Reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr

About a couple of months back, on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi, after the take-off formalities were completed, I took out my Kindle and began to read. After about 30 minutes of reading, I noticed a fellow passenger coming and sitting on the seat next to me.

Fellow Passenger — “I see you’ve been reading a book for quite some time? It’s rare to see people reading on flights these days. What’s the book about?”
I — “Hi. It’s a book about OKRs.”
FP — “Oh, is it the one by John Doerr?”
I — “Yes, Measure What Matters by John Doerr”
FP — “Oh, great, I read the book when I was trying to implement OKRs for my startup. Are you liking it?”

And thus, a conversation ensued on OKRs on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi between two strangers. It’s a highly probable event when your flight is taking off from Bangalore. Remember the old joke — “when you throw a stone in Bangalore, chances are, it will hit a dog or a software engineer.”? The new one goes like — “… it will hit a startup founder or a product manager!”

Jokes aside, while there are several resources available to understand and dig through OKRs, there is no better way than to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. To be more precise, straight from the horse’s protégé’s mouth!

About the horse and his protégé?

Andy Grove. The OKR methodology was created by Andy Grove at Intel who was influenced by Peter Drucker’s MBOs (Management by Objectives). Andy became Intel’s President in 1979, CEO in 1987, and Chairman and CEO in 1997. A few lines from Andy Grove straight out from the book — Measure What Matters: OKRs — the Simple Idea That Drives 10x Growth is perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of OKRs you will ever read –

“Now, the two key phrases … are objectives and the key results. And they match the two purposes. The objective is the direction: “We want to dominate the mid-range microcomputer component business.” That’s an objective. That’s where we’re going to go. Key results for this quarter: “Win ten new designs for the 8085” is one key result. It’s a milestone. The two are not the same … The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it. Now, did we dominate the mid-range microcomputer business? That’s for us to argue in the years to come, but over the next quarter we’ll know whether we’ve won ten new designs or not.”

OKR expands to Objective and Key Results

Source: https://www.whatmatters.com/

Let’s try to understand this by an example most of us can relate to –

Objective: Get nominated for the best outgoing student award at the school.

Key Result 1: Score more than 90% in academics.
Key Result 2: Win the annual debate and quiz competitions.
Key Result 3: Win at least one medal in the annual sports event of the school.

At a first glance, it sounds simple. Objectives are the time-bound objectives that you or team set for yourselves, and Key Results are the time-bound results that will tell you if you have met those objectives. However, as you start to think about applying it to a product team or a company, it begins to get a little complicated. These complications may originate from changing priorities, lack of/ambiguous vision, lack of defined business goals, unwillingness to change, spoon-feeding from top leadership and so on.

John Doerr learnt OKRs from Andy Grove and went on to become its strongest proponent. John convinced Google in 1999 to adopt the OKR method to measure their progress. Interestingly, John also had a set of OKRs for his presentation to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Source: https://www.whatmatters.com/

One after another, John Doerr chronicles the stories of OKR adoption, struggle, and eventual success at several organisations. He hands a few chapters in the book to early OKR adopters and lets them tell their own story of using OKRs for their growth. You will find names you’ve heard about and people who you have admired at some point in your life — YouTube, Google Chrome, Gates Foundation, MyFitnessPal, Intuit and a few more. The author lives by the dictum — “Your user is your greatest brand ambassador” and lets people like Larry Page, Susan Wojcicki, Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates, Atticus Tysen do most of the talking about their journey with OKRs. When others are not talking, the author chips in with his own take on these stories, how he got people onboarded and helped them with OKRs, and attempts to further refine OKRs to make them easily understandable. The book gives a structure to your thoughts on OKR and is a great place to start your journey with OKRs.

Towards the end of the book, there is a touching tribute to “Coach” Bill Campbell who coached Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and several other leaders from the Silicon Valley. It is a beautifully written dedication and a must read section of the book.

