Top 10 in Indian non-fiction books: More reasons to skip Chetan Bhagat

chetan bhagat
Vivek Kaul
It is that time of the year when newspapers, magazines and websites get around to making top 10 lists on various things in the year that was. So here is my list for the top 10 books in the Indian non fiction category (The books appear in a random order).
Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles – Ruchir Sharma (Penguin/Allen Lane -Rs 599)
The book is based around the notion that sustained economic growth cannot be taken for granted.
Only six countries which are classified as emerging markets by the western world have grown at the rate of 5 percent or more over the last 40 years. Only two of these countries, i.e. Taiwan and South Korea, have managed to grow at 5 percent or more for the last 50 years.
The basic point being that the economic growth of countries falters more often than not. “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence,” Sharma writes in the book.
When Sharma said this in what was the first discussion based around the book on an Indian television channel, Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the deputy chairman of the planning commission, did not agree. Ahulwalia, who was a part of the discussion, insisted that a 7 percent economic growth rate was a given. Turned out it wasn’t. The economic growth in India has now slowed down to around 5.5 percent.
Sharma got his timing on the India economic growth story fizzling out absolutely right.
The last I met him in November he told me that the book had sold around 45,000 copies in India. For a non fiction book which doesn’t tell readers how to lose weight those are very good numbers. (You can read Sharma’s core argument here).
In the Company of a Poet – Gulzar In Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir(Rainlight/Rupa -Rs 495)
There is very little quality writing available on the Hindi film industry. Other than biographies on a few top stars nothing much gets written. Gulzar is one exception to this rule. There are several biographies on him, including one by his daughter Meghna. But all these books barely look on the creative side of him. What made Sampooran Singh Kalra, Gulzar? How did he become the multifaceted personality that he did?
There are very few individuals who have the kind of bandwidth that Gulzar does. Other than directing Hindi films, he has written lyrics, stories, screenplays as well as dialogues for them. He has been a documentary film maker as well, having made documentaries on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is also a poet and a successful short story writer. On top of all this he has translated works from Bangla and Marathi into Urdu/Hindi.
In this book, Nasreen Munni Kabir talks to Gulzar and the conversations bring out how Sampooran Singh Kalra became Gulzar. Gulzar talks with great passion about his various creative pursuits in life. From writing the superhit kajrare to what he thinks about Tagore’s English translations. If I had a choice of reading only one book all through this year, this would have to be it.
Durbar – Tavleen Singh (Hachette – Rs 599)
Some of the best writing on the Hindi film industry that I have ever read was by Sadat Hasan Manto. Manto other than being the greatest short writer of his era also wrote Hindi film scripts and hence had access to all the juicy gossip. The point I am trying to make is that only an insider of a system can know how it fully works. But of course he may not be able to write about it, till he is a part of the system. Manto’s writings on Hindi films and its stars in the 1940s only happened once he had moved to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. When he became an outsider he chose to reveal all that he had learnt as an insider.
Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is along similar lines. As a good friend of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, during the days when both of them had got nothing to do with politics, she had access to them like probably no other journalist did. Over the years she fell out first with Sonia and then probably with Rajiv as well.
Durbar does have some juicy gossip about the Gandhi family in the seventies. My favourite is the bit where Sonia and Maneka Gandhi had a fight over dog biscuits. But it would be unfair to call it just a book of gossip as some Delhi based reviewers have.
Tavleen Singh offers us some fascinating stuff on Operation Bluestar and the chamchas surrounding the Gandhi family and how they operated. The part that takes the cake though is the fact that Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife were very close to Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, despite Sonia’s claims now that she barely knew them. If there is one book you should be reading to understand how the political city of Delhi operates and why that has landed India in the shape that it has, this has to be it.
The Sanjay Story – Vinod Mehta (Harper Collins – Rs 499).Technically this book shouldn’t be a part of the list given that it was first published in 1978 and has just been re-issued this year. But this book is as important now as it was probably in the late 1970s, when it first came out.
