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The English Teacher Book Review

The English Teacher: Book Review

The English Teacher by RK Narayan.

The life of an English teacher in a small South Indian town is probably as mundane as it sounds. But, if this is a character out of an RK Narayan book, one can expect it to become interesting along the way.

Krishnan recently became a professor in the same college he studied at. He lives in the same hostel and manages a communal living alongside fellow college teachers. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t prefer change and needs to be pushed. This is evident in how he continues to live in the hostel after getting married or becoming a father. He only starts to look for a house after his father-in-law insists on taking his wife to the city from their village.

The story is about how Krishnan builds a home and a life with his wife (Susila) and their daughter (Leela) until tragedy strikes. The aftermath of it and how his life shapes up to be, form the second half of this book.

RK Narayan, as always, has crafted characters that appear distinct and yet authentic to their core. The personalities that help move the story forward bring forth their struggles. Be it the teachers who work alongside Krishnan, the local doctor, or the headmaster he befriends later, further the growth of our main protagonist.

There is a mythical slash spiritual side to the story towards the book’s latter half. Slightly odd at first, but the author makes it appear believable.

The relationship dynamics of a newly married couple (Krishnan and Susila) and their brewing romance and silly fights make you feel the writer is allowing the reader to enjoy its simplicity. Even the protagonist’s relationship with his parents, in-laws, and even his daughter has a relatable echo.

The emotional turmoil isn’t melodramatic but is portrayed as-a-matter-of-fact. Ensuring the characters are true to what they are. This is a common theme among RK Narayan’s characters. The consistent truth of the character.

Overall, I loved the book. Of all the books from RK Narayan, this one is up there alongside The Guide for me. Give this a read if you want to read anything by an Indian author. Reading him always makes me feel how criminally underrated he still is.

The English Patient Book

The English Patient – Book Review

The English patient by Michael Ondaatje.

Halfway through this prosaic melody, as a reader, you wonder why this is titled as such. Over time, as you flip the pages, the realization dawns on why it is so. I don’t recall reading a book that places so much emphasis on developing, exploring, and storytelling through the lens of all its main characters in such stark details. The book feels like a milieu of characters with war-torn pasts looking to salvage whatever is left of their own selves.

The story takes place at the turn of World War 2 when the allied forces are gaining, and the Germans began retreating. A war-torn makeshift hospital needed to be shifted to a safer place but an adamant young nurse (Hana) refuse to leave the care of a burnt patient and decides to stay on. The patient, presumed to be English, is a cause Hana has attached herself with for the foreseeable future. Caravaggio, a former thief, who also happens to be a friend of Hana’s father joins her. The three of them are later joined by a Sapper (Kip), a Sikh from India, who is with the British Army as a mine/bomb diffuser. Their lives revolve around the English patient who is slowly recovering and narrates snippets of his past under morphine or just flashbacks.

The book is about characters who’re trying to come to terms with the misery that war brought and coping with the trauma of their current life. Either trying to find positivity amidst the chaotic post-war world, which nears an end, and coming to terms with their current self. Michael Ondaatje, the author, presents each character like an onion which the reader discovers better by peeling each layer of their past. The author takes us through the struggles of Kirpal Singh (Kip), a Sikh from Lahore (part of erstwhile India), who abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor and joined the army. He also gets the reader indulged in the notoriety of Caravaggio’s life and Hana’s journey into adulthood from Toronto to where she is now, in the war. The story of the English Patient is sprayed as a mystery that keeps unfolding to the very last.

What’s beautiful about the book is the language that delves deep into each character that in no way feels this is restricted to a central plot. There are journeys within each and as a reader, you get to go into every one of them. The book is more of a gallery with a painting for each character that pops up in the 300-odd pages of this book.

If you enjoy words, this book is for you. There’s a slow brew of a romance not only between characters but is also felt when you read these characters. The author succeeds in making you fall in love with each of them. At least I did.

This is a page-turner for sure and long after having finished the book, I find myself thinking about Kip riding the triumph in Italy to Hana writing about the men secretly to Caravaggio’s past life and even the English patients’ love for Katherine.

It won the Booker prize and there’s a movie based on the book as well which I’m definitely going to watch soon.

Radical Candor: Book Review

‘Saying what you mean’ sounds simple and yet is a difficult skill to master. We all have our share of running around the bush before we come close to uttering the meat of what we want. In personal relationships, the filters are usually far less clogged for your words to not get stuck. However, the same can’t be said for your professional relationships. And that’s why it is essential to develop radical candor to say what you mean to get what you want.