In ‘Measure What Matters’, understanding and articulating ‘what matters’ happens to be the more difficult part. Not knowing what matters can quickly put us on top of a pile of vanity metrics at the end of the quarter. While we may take off nice and easy with OKRs by our side, if we do not know our destination, there is a whole sky available to lose our way. I’m not sure if John Doerr had a set of OKRs while writing the book; nevertheless, I’m sure it is going to help the reader make substantial gains on their understanding of what matters and how to measure things that matter with OKRs.

Helpful Resources
Measure What Matters: https://www.whatmatters.com/
Andy Grove explains OKRs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ht_1VAF6ik
John Doerr on OKRs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiQ3Ofcmo50

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Cover image

Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success Looks at Success From Multiple Perspectives

Over the last one week, I read Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success. Currently working as Deputy Legal Adviser to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, the author’s resume is a thing of envy. He has penned 31 books and regularly writes for some of the most popular publications in India and outside, viz. The Economic Times, The Guardian (UK), The Pioneer, The Times of India, The Patriot, Manushi, The Sunday Mail, and The New Indian Express. The book in my hand falls in the Self-Help category and has been published by Bridging Borders publishing house.

There are several reasons to like the book. I love the fact that Mr. Talwar keeps no pretence about the target audience of this book. The author sets a clear context while doing the Introduction and explains the need of such a book for the Indian readers set against an Indian backdrop. The author believes that most of the acclaimed and widely read books in the genre have been written with a western lens and targeted at the western reader. That’s true to a good extent and reading a book that probes the Indian pop-culture and well-known stories from India to cite examples adds to the relatability of the book. It’s not that the book doesn’t have cases from outside India. In fact, the book is heavily reliant on global icons like Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Mario Puzo and others in order to explain success, failure and related themes. Even if you are a reader from outside India, it shouldn’t be very difficult to connect.

The book is also a far cry from other books in the genre that promise to give you a magic pill of success. More than telling how to become successful, this book tackles the question ‘What is Success?’. The author tries to look at success from multiple perspectives. Success can have diverse colours and so the book begins with those three things people generally relate success with – Fame, Money, and Power.

On a different note, the strength of this book also ends up becoming its disadvantage after a point. Too many simplistic conclusions are drawn from stories that seem to present multiple layers for inspection and rumination. The way these conclusions are drawn may leave readers looking for nuance a bit disappointed. A sense of rush to pack as many tales as possible in one book is palpable throughout and this creates a few problems. Firstly, many of these stories are in public domain and provided that the author doesn’t have an inside view of individuals mentioned in these stories, it’s hard to ascertain the accuracy or correctness of the inferences made. Secondly, page time for author’s own views and thoughts is considerably reduced. Even though we are reading a book about a concept that should draw a lot more from the respected author’s own life and struggles, by the end of the book, we don’t really get to know the author or his ideas well enough. I would have liked the book better if it had more focus and had dug deeper into the subject. Additionally, even though art is subjective, the book cover borders on bland and has scope for improvement to grab more eyeballs.

An individual like Mr. Rajesh Talwar surely knows what success looks like and it is only natural that the book is filled with anecdotes from Mr. Talwar’s surroundings. The book stresses on the importance of balancing between fame, money, power and suggests ways to do it, and narrates several examples to underline the correlation. If you are looking for a quick, crisp read with stories of success and failure that inspire without bothering to get into details, this is definitely a one-time read.

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cover imag of the book

Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook Answers the ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ of Lean

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – R.M. Rilke

I was reminded of these lines excerpted above when I reached the second chapter of my latest read. German poet R.M. Rilke wrote thus in one of his letters to a young aspiring poet who was looking for writing advice from Rilke. While the lines definitely apply if you are looking to compose poetry but I’m sure they also apply for anyone chasing any creative pursuit. Product Management is as much an art as it is a science. As such, Rilke’s advice also applies to folks who want to compose products — products that are beautiful as well as highly functional, products that are wanted and are used when they are launched, products that can develop a new market if one doesn’t exist, products that keep improving with time and usage, and products that don’t meekly surrender in death but achieve martyrdom in the battlefield aka marketplace when they exit. The second chapter of The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen talks about Problem Space versus Solution Space and underlines the importance of separating the two. With that separation, also comes the criticality of spending enough time in the problem space before getting into the solution space.