Mehta does a fascinating job of unravelling the myth around Sanjay Gandhi and concludes that he was the school boy who never grew up.
“Intellectually Sanjay had never encountered complexity. He was an I.S.C and at that educational level you are not likely to learn (through your educational training) the art of resolving involved problems… He himself confessed in 1976 that possibly his strongest intellectual stimulation came from comics,” writes Mehta.
The book goes into great detail about the excesses of the emergency era. From nasbandi to the censors taking over the media, it says it all. Sanjay was not a part of the government in anyway but ruled the country. And things are similar right now!
Patriots and Partisans – Ramachandra Guha (Penguin/Allen Lane – Rs 699)
The trouble with most Delhi based Indian intellectuals is that they have very strong ideologies. There sensitivities are either to the extreme left or the extreme right, and those in the middle are essentially stooges of the Congress party. Given that, India has very few intellectuals who are liberal in the strictest of the terms. Ramachandra Guha is one of them, his respect for Nehru and his slight left leanings notwithstanding. And what of course helps is the fact that he lives in Bangalore and not in Delhi.
His new book Patriots and Partisans is a collection of fifteen essays which largely deal with all that has and is going wrong in India. One of the finest essays in the book is titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri. This essay on its own is worth the price of the book. Another fantastic essay is titled Hindutva Hate Mail where Guha writes about the emails he regularly receives from Hindutva fundoos from all over the world.
His personal essays on the Oxford University Press, the closure of the Premier Book Shop in Bangalore and the Economic and Political Weekly are a pleasure to read. If I was allowed only to read two non fiction books this year, this would definitely be the second book. (Read my interview with Ramachandra Guha here).
Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India – Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya (Vintage Books Random House India – Rs 399)
This little book running into 185 pages was to me the surprise package of this year. The book is along the lines of international bestsellers like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist. It uses economic theory and borrows heavily from the emerging field of behavioural economics to explain why India and Indians are the way they are.
Other than trying to explain things like why are Indians perpetually late or why do Indian politicians prefer wearing khadi in public and jeans in their private lives, the book also delves into fairly serious issues.
Right from explaining why so many people in Mumbai die while crossing railway lines to explaining why Nehru just could not see the obvious before the 1962 war with China, the book tries to explain a broad gamut of issues.
But the portion of the book that is most relevant right now given the current protests against the rape of a twenty year old woman in Delhi, is the one on the ‘missing women’ of India. Women in India are killed at birth, after birth and as they grow up is the point that the book makes.
My only complain with the book is that I wish it could have been a little longer. Just as I was starting to really enjoy it, the book ended. (Read my interview with Vivek Dehejia here)
Taj Mahal Foxtrot – The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age – Naresh Fernandes (Roli Books – Rs 1295)
Bombay (Mumbai as it is now known as) really inspires people who lives here and even those who come from the outside to write about it. Only that should explain the absolutely fantastic books that keep coming out on the city (No one till date has been able to write a book as grand as Shantaram set in Delhi or a book with so many narratives like Maximum City set in Bangalore).
This year’s Bombay book written by a Mumbaikar has to be Naresh Fernades’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot.
The book goes into the fascinating story of how jazz came to Bombay. It talks about how the migrant musicians from Goa came to Bombay to make a living and became its most famous jazz artists. And they had delightful names like Chic Chocolate and Johnny Baptist. The book also goes into great detail about how many black American jazz artists landed up in Bombay to play and take the city by storm. The grand era that came and went.
While growing up I used to always wonder why did Hindi film music of the 1950s and 1960s sound so Goan. And turns out the best music directors of the era had music arrangers who came belonged to Goa. The book helped me set this doubt to rest.
The Indian Constitution – Madhav Khosla (Oxford University Press – Rs 195)
I picked up this book with great trepidation. I knew that the author Madhav Khosla was a 27 year old. And I did some back calculation to come to the conclusion that he must have been probably 25 years old when he started writing the book. And that made me wonder, how could a 25 year old be writing on a document as voluminous as the Indian constitution is?
