Saturday, January 31, 2009

Success Re-explained

I just finished Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, a New York Times correspondent, writing his third book. I was not too impressed by his second book, Tipping Point, which I thought was stating the obvious. However, he seems to have matured in his third attempt, and some of his theories found resonance in my experience. A couple of points to illustrate this:

The book starts with the 10,000 hours theory, which states that to be a world class exponent of any art or science, one needs to put in these number of hours. This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of success. This means that if one puts in 3 hours a day, twenty hours a week, it will take ten years for a person to become adept at his profession. This jells very well, with my theory that it takes ten years of decent work for a person to become a world player in engineering. Of course, he has to take care that he does not repeat his experiences too much, and is willing to grab opportunities, as well as drive himself to work at home to get that extra experience which the office cannot provide. I ran this theory past my colleagues, who agreed with the time frame and the effort level involved reaching a certain stage of faculty.

Besides other interesting points Gladwell makes, another one which piqued my interest was the one on plane crashes. Inability to communicate that he was running out of fuel, an airline pilot crashed his plane. This was attributed to cultural aspect which makes people very reticent when dealing with their perceived social superiors. This aspect is also visible in Indian culture, although not too the extent in some others. This particular peculiarity of Indian culture is a massive hindrance to the way modern organisation run. Although a socially acceptable practice, this illogical deference to superiors needs to be rooted out ruthlessly in professional organisations.

On the whole a well written book, this one throws up a multitude of issues relationg to modern stories of success. I had difficulty in relating to the number of theories, wondering of the author is bit glib on throwing these cards on the table. And then suddenly the chapter on plane crashes turns up, and blows you away.

This book is a strong recommended read for anybody interested in the happenings and causes of events in modern society. It is also up for discussion in our book club, Cognition, which the brave Rohit Marwaha is still organising. I am hoping that the book club continues, but I am pessimistic about it.

Odds and ends

I read with interest the Delhi Bloggers Group heritage walk around Mehrauli, whcich inspired me to visit the Garden of Five Senses (see below). The photos taken by Saad were really good and are up at his blogsite. I must visit Jamali Kamali, a monument recommended to me by my colleague too, and that guy is my guru on places to eat and visit in Delhi.

Delhi Chronicles

The winter has had its truncated say in Delhi this year, and was unusually warm. A cold snap here and there helped us to remind us of its nasty reputation. But now in end January the sun is out, and it is a wonderful time to be going out and visiting the gardens. I decided to visit the Garden of Five Senses at Meharauli. Found it with great difficulty, as the metro construction has despoiled the road leading up to the garden. I lost my cell phone, so obviously the garden did not do enough to awaken my senses. The food at Bauji’s Dhabha was really good, but other than that there was little to write home about. Extended families of mind boggling proportions were out picnicking, and every spot of grass was occupied by people eating away home cooked food transported in huge containers. A dilapidated amphitheatre abuts on a upmarket restaurant, whose clients can roll in their Mercedes into the garden, while the rest of us have to park outside. A “solar bus” powered by solar charged batteries picked up kids from one end, fought its way amongst the cars from the aforementioned restaurant, and then had to have some manual help from a guy with long stick to flip around its electric contactors overhead, to make the trip back. A sad state of affairs. Methinks this garden will soon resemble the ruins it is surrounded by, and will have the honour of reaching the state of dilapidation in one hundredth the time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Troubled by a book

The White Tiger

This award winner has not been able to rustle up enthusiasm amongst the literati or the critics. I read the book for discussion in a book club, and had to do some speed reading to meet the deadline.

The two big things which I noticed immediately: First, for a Booker award this book reads easy. Amongst the recent winners this is by far the easiest book to read. The narrative is smooth, the storyline captivating and the message apparently simple.

Secondly I am amazed at the authenticity of Delhi life portrayed by the author. For a person who is not a Delhiwallah, the ability to latch on to the nuances of Delhi life is astonishing. A couple of personal instances which mirror the ones in the book are:

I have personally witnessed an incident in which a minor boy driving car causes an accident, and his driver, arriving at the scene some 15 minutes later, promptly takes on the burden of guilt. No kidding- this happened in my colony.

The name of the roads in Delhi keep on changing as Lutyen’s Delhi explodes like a monster, and the politicians replace British name with today’s, mostly Europeon, no American, relevant political personalities. As any Delhiwallah knows, the old name lingers on, and only a tourist will use the newly christened monikers.

The inability of Delhi bureaucrats to keep to a simple logic when numbering streets and blocks is evident. I live on Road No 56, and Road No 55 is half a mile away in an unexpected direction.

Aravind has spent many an observational evening in Delhi, and it shows.