Book as a Product

Dan Olsen puts his book through the same rigorous processes and tests that he would like any product to go through. The book is treated as a product itself and at the outset, he pins its objective as neatly as possible. The title happens to be ‘The Lean Product Playbook’ and if you are a little confused about what to expect from the book, the subtitle makes it easier to calibrate your expectations — “How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Product and Rapid Customer Feedback.” At this point, you get to know that this book gives a lot of page-time to MVPs and the process of getting usable customer feedback. The book has been published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey and I read it on Kindle.

Perils of not heeding to Rilke’s advice (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

From Lean Startup to Lean Playbook

In many ways, this book is a worthy successor of another popular book amongst product people — The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. While ‘The Lean Startup’ explained the foundations of the Lean concept, this book goes deeper into the execution phase and spends more time helping you figure out How-To-Do-Lean. In short, The Lean Startup answers the ‘What? and Why?’, and Dan Olsen’s book answers the ‘How? and When?’. The point is, if you have not read Eric’s book, it’s a good idea to do so before coming to Dan Olsen’s work. In his own words, “I wrote The Lean Product Playbook to fill the knowledge gaps faced by many people who want to create a product using Lean Startup principles.”

The book is divided into 3 parts–

1. Core concepts to understand the concept of Product-Market Fit

Product-Market Fit Pyramid (https://leanproductplaybook.com/book/)

2. Following the Lean Product Process (six steps) to achieve Product-Market Fit.

3. Building/Optimizing your product after establishing Product-Market Fit.

You need Oprah as well as Spock on your product journey (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

The author describes all these six steps in point 2 in detail with real world examples from his experience at Intuit where he worked on Quicken as well as from his time helping other companies of the world apply Lean principles.

More Observations

There are several scenarios which can be directly lifted from the book and plugged into any product development team’s workstyle with minor modifications to drive better outcomes for their products. For the number of examples, and step-by-step processes this book comes with, it definitely fills a vacuum between the concepts of Lean product development and the execution part of it. Target Market Segmentation, Technology Adoption Life Cycle, Personas, Underserved Customer Needs, Customer Discovery Interviews, Customer Benefit Ladders, Satisfaction Framework, Customer Value, MVP Feature Set Specification, Prototyping, MVP tests, UX Design — the book covers all these and many more arms of Lean product development in detail with practical examples to learn from.

Over the last decade, Lean has become the ‘Meditation’ of the product world. Most people keep talking about its benefits, few practise it, and fewer still practise it right. You truly understand the benefits of Lean only when you practise it effectively. At the same time, you get to understand its use cases better when you keep at it iteratively for a longer duration of time. Keeping that in mind, I’m sure that this book is going to help product folks get better at developing solutions to real problems instead of fishing for problems their self-attested product solves. A lot of startups today are trapped in the loop of solving the same problem over and over. If it’s not by choice to ride the wave for making quick money, this book may help such companies break that loop as well.

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Photos of JJ Goodwin and Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda’s Most Faithful Friend Who Rests at India’s Ooty

Swami Vivekananda said of J.J. Goodwin, “Those who think they have been helped by any thought of mine, ought to know that almost every word of it was published through the untiring and most unselfish exertions of Mr. Goodwin…a disciple of never-failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was….”

In life as well as in death, some people stay young. These people take up one thing and pour the last drop of blood coursing through their veins over it. Their life becomes a relentless pursuit of that one object. Nothing can distract them. No force can deter them from their chosen path. They keep at it until one day life stops and death gives them their much deserved rest. Irrespective of their age, at work and in rest, they stay young.