But reading the book set my doubts to rest, proving once again, that age is not always related to good scholarship. What makes this book even more remarkable is the fact that in 165 pages of fairly well spaced text, Khosla gives us the history, the present and to some extent the future of the Indian constitution.
His discussion on caste being one of the criteria on the basis of which backwardness is determined in India makes for a fascinating read. Same is true for the section on the anti defection law that India has and how it has evolved over the years.
Lucknow Boy – Vinod Mehta (Penguin – Rs 499)
One of my favourite jokes on Lucknow goes like this. An itinerant traveller gets down from the train on the Lucknow Railway station and lands into a beggar. The beggar asks for Rs 5 to have a cup of tea. The traveller knows that a cup of tea costs Rs 2.50. He points out the same to the beggar.
“Aap nahi peejiyega kya? (Won’t you it be having it as well?),” the beggar replies. The joke reveals the famous tehzeeb of Lucknow.
Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy starts with his childhood days in Lucknow and the tehzeeb it had and it lost over the years. The first eighty pages the book are a beautiful account of Mehta’s growing up years in the city and how he and his friends did things with not a care in the world. Childhood back then was about being children, unlike now.
The second part of the book has Mehta talking about his years as being editor of various newspapers and magazines. This part is very well written and has numerous anecdotes like any good autobiography should, but I liked the book more for Mehta’s description of his carefree childhood than his years dealing with politicians, celebrities and other journalists.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo (Penguin – Rs 499)
As I said a little earlier Mumbai inspires books like no other city in India does. A fascinating read this year has been Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Indians are typical apprehensive about foreigners writing on their cities. But some of the best Mumbai books have been written by outsiders. Gregory David Roberts who wrote Shantaram arrived in Mumbai having escaped from an Australian prison. There is no better book on Mumbai than Shantaram. The same is true about Suketu Mehta and Maximum City. Mehta was a Bombay boy who went to live in America and came back to write the book that he did.
Boo’s book on Mumbai is set around a slum called Annawadi. She spent nearly three years getting to know the people well enough to write about them. Hence stories of individuals like Kalu, Manju, Abdul, Asha and Sunil, who live in the slum come out very authentic. The book more than anything else I have read on Mumbai ( with the possible exception of Shantaram) brings out the sheer grit that it takes to survive in a city like Mumbai.
So that was my list for what I think were the top 10 Indian non fiction books for the year. One book that you should definitely avoid reading is Chetan Bhagat’s What Young India Wants. Why would you want to read a book which says something like this?
Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does… In this technology-driven age, do you really think America doesn’t have the information or capability to launch an attack against India? But they don’t want to attack us. They have much to gain from our potential market for American products and cheap outsourcing. Well let’s outsource some of our defence to them, make them feel secure and save money for us. Having a rich, strong friend rarely hurt anyone.
And if that is not enough let me share what Bhagat thinks would happen if women weren’t around. “There would be body odour, socks on the floor and nothing in the fridge to eat.” Need I say anything else?
The article originally appeared on on December 26, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Rahul: Reluctant politician who was once afraid of the dark

When Rahul Gandhi was young he was afraid of the dark. He felt that darkness held ghosts and bad things. His grandmother Indira Gandhi helped him overcome that fear. As Aarthi Ramachandran writes in Decoding Rahul Gandhi “Speaking to young children at the opening of a science fair at a Delhi school in November 201 he(i.e. Rahul) told them how he was scared of darkness when he was young as he felt it held “ghosts” and “bad things”. Then, he said, one day his grandmother had asked him why he didn’t go and see himself what was inside the darkness. So, he had walked into the garden in the dark and he had kept walking and then realised suddenly that ‘there was nothing there in the darkness to be scared of’.” And thus Rahul overcame the fear of darkness and ghosts.
The life of Rahul Gandhi has largely been a mystery for India and Indians. Where was he educated? Where did he work before joining politic full time? What are his views on various things? What does he think about the current state of the Indian economy? What does he think of the government which his mother Sonia runs through the remote control? Does he have a girl friend? When does he plan to marry? Why hasn’t he given any interviews to the media since 2005?