If you’re managing a team or if you are in a position where you provide feedback, then this book is a good guide.

Kim Scott, the author, provides a guide to people managers on leading consciously by developing relationships that are based on solid foundations.

This two-part book dives into explaining how you can use your humanity to be more effective in being a better boss. To help you be more aware of issues that are way more common than you might presume. Essentially, there’s nothing unique about a problem that you’re facing as a people manager.

The first part also focuses on introducing the quadrant of radical candor. Alongside ruinous empathy, obnoxious aggression, and manipulative insincerity, how can you reach being radically candid? If there’s one thing to take away from this book for me, then it’s this.

The second part of the book lists out tools and methods for building relationships, figuring out how to guide people on your team by welcoming criticism and feedback, and even how to hire the best fits and fire those that might not.

This part is action-oriented and gives a step-by-step approach towards 1x1s, organizing meetings, and rich examples of what has helped those who tried these approaches.

On the whole, the book is laced with real-life examples from the authors’ life from her tenures at Twitter, Dropbox, Google, Apple, and her Juice software. She does a great job in keeping the examples relatable, and her advice appears realistic. Most of the techniques outlined by her are simple and yet appear effective.

Radical Candor is an illuminating read and is a guide I’ll definitely refer to from now onwards.

a house for mr biswas

A House for Mr. Biswas- Book Review

Don’t you love reading books that you enjoy as you’re reading them page by page?

V.S Naipaul’s ‘A house for Mr. Biswas’ is one such gem based in Trinidad. This page-turner doesn’t take long to claw itself onto you. It’s immersive, overtly honest and fun to wade through the world created by Naipaul. Even at 623-pages, it doesn’t feel long, and as a reader, you find yourself craving for more.

Mr. Biswas’s everlasting quest for a house of his own, as he grapples with his ambition-ridden and unkind destiny, is interesting and humorous. It’s a peek into a life of a generation of immigrants of Indian origin in a world far removed and yet alike in forms. His mundane life laden with accidents, superstitions, irrational philosophies and a deep disdain for people is what the life of Mr. Biswas is.

In the evolving world of Race, Caste, Language, and Patriarchal systems, Mr. Biswas’s world continues to make absurd turns right till the very end.

The book doesn’t hold back on any surprises and treads along expected lines. Even sharing precursors of upcoming life events from his life much before they happen. And it doesn’t really need to build any suspense for the witty storytelling of Naipaul weaves its magic through it anyway.

The author journeys you through villages and plantations to new cities, hills, and beaches. And most closely, houses. I can’t recall a better description of old houses than what you read in this.

The story has a fantastic ensemble of distinctive characters with relatable quirks. I can close my eyes and imagine these conversations among individuals far after I’ve ended the book—intricate little worlds.

As the name suggests, the story is a sequential journey of Mr. Biswas from his birth, childhood traumas, growing up and getting married at an early age, and his reluctance to take responsibility for anything. Not even himself. As a character, he’s interesting because you want to see him win, but he just doesn’t. But, he grows on as the story progresses.

This book is a masterpiece and is easily heading to my favorite reads of all time. A worthy read from a Nobel Laureate- V.S Naipaul. I loved loved loved it!!

The sunset club by Khushwant Singh

The Sunset Club: Book Review

A group of three friends- A Sikh, a Hindu, and a Muslim- in their 80s meet every day in a Delhi park. Every day. This breeze of a read is a monthly journal of their meetings where they discuss their digestion, politics, and spicy details of their youth.

Show, don’t tell. Kushwant Singh’s The sunset club however does not follow the same line of thought. The book, even though written in a narrator’s voice, tries to run through the storyline by telling details that appear as if the book is talking more to outsiders who have no clue about India or its inhabitants. Needlessly pandering to an audience for whom a lot of it might sound as if the writer thinks pretty low of them.

Apart from this, I didn’t have any other gripe with the style of the book. This is a breezy 200-odd page short book that takes you through the life and times of three elderly gentlemen from Delhi. They are hard-coded north Indians who are reflective of the kind you’d come across if you were staying put in Delhi or around. The three characters are caricatured versions of a north Indian old man who are at the fag end of their lives and how most of their time is spent reminiscing about their younger selves, their secrets and life lived behind the curtains. They share the tiniest details about their day-to-day and yet show duality when meeting each other and their own families.