I got introduced to Josiah John Goodwin as a child when I was introduced to Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature. If not for this man, most of Swami Vivekananda’s talks and lectures might have become the food of oblivion. I have known that this man of only 23 was noting down some of the most vital messages ever passed on to humanity. I have known that he refused to take payments in just about a week’s time at work with Swami Vivekananda. I have known all along that Mr. J.J. Goodwin came to India with Swami Vivekananda as the most faithful devotee and friend. He recorded in shorthand, Swamiji’s lectures from Colombo to Almora which became the bedrock of Indian nationalism, socialism, humanism, and most importantly a reinvigorated ignition switch for the Indian freedom struggle. I have known that he was only 28 when he died due to fever in the year 1898 in Ootacamund (Ooty). I have known that his death was perhaps the dearest of losses for Swami Vivekananda. I knew that he rests somewhere in Ooty listening to the poem his Master dedicated to him on learning of his demise.

In the book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, a passage on Mr. Goodwin explains, “Mr. Goodwin would take down a lengthy address in the evening, work through the night in typewriting off his stenographic reports, and then hasten towards midnight to the newspaper offices, the conductors of which were anxious to print the Swami’s lectures, and this continued day after day, The Guru loved his disciple with infinite tenderness and initiated him into the practices and ideals of the Vedanta philosophy, so that he became an expert in grasping its contents and faithfully reporting them. It is needless to say that the Swami was grateful beyond words to his disciple. He could not speak too highly of him ; he saw in him a great Karma Yogin, one who could unselfishly perform work for the sake of work and who could live the life of ideals. Mr. Goodwin,  of course, refused any remuneration as soon as he understood the Swami and had been with him for a fortnight. Though he came from the ordinary classes of society and his education was not of a scholarly type, he exhibited remarkable intellectual adaptabilities with reference to the Swami’s work. His youth and his enthusiasm proved valuable stimuli. The Swami often spoke of him, saying, “He is chosen for my work. What would I do without him ! If I have a mission, he is indeed a part of it.””

Goodwin was born on 20 September 1870 at Batheaston, England. His father Josiah Goodwin was a stenographer and an editor of the Birmingham Advertiser, the Wilts Country Mirror and the Exeter Gazette. Goodwin worked as a journalist from the age of fourteen, and had an unsuccessful journalistic venture in Bath in 1893. He left Bath and travelled to Australia, and later on, to America.

As I stood before his memorial in the cemetery of CSI St. Church in Ooty on 3rd March, 2021, I was overwhelmed with emotions not much of surprise or disbelief but of the familiarity of the moment. It was as if I was there to see someone specially dear to me. I felt I was standing before a man whose absence I had been mourning ever since I read about his death at a tender 28. Whether you know it or not, J.J. Goodwin is the guide who is always by your side when you are reading Swami Vivekananda’s words. His words are here for us to read because there was a young British stenographer who was skilled enough to take down those extempore outpourings of the great teacher verbatim when others failed as well as dedicated enough to work tirelessly to produce printable copies night after night and lecture after lecture.

I sat there looking at the tombstone and all the things written on it and I felt that my mourning was complete. It was as if I was preordained to be there to pay my respects to him. I sat there as I would sit for the dearest of my kin and friends. As he rested in a corner in the cemetery, I kept wondering if he died so young only because it was time for him to rest. I don’t know many people who deserve to rest more than he did. I hope that when I and you rest, our rest too will be equally well deserved.

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Partition Horrors Remembrance Day – 75 Years Too Late?

The government has notified 14th August as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Citizens have expressed their views about the declaration. While many have thanked the government for the decision, there are a few who do not like the idea. We will go to the most commonly cited reasons for the apparent dislike in a while. I have a few other things to mention at the outset.

For most of us in our 40s, 30s, and 20s, partition has been a non-event. Thanks to the ideologically sold-out historians in charge of our textbooks, the partition seemed like a clerical routine, a formality to be completed before we could get our freedom. If you didn’t look for it, you wouldn’t find it. Why was it so? Was it to let our wounds heal or to shut our eyes on them while they festered across our body for the want of good nursing? These can be difficult questions but they have answers, no matter how inconvenient!