These are questions both personal and professional that Indians would love to have answers for. Aarthi Ramachandran answers some of these questions in her new book Decoding Rahul Gandhi.
After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, both Rahul and his sister Priyanka were largely taught at home. Ramachandran quotes out of Sonia Gandhi’s book Rajiv: ““The day of my mother-in-law’s assassination was the last day Rahul and Priyanka ever attended school…For the next five years the children remained at home, studying with tutors, virtually imprisoned. The only space outside our four walls where they could step without cordon of security was our garden,” Sonia wrote.”
Rahul is a year and a half older to his sister Priyanka and was a student of the St Columba’s school before the assassination of his grandmother. But both Rahul and Priyanka ended up in the same class despite their age difference. “Rahul’s education was disrupted due to that incident (Indira Gandhi’s assassination) and he dropped a year of school, possibly the same year that Indira died. Rajiv was asked how both Rahul and Priyanka were in the same class during an interview in 1988. “Only one year separates them. And with all the shifting, they came to be in the same class. But that has one advantage: they can be taught each subject by the same tutor. Now, we can’t possibly keep separate tutors for each of them, that would be too expensive,” he quipped – both children were being home tutored,” writes Ramachandran.
Rahul joined Delhi’s St Stephens College in 1989 to study history. He got admission under the sports quota. And there was a lot of controversy surrounding his admission. As Ramachandran points out “When Rahul entered Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College in 1989 after finishing his schooling, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed his admission, under the sports quota for his skills in rifle shooting, was invalid.  The allegation appeared to be that with 61 per cent marks in his school-leaving examinations, Rahul was not academically bright enough to enter the college. The BJP’s Delhi chief at that time, Madam Lal Khurana, claimed that Rahul’s certificates in shooting were fake.” The National Rifle Association came to Rahul’s rescue issuing a statement in his favour about his ability as a rifle shooter.  During Rahul’s time at Stephens 20-25 special protection group (SPG) guards would be all over the college with sling bags which supposedly had guns.
After a year at Stephens, Rahul left for Harvard. There is very little clarity on the period he was at Harvard or the subjects he studied there. “It has been widely reported in the Indian media and some foreign publications that Rahul took courses in economics at Harvard,” writes Ramachandran. “Neither Rahul nor Harvard officials have confirmed this. Rahul did not respond to questions about this course of study and the time period he was at Harvard….Harvard too said it could not disclose details about Rahul Gandhi’s time at Harvard.”
Though Harvard did confirm that Rahul was a student without getting into the specifics of the time period or the courses he attended. In May 1991 Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. This compelled him to take a transfer to Rollins College in Florida and from here graduated with a BA in 1994. The website of the college lists him as alumnus who graduated in International Relations.
After this, Rahul went to get an MPhil in developmental studies from the Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom. There has been some controversy surrounding this as well. “In the run up to the 2009 general elections…The New Indian Express alleged that Rahul had not only got the name of his course wrong but also the year. The paper said he had attended the course only in 2004-05. It produced a certificate from the university as evidence of its claim. Rahul…sent a notice to the newspaper….With the notice was a letter issued by Cambridge University…in which its vice chancellor…clarified that Rahul was a student at Trinity College from October 1994 to July 1995. She also said that he was awarded MPhil in developmental studies in 1995,”  writes Ramachandran.
What comes across here is a reluctance on part of Rahul to be open about his educational qualifications. As the author explains “Rahul’s unwillingness to be open about his educational background is similar to Gandhi family’s secrecy over Sonia Gandhi’s illness. Sonia and her family have been resolute in their silence on her medical condition despite speculation…that she is suffering from some kind of cancer…It can be argued that her health is a matter of public interest given that she is the de factor head of the Congress-led coalition government…In the same way Rahul Gandhi’s educational qualifications are of the importance to the public at large as he is perceived to be a future prime ministerial candidate of the Congress and is a Member of Parliament.”
After Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi worked for three years with consulting firm Monitor in London. Strategy guru Michael Porter was one of the co-founders of the firm. Rahul was with Monitor from June 1996 to early March 1999. As Ramachandran writes “According to sources, who have known Rahul from his time at Monitor, there were no problems with his performance at the firm. He worked there under an assumed name and his colleagues did not know of his real identity, said a Monitor employee who was at the firm around the same time as Rahul. ‘His looks gave it away to those of us who knew who he could be,’ the source said.” But beyond this nothing is known about his key result areas or the sectors Rahul specialised in during his time at Monitor.
After quitting Monitor, Rahul came back to India to help his mother Sonia with the 1999 general election campaign. Once the elections were over Rahul disappeared from the political firmament. “There is no exact information about any other job Rahul might have taken up in the intervening years after he left Monitor in March 1999 and returned to India for good in late 2002,” writes Ramachandran.
During the time Rahul spent at London the media also discovered his girl friend Veronique (though they kept calling her Juanita). He was spotted with her watching an India-England cricket match at Edgbaston and holidaying with her in the Andamans at the end of 1999, and again in Kerala and Lakshdweep in 2003, for a year end family vacation.
Rahul finally cleared the mystery himself in an interview to Vrinda Gopinath of the The Indian Express during the run up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. As Ramachandran writes “’My girlfriend’s name is Veronique not Juanita…she is Spainish and not Venezuelan or Columbian. She is an architect not a waitress, thought I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. She is also my best friend,’ he told her…After he won from Amethi, he held a rare informal interaction with journalists in his constituency. They asked about his girlfriend’s nationality to which he replied she had been living in Venezuela for a long time although her parents were Spanish. He also said that he was not planning on getting married anytime soon.” Nothing has been heard of Veronique since 2004.
His years in consulting seem to have had a great impact on Rahul and since coming back to India in late 2002, Rahul has been trying to apply The Toyota Way on the functioning of the Congress party. The Toyota way is a series of best practices used by the Toyota Motor Company of Japan. As Ramachandran explains “The Toyota Way spoke of making decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options and then implementing decisions rapidly…The consensus process, though time-consuming, helps broaden the search for solutions and once a decision is made, the stage is set for rapid implementation.”
Such strategic ideas are being used for the revamp and promotion of internal democracy within the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. Processes are being built to ensure ending the role of family connections in appointments and promotions in the two organisations.
But the big question on everybody’s lips has been when will Rahul Gandhi join the government? In a controversial interview to the Tehalka magazine in September 2005, Rahul Gandhi is reported to have said that he could have become the Prime Minister at twenty-five. Abhishek Manu Singhvi the then Congress spokesperson later specifically mentioned that Rahul wanted to state that he had not said ‘I could have been prime minister at the age of twenty-five if I wanted to’. Rahul hasn’t given any interview since then.
On another occasion Rahul said that “Please do not take it as any kind of arrogance, but having seen enough prime ministers in the family…it is not such a big deal. In fact, I often wonder why should you need a post to serve the nation”.
Rumors of Rahul Gandhi joining the cabinet in the next reshuffle have been doing the rounds lately. But as and when that happens Rahul Gandhi will have to let go of what seems like an unwillingness to be open.
People will analyse what he says. He may still not give interviews but as a minister he will surely have to make speeches, address meetings etc. His decisions will be closely watched. And the files he signs on will be open to RTI filings. In short, the mystery surrounding him will come down.
Things as they are currently will have to change. As Ramachandran puts it “In situations where he is required to speak, whether it is the Parliament or his elections speeches, he is uncomfortable. He is only now beginning to find his public speaking voice. For the most part, however, he has tended to avoid speaking in the public or to the press on issues. He comes across as a politician who is reluctant to share his views on issues of national importance or worse as someone who does not have views at all.”