Even though the three characters are distinct with varied backgrounds, political and religious views, their old age draws the line of resemblance in their daily meetings at the Lodhi Gardens. This daily meeting helps them vent their frustrations out and gives them reasons to laugh, fight and get nostalgic. Their individual identities are a big factor in what they talk about, what they fight about, and what they steer clear from.

As a comparatively younger reader, it is fascinating to see the accounts of these gentlemen painting their glorious youth through this story. Spanning the 12 months of the year, each month brings with it a new topic alongside gradual changes in the weather and more nostalgia for each character. While a Boota Singh is a colorful portrayal of an outlandish Sardar who gravitates all conversation towards his sexual adventures, there is the more reserved Sharma who tries to bring forth the traditional Indian to the fore. In the midst is Baig who enjoys the fun conversation but always has his guards on.

The book is a reminder of how every journey has an end but a life filled with pleasant memories is what helps us to avoid gloom in old age. Kushwant Singh’s description of the changing Delhi weather is beautiful and you do get to bask in the winter sun of Delhi as much as feel the heat during summers through it all.

This is a great travel read that’s light, fun in parts, and easily digestible. I’d highly recommend this also as a read in between some heavy reading.

passage to india book review

A Passage to India: Book Review

A passage to India is a collected archive of the many Indias that birthed today’s republic. The culmination of sorts of the many that laid the foundations. E.M Forster’s book isn’t a bird’s eye view of a foreigner looking at India, even though that’s the impression I went in with. It’s like a house pet omnipresent in British, Muslim, and Hindu houses, narrating stories from its experiences in a country gripped in the shadows of an imperialistic Britain.

Forster weaves through the minds of natives of the land and the ruling class and navigates the reader through it. We have a section of frustrated Britishers who think they are doing good work and look down upon Indians. At the same time, we also have a few Britishers who want to understand the land. We also have the natives who either artificially aligned with the British for favors or jobs and those that outrightly despised them.

Interestingly, the author chooses not to build a background on what was happening politically in India and worldwide. So, with the absence of any context on India’s horrid affair with the British, one might’ve got a totally different take on the story. The story- focusses on the relationship between an Indian doctor (Aziz) and a high school principal (Fielding)- forms the book’s focal point. Two individuals try their best to mingle with another culture while holding their existing notions intact. There’s a separation of the race with the individual, and then misunderstandings that bring back the peculiar trust deficit changes it all.

The trust deficit among the cultures plays out throughout the book and isn’t limited to the central characters. One can even see it playing out among the natives between religious or caste groups. What Forster does well here is an honest portrayal of the feelings even when there’s a whole lot of hypocrisy visible for the rational eye. Characters don’t always abide by what they think, nor are there clear explanations for their actions. Drawing parallels from real life? Indeed.

On the British side, there are characters like Mrs. Moore, a widow who has come down to India to arrange the marriage of his son, who wants to understand the country and wishes to see the ‘real India.’ She is accompanied by Adela, who is supposed to get married to Moore’s son but isn’t so sure of ‘how much India has changed him.’ On the other hand, her son is a Magistrate who wants nothing to do with Indians except keep them ‘in line.’ There’s a club where Indians aren’t allowed, and those who frequent these clubs (Britishers) have terrible notions about Indians. And of course, there’s Mr. Fielding, who apparently ‘travels light’ as he’s still a bachelor, an atheist, and spends a lot of time with Indians like Aziz, much to the fellow club-going Britishers around.

On the Indians side, Aziz (a doctor) and his servants and friends take up a lot of his time. Whatever time he is left, he invests in poetry and usually tries to be a good host to the Britishers. There are characters like Dr. Panna Lal, Prof Godbole, and others who represent the other Indians in the fictitious town of Chandrapore in Central India.

Without giving any spoilers, an incident happens between Aziz and a Britisher that throws the fault lines among the two groups in the open as a trial ensues. While the story moves along this line, there’s definitely more to it than just this significant conflict.

Forster has attempted to paint an early 1900’s India without any emphasis on the politics of that time. He’s instead chosen the path of talking about Aziz and Fielding’s relationship and, through it, highlighting where the groups stood. Forster’s characters imitate life and go through their struggle to try to be humans instead of being saints.

However, towards the end of the book, there is a tone shift that throws you off. Instead of the flowy, fly-on-the-wall storytelling, the book hurries you up towards a climax. One can attribute it to the year gaps in the story, but perhaps they were written in two different periods themselves. Of course, this shift isn’t for long, and towards the end, you come back to the original tone of Forster’s Passage.

This is a good book for those with an existing understanding of India’s independence and relationship dynamics with the Britishers. Otherwise, this might come across as just a fictitious memoir of two friends to the uninitiated.