Long ago, I met with an accident while riding my bike. My foot was badly hurt with deep cuts which couldn’t be stitched in the hospital. The only way out was regular disinfection of the wounds, application of ointments, and a bandage dressing that needed to be changed every day. I hated the routine but there was no other way. This went on for about two weeks. After two weeks, the nurse noticed some dry tissues on top of the wound. I thought the wound was healing. Before I could feel any comfort at the development, in a blink of an eye, the nurse tore off the tissue. The insides had very little improvement and he went back to cleaning and dressing the wounds. This was the longest I had nursed a wound. I was not allowed much movement for about a month. Now, if this wound were to be wrapped in a bandage, never to be opened again without any sterilization, cleansing, or nursing, the inevitable consequences would have been either amputation or death! 

Separate land for the Muslim population was demanded. Mohammad Ali Jinnah launched the Direct Action Day to insist on a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. Jinnah’s supporters and all the people who wanted a separate country for Muslims came on the streets. Riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out. More than 4000 people lost their lives and 100,000 were left homeless in just 72 hours in Kolkata. In the months of October-November of the same year, in the Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), the Hindu population was massacred in an organized attack by the Muslim rioters. More than 5000 people were killed, thousands looted, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam. Around 50,000 to 70,000 refugees were sheltered in the refugee camps at different places. This was not during the partition and happened in 1946. The cycle of bloodbath kept running without rest. There were no gods on earth or in the heavens. This land was drenched in the blood of her people. I am not even going into what happened to the minorities in Pakistan (both eastern and western) after the partition. 

The wound had been festering since Syed Ahmed Khan’s insistence that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations in a nation of many nations. There were a few good doctors who tried to limit the damage, contain the infection but most of them looked the other way. The idea was brought to fruition in the form of a tragic amputation of the Indian land and its people. So, next time you hear your well-meaning friend telling you that India is a nation of many nations, prod a little more for his rhyme and reason. Scratch the surface and you will find a secessionist or separatist hidden beneath.

A lot has been written about the number of people affected. I will not go there as the most modest numbers pale the most inhuman tragedies in other parts of the world. I will be concerned with the makings of the partition and their fading memories. Why has partition been allowed to become a mere blip in our history books or popular retellings of our country’s history? When millions of people were looted, raped, and killed, why did the partition become an event sanitized off its blood-stink of sectarian fanaticism and identity politics so quickly and so easily? Our doctors who were trusted with the healing process wrapped a piece of rag on it and left the nation to keep the amputation operation alive, to inflict on us a slow and painful death from our festered wounds, to forget that once upon a time Pakistan was India, to legitimize the demand for an independent Kashmir, to uproot the Indian people from their fertile and well-cultivated land physically, mentally, as well as spiritually so that one day, a so-called history buff from the Bollywood would nonchalantly tell us that India was born in 1947!

The court historians of the congress party were tasked with two jobs: 

1. Establish that India won her freedom without spilling a drop of blood. 

2. Establish that there were only two people chiefly responsible for India’s freedom. 

3. Erase all such instances of violence from the minds and hearts of the Indian public where the perpetrators identified themselves as Muslims. 

They did their job well but paper boats don’t sail too far. 

Some of the opposers of the move have said that a lot has already been written over the partition. This essentially means that they want the partition to be their pet project so that they can keep collecting grants and funds from the world in the name of governmental apathy.

The neo-Marxists want to forget the partition. This is the group that is hypocrisy redefined and underlined. They want to remember the upper caste atrocities through books, movies, and every literature festival and subway graffiti of the world. Personal becomes political and political becomes personal. They want to keep reminding you of your savarna privilege at the most innocuous of your expressions. However, ‘reminiscing the partition’ becomes the Van de Graaff generator leaving their hair strands all shocked and alarmed!

A few intellectual roleplayers wrote while defending Holocaust Memorial as well as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and protesting Partition Horrors Remembrance Day that in the holocaust, there was just horror and that there were no positive stories. However, the partition also had positive stories of help and support. They also added that the holocaust had one clear villain but during the partition, both the communities suffered equally. This is the most juvenile and the most insecure argument put forth. The suggestion that both the communities suffered is true but clearly, there was only one villain – the group which wanted to see a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. There are no two ways about it. Holocaust too had stories of hope and help, but these folks have spent too much of their time using government vouchers in 7-star hotels and holiday vacations outside India to find time to read anything on that. 

