Category Archives: Allen Lane

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani Title: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Author: Sunil Khilnani
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241208229
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 636
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” is one of my long-standing favourite books on Indian history (well of whatever is there in it) and civilization. Till “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” came along. Not that it is any better by any stretch of imagination than “The Idea of India” but I quite like the concept. So what is the book about? Just what it says – India in 50 people – their lives and their journeys as the country progressed or declined – a mirror of our times so to speak. The concept is terrific and so is the writing, at the same time, there are some places where the book falls short.

Mr. Khilnani however picks some very obscure people for the book – which again I think is okay, given the timeline he covers and what he wants to communicate, however, there is something which is amiss in the book – the time spent on each personality. I wish there was more written on each of them which is not the case, only because Khilnani’s writing is par excellence.

Now coming to the personalities from Aamchi Mumbai or the state of Maharashtra as well. There are only 8 of them – nonetheless – I thought there could have been more from our city; however we will make do with these eight.

The eight personalities are: Shivaji (quite an obvious one, isn’t it? – the warrior king and about how he changed the course of the state of Maharashtra), Jamsetji Tata (another obvi choice), Annie Besant (her role in Mumbai wasn’t all that much, but still noteworthy, given the educational institutions set up by her and the time she spent in the city so much so that people mistook her to be Indian and from Mumbai), Manto (one cannot forget the time he spent in India and most particularly in Mumbai working with Bollywood – given he was also a screenplay writer), Raj Kapoor (need anyone say more when it comes to him – the first true blue showman so to say, and yet Khilnani has such an unbiased perspective which I personally loved and enjoyed), Ambedkar (the man who no one will ever forget and his role in starting the Dalit movement – this is my favourite piece in the entire book – only because there is so many layers which have been uncovered where the man is concerned and that too only in about five to six pages), M.F. Husain (one of India’s most prolific painters) and finally Dhirubhai Ambani (I shouldn’t have to say anything at all about him, should I?).

So these are the personalities – the purpose of the book is to trace their lives and see its relevance in not only shaping India as a free country but also their ideologies communicated through their work and made a lasting impression on people’s minds.

“Incarnations” as a book to me is complete in the sense of an idea or a concept but again there had to be more personalities – a 100 of them would perhaps been ideal. Mumbai was a terrain has also perhaps not been explored that much because of the restriction to 50. The book reads slowly (of course) and it will take some of your time before you are done with it. What I also found quite magnificent was the way in which the illustrations are handled – some are prints of paintings, some posters and some in the form of maps, which gives the book its very layer dimension. “Incarnations” is a very relevant book for our times and the world we live in. It is time to go back and trace our civilization and history through people who lived then and the difference they made.

Book Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell Title: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1846145810
Genre: Non-Fiction, Psychology
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Who are the underdogs? What makes them underdogs? Are they weak or is it just another perception of people who cannot understand some things and therefore, love to label them to their convenience? Perhaps the concept of the underdog has been grossly misunderstood. Perhaps it needs to be relooked given how some of them have fought battles and won against giants, with may be limited resources. Is it always the case though? Do underdogs win all the time? Did David win against Goliath by mere chance or did he have some clear advantages, which the giant did not? With this premise in mind, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” is all about this principle, presented with facts and approaches it with a range of examples of the number of Davids and their struggle to get ahead.

I had read one book written by Gladwell before reading his latest work. I was hesitant – also because I had heard that the book was not that great. However, I took my chance and read it, finished it in a span of a day and a half and thoroughly enjoyed it. The book hooks you on from Page 1 and then there is no letting go. I think to a large extent the book connects with you, because we all feel that we have been or are underdogs at one point or the other. So you not only end up reading the book for what it is, but also silently cheering for the misfit to make it big.

The book is divided into three sections – the first one is about how advantages are sometimes disadvantages and vice-versa. Things are never what they seem and one always has to look for different alternatives to rise above. From a novice basketball coach to the number of children in one classroom in the schools of America and across the world to the most interesting theory of “Big Fish in a Small Pond and Small Fish in a Big Pond”, this section is my most favourite in the entire book. The second section is about weaknesses and how desirable they can be given how many people succeeded with them. Handicaps need not always be handicaps. The third and final section of the book is about the limits of power and how it does not always be everything, given any context or situation.

“David and Goliath” is not only an insightful read, but also at some level it does become a personal read, right from the first to the last section. You tend to relate to situations and anecdotes and I found myself nodding in affirmation to most of them. The book is a light read. The statistics do not flummox the reader, which is very good, given the nature of the book. “David & Goliath” is the kind of book that will make you contemplate situations around you and probably reassess them – mostly with respect to the so-called “misfits and underdogs”.