The article originally appeared on on Ocotber 19,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Economics made easy

Vivek Kaul
Name of the book: Day to Day Economics
Author: Satish Y Deodhar
Pages: 214
Publisher: Random House India
Steve Landsburg wrote The Armchair Economist – Economics and Everyday Life in 1993. The book was the first of its kind and was written in a very simple way to explain the subject of economics to anybody and everybody.
In the just released second edition of the book Landsburg explains his reasons behind writing the book. One day in 1991, he had walked into a medium sized book shop and realised that the shop had around 80 titles on quantum physics and the history of the universe. But it did not have a single book on economics that could be read by even those who did not have an academic background in the subject. This motivated him to write The Armchair Economist and two years later he had a bestseller ready.
The little story tells us a few things about the “dismal science” called economics. Economists over the years have found it very difficult to communicate in a language which everybody can understand. On the flip side people haven’t paid enough attention to the subject even though it impacts them more than other subjects.
But things can only be set right once economists start writing and communicating in a language which everyone can understand. Satish Y Deodhar’s Day to Day Economics attempts to set this situation right. The book explains the economic terms and concepts that get bandied around in newspapers and television channels, in a very simple lucid sort of way, making it accessible to everyone.
What makes the book even better is the fact that Deodhar’s links the economic concepts to political and other events that are happening around us. Too many teachers of economics in the past have taught economics as a theoretical subject full of maths in isolation of what is happening around us. As Deodhar puts it “It…matters whether or not economics is made interesting in the classroom”.
Deodhar, a professor at IIM Ahmedabad, discuses the concept of fiscal deficit and the current state of economic affairs in good detail. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. For anyone wanting to understand why their equated monthly installments (EMIs) have gone up over the last few years this book is a must read. At the heart of the problem facing the Indian economy is the fact that the government expenditure has gone up at a much faster rate than its revenue. Hence the government has had to borrow more to finance its increased expenditure leaving less on the table for other big borrowers like banks and housing finance companies.
This has meant higher interest rates and higher EMIs. While understanding this will not bring down your EMIs in anyway but you will surely know who is to be blamed for your spiraling EMIs. But more than that you will understand that once a government commits to a certain expenditure, it is very difficult to curtail it. As Deodhar points out “it is difficult to curtail government expenditure once the government is committed to them.” What this obviously means is that your higher EMIs are likely to continue.
The solution as Deodhar rightly points out is collection of more taxes. This can only happen when the Goods and Services Tax, which seeks to replace state and central sales tax, is introduced. Also its time to get rid of the amendment ridden Income Tax Act and replace it with the Direct Taxes Code.
Deodhar explains the concepts of banking and inflation in the same lucid way. That apart a few mistakes seem to have crept in the book. The Foreign Direct Investment allowed in the insurance sector in India is 26% and not 27% as the book points out. Also the book says that banks in India were first nationalized in 1967. That is incorrect. The banks were first nationalized in 1969.
Another point which falls flat is Deodhar’s link between interest rates and the rupee-dollar exchange rate. Deodhar says that when interest rates are high in India, it makes sense for foreigners to lend money in India. When this money comes to India the foreigners have to change their dollars into rupees. This pushes up the demand for rupees and it appreciates in value against the dollar. While theoretically this makes perfect sense, what is happening in India is exactly the opposite. The interest rates in India are high, despite that the rupee has fallen in value against the dollar. This is because India imports most of the oil it consumes. It needs dollars to buy the oil. Hence when the oil companies buy dollars and sell rupees to buy oil, rupees flood the market, leading to its value depreciating against the dollar. At the same time foreigners haven’t been bringing money into India because they are worried about the government’s burgeoning fiscal deficit.
What this clearly tells us is that economics is not a fixed science like physics. Any action can generate different kind of reactions and even stump the best economists. And that is why most economists try and look at various options while explaining things. This lack of clear answers can even frustrate the best of people at times. As the American President Harry Truman once demanded “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’”.
(The article originally appeared in the Asian Age on September 16, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a Mumbai based writer and can be reached at [email protected]