I maintain that the announcement has come 75 years too late. My celebration of Independence Day has been a chequered experience since the time I learnt about partition and its horrors. I think it will remain so for the general people of our country. You can’t unsee, un-remember, unlive partition – or the horrors of it. It will be remembered no matter how inconvenient it may be for some people who are too thin-skinned for truth and have their sense of entitlement under threat with the announcement. For any healing to commence, it must not be a product of lies and cover-ups. A truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the South African initiative will be a positive second step in this direction.

References: Halfway to freedom: a report on the new India in the words and photographs of Margaret Bourke-White
Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White

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Sandeep Dutt’s ‘My Good School’ Is a Dull Read on an Important Subject

An author must keep things interesting for his readers. When the subject of his book is as important as ‘how a good school should run’ and ‘how our education system needs to change to provide better learning’, this responsibility increases a thousandfold. My latest read was a short book titled ‘My Good School – Where Passion Meets Education’, authored by Sandeep Dutt who is a school coach, bookseller, runner, mountaineer, and social entrepreneur. The book is another step towards his mission to ‘help schools deliver better’. As much as I tried to keep myself interested, I kept asking myself more than once – “Must I continue or should I stop?”

School education is a matter close to my heart and for that reason, I picked this book from my TBR stack to see what the author has to say on this subject. Our media, politicians, and leaders from different sectors keep talking about a lot of issues that need fixing in our country. However, school education is something that is not spoken about a lot. Hence, I am appreciative of the fact that Mr. Sandeep Dutt has tried to use his practical experience to bring out this book. This book aims to cater to two sets of readers. Firstly, parents who want to select the best school for their child. It talks about the qualities a good school must possess to enable an atmosphere for the holistic development of a child. Secondly, it speaks to the educators and school administrators who want to create such efficient schooling systems. The book is 165 pages long and is published by Rupa Publications. The cover illustration by Prenita Dutt is beautifully designed and evokes nostalgia.

The book is divided into four sections. The first part discusses the importance of schools, understanding quality in education, the role of good parenting, how learning can be fun, the choice of curriculum, and why teachers are averse to change. The author also lays stress on his mantra for a good school: Education = Service + Skill + Sport + Study. These are the four S’s which have been discussed several times in the book. The second section discusses the significance of reading, writing, innovation, and liberal arts. Section 3 discusses the real-world life lessons that schools should and good schools do provide. The fourth and the last section is aimed at the school leadership and deals with the duties of the Principal, Student Leader, and Teacher.

When I was on the Contents page, it looked like the book was very well organized and had elements that parents and educators needed to know, understand, and implement. Although that is true to an extent, as I went through the inside pages, I found a lot of repetitions, too many quotes and citations for a book this short, generic treatment of subjects that needed more depth and action points for the readers, and almost no anecdotal or statistical evidence for the observations made. As I reached the Conclusion page, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways this book could have been one of its kind in the genre, with a little more churning of the rich experience of the author.

Of all the things I could think of, the first and foremost is that My Good School deserved more of Mr. Sandeep Dutt’s personal stories and anecdotes of experiential learning from the projects he has undertaken with different schools. This change would have made the book more booklike than a prosy and preachy presentation in an already dull seminar. Going by the structure and the topics discussed in the book, I believe we have a lot more to learn from the author than he has tried to teach in the book.

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Subramanian Swamy’s Book Himalayan Challenge Has Critical Lessons for Both Indian and Chinese Policymakers

China, for a long time, has been considered a black box around the world. Particularly in the Indian context, China evokes images of competition, low quality goods, limited freedom of speech, expansionism, and several other uncharitable feelings. On the other hand, there is the entire film industry in the west as well as in India that would like us to believe that everyone in China can fight with their toes on sticks and all they do is meditate all day. The common perception of China is caricaturish at best and devoid of any real understanding of the place and its people.