While reading, I could see the problematic caste and religious divide still prevalent in our country mirrors how it was way before the idea of ‘India’ was even there. At the same time, I could see individuals trying to adjust their own lifestyles to accommodate others by acknowledging these differences. This is something we’re slowly losing.


No Rules Rules- Netflix: Book Review

No Rules Rules- Netflix and the culture of Reinvention.

First, I love the fact as to how apt the title is to this book. Being a book that revolves around the concept of not having too many rules at a workplace, the title fits just right.

No Rules Rules, co-written by Netflix founder and CEO- Reed Hastings and author Erin Meyer, is an intriguing read about company culture. It focuses on highlighting the culture at Netflix and how Reed feels that it has been essential for the global growth that they’ve witnessed.

The culture at Netflix is about letting go of any form of control. It is about leading with context instead of control. The expectation, top-down, is about how you can let people make their own decisions and own up to any success or failure of it. Whether it’s the CEO or an associate, their decisions are their own.

Throughout the book, you get to read interesting incidents that highlight how Netflix has been able to build this culture. For instance, on the cusp of House of Cards’ new season releasing, Netflix had decided to partner up with Samsung to let viewers watch the show on 4K ultra high definition TV. To do this, they needed to get this experience to be reviewed by a Washington Post journalist   Geoffrey Fowler. Before sending the TV to the journalist, the day before the actual release, they tested the TV and went home. Now, for some reason, the TV was disposed of along with other old TVs in their office. So, instead of it going for the review, Nigel (Director responsible to get this done) was left incessantly calling nearby stores for the TV. But, he had no luck. He was panicking and felt like he’d failed. And then, a junior engineer Nick walks in and assures that the TV has been sent as required. This, because when Nick walked in the early morning he realized what had happened and immediately drove to a best buy and bought a TV worth 2.5k USD. He did that because he felt that was the right thing to do. He saved the day for his team by making a decision without waiting for an approval from his superiors. Netflix is known for similar instances of a no-approval-required policy. The concept of F&R (Freedom and responsibility) is what drives the culture at the company.

While the goal of Netflix has been to ‘Lead with Context and not with Control’, the book highlights the steps that have led them here.

As a reader, your mind immediately wanders to the question, ‘Can this be applied to ALL workplaces?’, ‘Is this specific to a US-centric work culture?’, ‘Not ALL workplaces can function without a degree of control, right?’. And the book tries its best to answer most of the questions.

The book is a good read if you are in a position where you assert a degree of control as a manager or supervisor. It brings a new perspective on possibly letting go of control. At the start, you’re on board with the concept, but as you read on, you realize not everything can be globally adopted. Not all cultures are the same and there would have to be an acceptance for contrasting culture/personality types to come to a middle path.

The book highlights how Netflix focussed on increasing its talent density and let go of anyone who wasn’t the best. ‘Adequate performance deserves a generous severance package’ is what Reed instilled as a practice. This meant anyone who wasn’t performing at their very best was fired. This came as a follow-up realization when they had to fire people at one time but the best-of-the-best who remained got the job done. At Netflix, everyone- the managers as well as the reports- has to take a Keeper’s Test. The test asks a manager how hard he’ll fight to keep an employee in the team. Individuals are also advised to ask their managers, this exact question to ascertain whether their managers are happy with them or not.

One of the other highlights of Netflix’s culture is actively seeking feedback. This applies and goes both ways. Employees are encouraged to provide feedback to their peers as well as managers. The feedback has to be actionable and should align with the concept of 4As. While giving feedback, Aim to assist and make it actionable and when you receive it, appreciate it and then make a decision whether you want to accept it or discard it. Later on, the book also talks about a 5th A- To Adapt.

A range of case studies, failures along the way to establish a culture, and learnings from a variety of people issues form the core of this book. It is definitely a page-turner and at no point do you feel like not reading what the people of Netflix have to say. It is, like the concept popularized by Netflix- binge-worthy!

Worth a read for those who’re trying to understand how cultures shape global organizations and the need to adapt.

Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Book Review:  Memoirs of a Geisha

If I have to be honest, my instinctive reaction to think of ‘who a Geisha is’ was different before I picked up this book. It is easy to interpret definitions without putting an effort in understanding them.

This memoir changes that. Beautifully, by taking you on a journey of little Chiyo from a fishing village to the streets of Gion. In doing so, it not only brings forth the nuances of the Japanese art, culture and Life, but gives you a detailed view of the life of a Geisha.