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Book Review: Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw

Cat Sense by John Bradshaw Title: Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed
Author: John Bradshaw
Publisher: Allen Lane
ISBN: 9781846145940
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

There is always this sort of competition between dog and cat lovers. Who are better creatures? What are their characteristics and how sometimes they grow to define their owners is also very interesting to note. We want to know more about the pets we own and yet somehow we do not have the time to get to know more about them and why they behave the way they do.

“Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed” by John Bradshaw is an insightful book into cats and how they have come to me from ages ago. Cats have always been under-researched. This topic has always intrigued me (though I am a dog-lover throughout) and I have always wanted to know more about these enigmatic creatures and their behaviour. “Cat Sense” is also not surprisingly a BBC series, which must be watched after you finish reading this wondrous book.

“Cat Sense” speaks of cats right from the beginning. From the history of domestication of cats, to how their senses are different and what makes them act the way they do, to drawing on the social life of cats – which to me was the most interesting part in the entire book.

What John also does is let some mysteries about cats be and not delve too much into them. Bradshaw also tackles his subject as being a certified Anthrozoologist for over thirty years. He writes sharply and draws from his experience with cats which adds that much needed personal touch to the book.

The snippets of information and trivia are worth noting more so if you are a cat lover. Bradshaw also touches on the most misconceived notion of cats being selfish creatures and demystifies it for the reader. I have a lot of friends who are cat lovers and I know for one that I would be telling them to read this book, which they will cherish and love as much as I did.

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Book Review: Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha Title: Gandhi Before India
Author: Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Allen Lane
ISBN: 9781846142666
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
Pages: 688
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Who was Gandhi? Was he just a movement? Or was there more to him? Was there ever more to him as a person? What was he like before he started the revolution of such a kind that inspired millions to follow him? How did he get there? Who was Gandhi the man? Such questions always cropped in my mind in school.

There was always this chapter on the Mahatma in school and yet we never tried to know more about the man. He was always an enigma. Maybe because not enough is written or spoken of him before his time in India. Of his formative years spent in England and South Africa. Ramachandra Guha discovers the man through those years in his aptly titled book, “Gandhi Before India”.

“Gandhi Before India” is all about the man and what led him to believe in what he did. It is about his years in England and South Africa before coming back to India in 1915 and starting a revolution against the Empire like none other.

The book is an attempt to unearth Gandhi like never before. His ideologies, his thoughts, the convergence of incidents in his life, that made him the man he was and how he grew to become the Mahatma or rather what he was before he became the “Great Soul”.

“Gandhi Before India” brings to light the transformation of the boy to the man. The writing makes no bones about it and that is what will have the reader from page one. Gandhi somehow is always relevant. In almost every single time and era, and this book strives to unearth the man behind all the layers.

Ramachandra Guha’s research is intense and that is evident. He has gone through letters, journals and had more conversations with people to get to know the Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi that we all grew up knowing and taking for granted as a part of history.

To me the book told a lot more about the Mahatma than I ever knew or was aware of. Maybe books such as these are meant to do that. To get you to know more so the dim view or opinions do not exist anymore. “Gandhi Before India” is a rich work on the man who was and what he became. The “what he” became part is yet to be documented by Mr. Guha and there is definitely a sequel of to this. I for one cannot wait for it.

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Book Review: Beyond Human Nature: How Culture & Experience Shape Our Lives by Jesse J. Prinz

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz Title: Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives
Author: Jesse J. Prinz
Publisher: Allen Lane
ISBN: 978-0713998177
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Why do people from one culture think and see things differently from another? Why do they almost feel and also emote differently in some situations? There are so many instances when people from a different race or culture act and think differently and yet while most of us question the differences, there are times when thoughts regarding those do not cross our mind. The differences also stem from the nurture or the nature angle, which there have long gone been debates about in our world.

The book that I have finished reading off-late also talks of the way we view our world and how and why do we do what we do. “Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives” by Jesse J. Prinz completely left me astounded by the end of the read. It gave me more perspective to the human condition and what impact do places and upbringing and what surrounds us have on our way of thinking and behaviour.

Prinz asks if the idea of human nature has any place in the sciences and the book tries to unearth or discover that very thought. The argumentation is strong in most places and somehow felt weak in some others, which I ignored, because the overall book appealed to me.

The book is divided into six parts and each part focuses on the idea of where do the following come from: Feelings, Values, Traits, Knowledge, Language, and Thinking. While the book is great overall, the reader cannot start reading the book from any part. The vast diversity of behaviour is explored in great depth in this book with a lot of relevant instances, which both astound and amuse. The conclusions for each argument are valid and rolled out well, also carefully tying the knots. There is no vagueness left for the reader to deal with.

There are times when I do not read non-fiction because I cannot make sense of some of it and then there are times when such a book comes along my way that makes me want to read more on these lines and the topic. There is a lot to garner and take away from this book – both individually and from a societal perspective. It is amazing how Prinz has woven the concept of nature vs. nurture so brilliantly around the premise of this book. I would recommend this book to those who want to know more about this topic and yet can keep up with the slow pace of this book.