We can’t blame the common people for nurturing such perceptions since we believe in what we are fed by our media and politicians. You wouldn’t however, be pleased to discover that people sitting at the top of policy making towers have on multiple occasions betrayed their shallow discernment of China and its communist regimes. This has resulted in several strategic blunders by India when it comes to its China policy. The 1962 war, India’s flip-flops on Tibet, Nehru’s dilatoriness on India’s military modernisation while following a rather vacuous Forward Policy with China, and the failure of successive governments to hold a strong hand on the negotiation table have resulted in massive clouds of suspicion and confusion on both sides of the border.

These and a lot more have been discussed with the precision that has come to characterize Mr. Subramanian Swamy over the years in his recent book – Himalayan Challenge – India, China, and the Quest for Peace (published by Rupa Publications). He has travelled to China on the invitation of Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs as an envoy of the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in September 1978. Later in 1981, Mr. Swamy was invited to meet China’s Supreme leader, Chairman Deng Xiaoping where he convinced the Chinese government to reopen the Kailash Mansarovar route for Hindu pilgrims. His keen interest in Chinese studies and his first-hand experience with the Chinese government have helped Mr. Swamy understand multiple perspectives on Indo-China relationship. These perspectives make this book a seamless read with intriguing pieces of information on every page.  

The book starts with a historical context of the India-China relationship with a quick but penetrating glance over the great impact India has had on Chinese culture, religion, and society. The author establishes important timelines related to the export and acceptance of Buddhism, the modifications wrought upon the religion to make it more  suited to Chinese symbolism, Megasthenes’ account of his travel in India, and the claims of Confucius and Buddha being contemporaries. Mr. Swamy then goes into the  details of the borders that India and China share with affiliated events through the annals of time.

The book is concise and never deviates from the point it has to make. That is because the author doesn’t give more than the necessary time and space to the background details and swiftly comes to the makings of the conflicts between India and China. Starting from the policy confusions on Tibet between the two countries, the origin and making of the McMahon line to the 1962 war and points in time when the two countries dumped their thousands of years old unblemished bond into cold storage of mistrust and deceit, Mr. Swamy discusses in detail the doublespeak of Mr Nehru while dealing with China against the suggestions of Mr. Patel, the complacency that had crept into the Indian side due to the era of sycophants in ministry as well as bureaucracy in the 50s, China’s lack of sincerity when dealing with Mr. Nehru and the India of his time, and China’s limitations when it comes to military combats with India. Mr. Swamy is equally critical of parties on both the sides of our contentious border and doesn’t pull any punches while doing so.

Thankfully though, this book is not about military combat and who will survive longer in the event of a nuclear war. Although Mr. Swamy touches upon those subjects, he also explains that India and China do not have anything apart from the border issue in the way of a long lasting friendship and peace. The two superpowers must find ways to trust each other and sincerely look for ways to increase cooperation. This is not to suggest that India should give in to Chinese threats on the borders. On the contrary, Mr Swamy hopes for transparency in communication and expects more assertiveness while dealing with Chinese incursions from the present day government.

The book also has an interesting appendix section consisting of some declassified files, transcript of Mr. Swamy’s conversation with Chairman Deng, Mr. Patel’s letter to Pandit Nehru and Nehru’s note on China and Tibet, a verbatim record of a discussion in Beijing between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong over India-China relationship and Soviet Russia’s role in it. These make for interesting reading.

India has a vast Himalayan challenge in front of it. With Pakistan playing in China’s lap, and a few neighbours finding their voice against India at China’s spurring, India has to define its diplomatic path with maturity minus the naivete displayed by our forefathers. The problem is not going to disappear if we bury our heads in sand. Hence, the future leaders of our country would do better to get a primer on what has transpired between these two great nations so far and why. That way, this book should be a required reading for politicians, bureaucrats, as well as the common citizens on both sides of the border.

Subramanian Swamy’s Himalayan Challenge is an honest assessment of India’s unsettled questions in the North and thus hints at the potential good that could come out for both China and India if these questions were settled. I wonder then, if only these two countries could trust each other more and cooperate with confidence, perhaps both  could have used each other’s help in managing the COVID-19 pandemic with greater effect.

