Indian Musings: Reading, Non-Fiction

Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers

Gladwell has this ease with which he writes that even the most complex of ideas seem simple to the reader. In Outliers, he argues that IQ, education, genes etc., alone are not necessary for success. He demonstrates that success is because of a variety of factors that are not only dependent on the individual (practice, practice, practice, aka, the 10,000 hour rule), but also on his surroundings — the opportunities he is provided, the arcane rules that result in selective success, and more often then not, pure dumb luck. Very convincing essays that bolster my belief in the fact that there is nothing like individual effort for success — the something “extra” is probably far more important than anything else.

What the Dog Saw

My father is a big Gladwell fan and he has all of the books that Gladwell has written. Since I liked  Outliers, I decided to go through this one as well. This is not a book, but a collection of his articles from the New Yorker. Since I hadn’t read these, this book was completely worth it. Far more interesting than Outliers since it covers a variety of subjects including the collapse of Enron, public education, psychological portraits of murders and the story of the dog whisperer. Fascinating read this one.

Tipping Point

After the collected articles in What the Dog Saw, I rushed through Tipping Point by Gladwell. As with the other books, this one too has a beautiful lilt to it and the reader is seemingly carried on a bed of word-clouds to the last page with ease. While the concept, as usual from Gladwell, was intriguing — small insignificant (seemingly) changes lead to drastic large-scale tangible changes — this book was less of a book and more of an overblown article. Also, as some reviewers have pointed out, the concept is not novel and is known to those who study epidemics. However,  some of the studies he describes were compelling, especially the one about the amount of influence a child’s parent has on his/her future. However, as I read this book I felt that this would have been a better novella or an article. My feeling was vindicated when I read that this book was in fact an expanded version of an article that Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker. A nice read, but if you are looking for a first Gladwell, go with Outliers or What the Dog Saw.

Christian Fabre

The Holy CEO

I have to admit, I am a bit of a book snob. When I see a book with the author’s face plastered all across the cover, who happens to be a white guy covered in Saffron robes and a beard, I run far from it. However, my father asked me to read this and I did, for the only reason that his story was pretty fascinating — a French dress designer who discovered spirituality and was inducted as a naga sanyasi. The initial pages were very pedestrian and I was half in the mind to stop, but since I had nothing else to read and a train journey to complete I decided to trudge on. The story does grow on you, and while the writing is all over the place (as is the pace and the setting), Fabre’s spirituality and his love for it is very evident. By the end of it I started to like the book, not because of its plodding style, but because of the story that underlay it and the philosophy that Fabre subscribes to — Advaita. I am a big fan of the non-dualism school of thought and Fabre’s simple explanation of the concept is a good primer. While the book may appeal to a westerner, as an Indian, I was a bit underwhelmed. I would recommend this as a read though, just to get an insight into the life of a Sanyasi, which he describes in some detail.

William Dalrymple

Nine Lives

I had heard of Dalrymple and read some positive reviews on Amazon, so when I got to India, decided to check him out. I ordered through Flipkart (again, excellent service, I got delivery in about 24 hrs from the online order! Beat that Amazon!! Great prices too…), along with a couple of others and started on it almost as soon at it arrived. This one is a collection of nine stories, seven of which have not been published before (the other two were published in the New Yorker). The tales cover spirituality in modern India and the author goes out of his way to find some really interesting and colorful characters, and beliefs that seemingly are at conflict with what he calls the ‘Rama-fication’ of Hinduism. The first tale is possibly the weakest of the lot, and the tale about the Rajasthani singer and the Sufi shrine in Sindh, Pakistan were possibly just short of genius. Dalrymple is an extremely gifted narrator and he manages to convey the scene and the character and allows the people in the tales to speak for themselves. One of the finest non-fiction books I have read!

 The Last Mughal

In this scholarly work, replete with footnotes, endnotes and bibliography, Dalrymple weaves a beautiful tale. This tragic story, unfortunately completely true, captures the last days of Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ II, the last Mughal Emperor of India. Dalrymple beautifully describes the setting before the revolt of 1857, and through concrete evidence demonstrates that this war, unlike what is taught to us Indians in school, was not the first war of independence, but more a war of frustration at the lack of opportunities that were being provided to the Indian soldiers in the British Army. The unrest and discontent sprung from years of oppression and the dam burst with  the infamous cow-pig-fat-laced bullet incident. At some level, the war was also religious. The siege of Delhi that followed and the brutality with which the British retaliated are well chronicled. Dalrymple is a wonderful narrator who lets the documents he has collected do much of the talking, while seamlessly interspersing historical evidence with a fast-moving narrative that grabs the attention of the reader right from the word go. With each novel, my respect for Dalrymple grows, and I highly recommend this book (possibly Dalrymple’s best) for anyone interested in learning Indian history from an unbiased source.

