioned is very difficult to take and we know that very well know. It is also important to understand that for some - nothing - and in this case - the government and more specifically the military is not a holy cow and hence will face scrutiny. There are indeed some areas where people will find it easier to see questions related to the armed forces being raised such as : questions on meritocracy or indeed when it comes to issues raised on possible corruption in arms related deals. People would prefer however if media spends more time campaigning for the rights of soldiers such as one rank, one pension etc, but questioning military incidents and operations is harder to digest to quite a lot of people.
Having said all this - we all do realize that questions will be asked - some out of a duty towards truth, and some perhaps out of sheer antipathy towards the present government. It is also true that in all likelihood the questioners are not anti-national, and any advantage or debating points gained by the other side is merely a collateral damage in the pursuit of truth. Every citizen has their own judgement of whom to give their benefit of doubt. And so - while the government and the armed forces will do well to communicate much better in future incidents, I am of the opinion that - giving the benefit of the doubt to our professional armed forces is a very good idea - for they are keeping the "Idea of India" alive far more than anyone else. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

David and Goliath

AAP - 67: BJP -3. Probably the most stunning election result ever in India - and certainly t when it comes to state assembly elections. You might think this is another case of the Biblical tale of David, the underdog - here the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) defeating the Goliath, the giant and favourite - here  - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are favourites - simply by dint of having won the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections and numerous assembly elections since then and having a team of Narendra Modi + Amit Shah at the top who have been undefeated till now in wherever they have seriously put in efforts.
Well - you are right, in thinking that yes - David did beat Goliath. But if you believe or at least go along with the Gladwell version of this (see the video below) , David (AAP) was always going to beat Goliath (BJP). And that is because - this was not a tank fight, like the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections -but that  this was a street fight - and for this fight, AAP was better equipped with their their new, unorthodox and improvised approach - compared to the BJP's more textbook, traditional political ways. And so as Gladwell tells us - it is not the size of the fighter that decides but the suitability of the tools for the nature of the fight that tells us who is going to win.
I am not saying that BJP will always be a Goliath and AAP - David. In fact, in the 2014 elections - BJP were far more modern, innovative and new in their messaging and campaign when they defeated the grand old party of India - the terminally declining Congress. But in this fast changing world of Indian politics, yesterday's David are today's Goliath, and who knows what tomorrow brings.
I am also not saying that with this logic - all underdogs are going to win - or that we should have known this all along. All I am saying (using Gladwell's version of the story) is that perhaps some underdogs are not really underdogs if we look carefully at the nature of the contest, and that perhaps makes a new, upcoming, party which is bringing in new methods of engaging with the electorate to the table, which is more agile and nimble and perhaps most importantly - more enthusiastic, a very formidable competitor - now and for the years to come.
Indian politics has changed completely in the last two years and two men - Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal have changed it. Very few - even till mid 2013 believed Modi could be a viable Prime Ministerial candidate, let alone win a majority on his own - given his past. But he did -and he did that by playing the game by his own rules. And no one, even till today morning - could believe Kejriwal could pull of the kind of stunning victory that he did today - not even his own party. For it is not the victory, but the stunning nature of it, that is most incredible.
Modi and Kejriwal are India's two top politicians and they are 1-1 right now. 2014 LS belonged to Modi - 2015 Delhi is Kejriwals' win. The two victories are not comparable in terms of size at all - the former being like a World Cup - and this like - just another ODI series : Modi's achievement and scale of victory remains far bigger. But what cannot be denied is that Kejriwal took on not just the BJP, but Modi as well (even if it was his home turf)  and beat them in a devastating fashion. This is a win in a head to head contest and no amount of spin should take away that credit which Kejriwal deserves.
We don't know if this will be a one off blip for the Modi -Shah juggernaut or whether Kejriwal will be able to expand significantly across the country. But we now know this - Modi is not invincible any more - that aura is gone; and that Kejriwal is quite simply his only challenger - who can have a national impact (The likes of Jayalalitha or Mamata don't count because they are strictly one state parties). And while I am very, very skeptical of the politics and policies of Kejriwal - India once again does have two different options, different models to seriously think about - something which the suicidal Congress had kind of taken away for a while.

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