I am surprised that book has left many Delhiwallahs untouched. Have we become immune to the poverty and the social injustice, which is evident everywhere? Or is it that Aravind drags these things out of the sewers , much to the discomfort of the middle class literature reading audience who can dish out Rs. 395 for this book? The apathy of the not so unfortunate people is a telling commentary on our times. This begs the question: Are the middle class, for all their protestations, at all interested in social justice? As we climb up the social and wealth ladder, are we capable of looking back and committing to helping the less fortunate? Do we think that if we contribute a measly amount to some fashionable charity or, donate some money at a temple, it will be good enough for our conscious? Are we bothered by our conscious at all?

Aravind leaves nothing to imagination. His story is straight from the guts, painfully visceral, horrifically detailed, and prods the reader’s sleepy conscious wide awake. The incidents he relates in the book, are unfortunately, all too real. This is not Bollywood’s glamorised poverty, but a in your face, take it or puke kind, which is very uncomfortable to read. One needs to keep an arm’s distance to not get upset with the portrayal of the characters.

The writing style leaves much to be desired. It is a straight journalistic verbiage, with attention to detail and authenticity, but with little creativity. Salman Rushdie would be justifiably upset that his book , The Enchantress of Florence, with all its shortcomings, did not even make it to the Booker short list. His is much better crafted book than The White Tiger. The only reason I see this book as a winner is its ability to keep one constantly uncomfortable with the contradictions of a pluralistic society, and the price one pays to climb the ladder in a developing economy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Going Greene

In my mania to read Graham Greene, I managed to read The Honorary Counsel, This Gun for Hire, A Burnt Out Case, and the Stamboul Train in rapid succession. Is my obsession over? I hope so.

Anyway, I will take up The Honorary Counsel out of the four books. It epitomises Graham Greene at his best, although it may not be his best book.

I am constantly amazed at how simple, yet how profound Greene can make his writing. The dilemma of a man far away from his home, seeking solace in the trivialities of a small, but deadly town, is narrated in agonising detail.

The story belongs to Dr. Plah, a medical doctor of mixed origin- father is an Englishman, while the mother is an Argentinian. The story is set in a small town outside Buenos Aeries, where Dr. Plah bumps into the honorary English Counsel, and with one other English teacher, constitutes the entire English related population of the town. The trouble starts when the Counsel is mistaken for the American ambassador, and kidnapped for exchange of prisoners by childhood friends of Dr. Plah.

The story then revolves around the kidnappers and the Counsel, with Dr. Plah playing a key role. The evolution of relationships between the Counsel, the kidnapper, Dr. Plah and his lover ( the counsel’s wife) take on almost Kafkaesque proportions. The ebb and tide of relations and the tensions of the situation builds up as Dr. Plah confronts his past in the form of the kidnapper, while his guilty conscious forces him to make amateurish attempts to save the Counsel.

Green’s literary style is used effectively to act as the society’s mirror, and his keen observations on man’s dilemmas and anxiety brings one to reflect on one’s lifestyle. He is as relevant today as he was in the last century. It is this enduring quality which spans generations, makes him very relevant today. It is a shame he missed the Nobel Prize. I do wish that his books were not so highly priced by Vintage. He deserves a much wider audience

Odds and Ends

Now that the Olympics in China is behind us, it may interesting to see if we remember anything. I do remember that nobody at home sat through the opening ceremony. It was all jazz and glitter, but without a soul. Controlled societies like China will tend to ignore the human aspect, while in search of materialistic gains. The attempt to fool everybody by having a playback singer for the little girl sticks to one’s mind. Phelps gold medals and a middle aged mother attempting a gold medal in swimming are other notables.

My mother brushed off the whole show as a soap opera, and I cannot say I disagree.

Delhi Chronicles

Now that the winter is truly here, and the warm clothes are out of the boxes smelling of mothballs, one has started enjoying the sun again. Shelling peanuts and struggling to break off pieces of gajak (peanuts embedded in jaggery) from the big cake, and soaking in the sun sitting on a charpoy while reading a book is the thing to do during winters. The sun sets at at about 5:30 p.m. nowadays, so going for THE walk in the dark is cold and troubling. Listening to an audio book is the only thing making this worthwhile. This year the winter seems to be normal, and the temperature did fall a little bit in end November, but has climbed back again to make Delhi the best destination for tourists this side of the Suez canal, the carnage in Mumbai notwithstanding.

The fog is coming in nowadays and that makes the Delhi winters what they are. The air travellers get hit by delays, but hey, the smell of winter, the chillness of the fog, the warmth of that cuppa tea, and the fuzzy good feeling of a Sunday wandering on Janpath is what Delhi winters is all about. Enjoy while it lasts guys.