The Age of Kali

Terribly impressed by Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal  and Nine Lives, I bought The Age of Kali, which contains essays from Dalrymple’s travels across the Indian subcontinent. The stories in this book come from another age — the stories are dated by two decades — and cover India in the 90s. The initial portion of the book is weak, but as we proceed beyond the dismal, dreary descriptions of the North, the stories start to take on character and Dalrymple’s genius-like abilities in reconstructing events and people come to the fore. Although much of the data is not current, this book is essential reading for anyone — those from the subcontinent and wishing to understand it better, as well as those without. I found Benazir’s story fascinating and Imran Khan’s foray into politics bewitching. The best part about Dalrymple’s writing is it makes you want to read more and understand the events and circumstances better. The extensive bibliography at the end surely helps! Case in point: Next autobiography on my list — Benazir Bhutto’s.

 From the Holy Mountain

After reading a whole bunch of stuff from Dalrymple about India, I decided that I liked him enough to test waters with tales about regions I am unfamiliar about. In The Holy Mountain Dalrymple chronicles his journey through the trouble-laden region around the Holy Mountain and details the trip that almost mirrors that of an ancient Orthodox Christian priest. He visits now-Islam-dominated countries of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon etc., and describes how Christianity has trickled out of these earlier Christian havens. The interesting point that he brings out is that it is not age-old Islam that has lead to the demise of Christianity, but the modern intolerant variant of it. A surprising detail is how the Jewish resurgence has affected Christianity. As with all Dalrymple books, his ability to bring the scene alive makes this a pleasant read, however, compared to his other books — The Age of Kali, The Last Mughal, Nine Lives — I found myself a bit distracted while reading this. One possible reason could be my natural inclination to anything Indian. My lack of knowledge on the region that he describes could be another. My vote though is on the more elaborate descriptions of architecture (which I do not understand or admire as much). In any case, this is an excellent book, which (in my opinion) can be a bit draggy.

 In Xanadu

The first of Dalrymple’s excellent oeuvres on travel In Xanadu relates Dalrymple and his companion’s adventures as they attempt to re-trace the steps of Marco Polo, who completed  a  journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu over 600 years ago. Dalrymple is an accomplished writer now and even in this his first work, the spark of erudition abounds, as does the mark of an excellent observer. Even at the raw age of 22, he is capable of describing scenes with a flourish that eludes much more experienced authors. The perfect mix of human cultures, architecture, history and travel makes this a fascinating read, and the strong undercurrent of humor (sadly missing in his more recent works) only adds to the fun. The book however is a clear indicator of Dalrymple’s age since it lacks the more detached, non-prejudiced descriptions found in his later works. The prejudice is never brash and is more observational than deprecating in nature, but in this book as in From the Holy Mountain, I found Dalrymple more prejudiced than say in Nine Lives, where his thoughts do not intrude as much. Of course, this is a personal journey (as was Holy Mountain) and that may contribute to the slight prejudice that I sensed. In any case, this is another masterpiece by Dalrymple and a highly recommended read. Even if one does not like travel literature, it is a must read in order to understand how to structure an interesting novel.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of all Maladies

This Pulitzer-winning biography of Cancer ranks amongst the best non-fiction that I have seen in recent times, and tackles the difficult topic of trying to narrate a history of a disease that has rapidly moved up the rankings to become one of the most dangerous diseases in world history. Mukherjee narrates with passion and a flourish that is surprising considering the fact that he is a  doctor who is more used to dry narratives tinged with academic rigor. The tale moves with speed and the involvement of humans (his own patients) makes the reader invest emotionally. The book is not without its flaws however, for Mukherjee seems to be narrating more of an America-centered history — I am not sure if this is because most work was done in the US or because of the fact that Mukherjee is an American himself. There are references to researchers from other countries and studies that have been conducted elsewhere, but I found that the amount of space devoted to American research was disproportionate. There are certain places where he loses me, a layman, and the medical jargon gets a bit overwhelming. These small itches aside, this is a great book and a wonderful place to start if one wishes to understand the development of this complex disease that has captured the imagination of the modern world.

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