Geisha. ‘Gei’ means Art. They are (were) trained professionals who are hired to entertain, dance and sing. The kimono wearing artists start training at a young age by devoting their lives to this.

With post-war influence in Japan of the Americans and English, the ‘geisha girl’ got associated with being prostitutes.

The memoir is an nuanced, poetic and transformative story of a famous Geisha recounting her life journey. Along with her memories, you get immersed in the sublime beauty of Japan. It takes you inside a world, we might not visit due to our pre-rendered inhibitions. From elaborating the training of a Geisha, to various initiation ceremonies and the competitiveness of the apprentices who are trying to better the other. It’s all poetically written.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this memoir does justice to the richness of Japanese culture and how nuanced it is.

And yes, maybe, there can be school of thoughts on just one aspect of a culture cannot encompass it all. And I’d completely agree to that. The book carves out its own place, the protagonist creates her own world and doesn’t let you venture out from it. The world-view is restricted to Gion and lives of Geishas. And believe me, you won’t complain.

Author Arthur Golden apparantly re-wrote it thrice after multiple interviews with prominent Geishas of the time. And the simplicity of the language, the philosophy makes you sit back and think of what you’ve just read. This happened with me quite a lot while reading this through.

This 500-odd page book is a page turner. A worthy read to the lives of a Geisha. Highly recommended.

Book Review: A Flight of Pigeons

It’s a breezy weekend read of just 133-odd pages which feels half that. One of those types of achool-book stories which we’re all familiar with. Ruskin Bond’s stories are always simple, easy to digest and doesn’t take too much of your time. This book follows the same set.

The story takes place around the time of the 1857 Revolt. The same which we term as the ‘First war of Indian Independence’ and the British terms as a ‘sepoy mutiny’. This becomes the background of the protagonists’ story and doesn’t dwell at all into the intricacies of what, how and why of the revolt.

The story is told from the perspective of Ruth, daughter of a British Magistrate. The story is of the time when Mr.Labadoor, the clerk, gets killed in a massacre at a church by the revolting armies as a revenge against the ‘firangis’. From then on, it is about the survival of Ruth, her mother Mariam, their granny and a few others. Fleeing from one place to another. How this takes a turn when a Pathan, Javed Khan, decides to take them all under his roof as he particularly like Ruth and wanted to marry her.

The characters in the book are somewhat caricaturish of the time this book is based on. But this feeling is also due to how fast the story develops. However, it is apparantly based on real events. Even a movie, Junoon, was made by Shyam Benegal starring Shashi Kapoor in 1978 on this.
It’s a good book that delves into the other side of what the mutiny would’ve felt like for the ordinary working class firangis. It brings forth the irrational fears of people during war and also contrasting generosity of people even during such times.

Do give it a read. It’s short but rich in unsaid emotions.

A Suitable Boy: Book Review

#BookReview: ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth.

First, no. of pages: 1473.

While I’ve not read reviews of this book, I’m pretty sure the length of it should be the first thing that needs to be addressed 🙂 Last couple of years, I’ve consciously made the decision to read more Indian authors and Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ ranks high in the list of very best. I started reading this book somewhere last year and it took me a while to finish it.

But, boy, what a ride. The story centers around Lata and her mother Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s primary aim is to find the most suitable match for her daughter. And while this book could’ve been just about that, it is way more than just that.

This is a story of 4 families. And even if I attempt to weave it all into a summary, I just won’t be able to. The descriptive nature of each character, their emotions and influence is stitched brilliantly. If you like to write, then this book is such a good example of connecting storylines effortlessly.

The book is more about letting the character’s do what they can do, rather than forcing a narrative on them for the sake of moving the story forward. And that’s something I really loved about it. The honesty of each character is brought out quite well by the flow of the story.

Even though the book is long, at no point you’ll feel bored of it. It’s a keeper. A keeper to revisit after a couple of decades. This was written in ’93 for the time period of early ’50s and it has aged well.

I don’t have any gripe with how this book is, except maybe it’s long 🙂 Having said that, the book takes way too long to get you hooked. Like, I was almost half-way through it and only then I was invested in the characters. Question is, does everyone has that much patience ?

Either way, I’m glad that I stuck to it and finsihed it. Of course, the lockdown weekends did help and I’m glad to own a copy of this mammoth book.

I felt the writer, Vikram Seth, let the writing be done by the characters instead of a central voice. The writing is easy flowing, captivating, poetry-rich and perspective-laden.

Do give this a read.

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