Death by a Thousand Rallies, Modiji’s Surgical Strike On India’s Population Explosion

I am not sure how many feel insulted by all the election rallies happening around us these days. I certainly do. When COVID-19 patients continue to suffer and die in thousands for the lack of adequate medical care and facilities, our politicians have once more proved that we are nothing more than  a single vote – a step in their ladder to power. On other days, one vote could be a powerful identity but as things stand out now, it is nothing more than a mockery of our democratic functions, values, and commonsense.

All the states that went or are going through elections – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, and the union territory of Puducherry saw politicians from all shades and hues. The campaign rallies by their star campaigners drew huge crowds at every occasion in complete disregard of the healthcare bloodbath our country is going through. When you know that for most of these rallies, people are enticed to attend using money, liquor, and other kinds of allurements, two sets of voters can be distinctly seen in this reality. The first one is the poor voter who knows that the offered money can help him fend off for a few days. The second set is that of the greedy voters who have consciously put a price tag on their attendance as well as their votes, and in this case, also their lives. While you may feel that we can’t do much about the first set, the second set is not going to disappear anytime soon either.

Under the given circumstances, who must take the blame for such gross violations of COVID-19 protocols laid out by the Election Commission (EC) of India? Of course, the political class. But before we go there, the EC itself must be held accountable. The fact that this body has not been able to do anything about these huge rallies has shown us again that it lacks the teeth it wants us to believe it has. Even with all the reforms, the commission has remained a tiger that can only roar after its hunt has been robbed away by the hyenas, hyenas being the political class of our country. Our vote is their meat. 

Since the BJP is in power and Mr. Modi is our Prime Minister, a huge part of the blame of such a vulgar joke on us must lie with them. It is not that they did not know. We have had similar rallies during the Bihar elections. Most states in India have pathetic numbers on all kinds of healthcare charts, and still by not doing anything to prevent these rallies or not exploring other options for campaigning, they have put our healthcare infrastructure under extreme stress. The doctors and medical staff find themselves in the same situation they were in a year ago. So, while the common citizenry is told to ring bells and sound plates to applaud and encourage the corona warriors, our supreme leader is hitting record numbers rally after rally to insult the very same people.

Come to think of it, hasn’t our democracy been always this way? I feel insulted but not surprised by this apathy displayed by the most important people of our political system. Right from our Prime Minister to candidates fighting for a seat, no one has had the strength to lead by example. BJP, DMK, AIADMK, TMC, CPI – there is no party that has not made a joke out of the pandemic. The surprising part is that most of these people have experienced the pandemic first hand. Even then, they have conducted themselves in a way that has proved that selective amnesia is a more dangerous disease. For example, our Home Minister Amit Shah has himself recovered from the virus but can still go on from one state to another in search of vote count. Amit Shah is one example but there are several politicians who have suffered or are suffering due to COVID-19, including the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. How is it possible then that they can treat the pandemic with such callousness?

Are we then taking these people more seriously than they deserve to be? Are they mere instruments of the electoral institutions and processes of our country? If electoral victory is the only deity these political parties have, are we all just being pushed into the sacrificial fire as offerings to this deity? If decades of politically engineered Hindu-Muslim faultlines, caste based seat allocations, minority appeasement, cash for votes have not adequately underlined this fact, the pandemic has settled the debate. At present, we are not more than a single vote that can fetch victory for a political ambition. Our lifespan starts at the ‘massive rally’ claim tweet of our politicians and ends at the button press on the EVM. After that, even if we get infected by the virus and die, it will be for the good of the polity of our country.

When they say, we must be prepared to die for our country, they actually mean ‘die for the polity’, and perhaps nothing else. We refuse to believe this for a good night’s sleep. The first thing they did was to coin the term ‘corona warrior’ so as to attach a sense of pride in dying at work while our politicians keep at their criminal election campaigns. Second thing they did was to bring out the thaalis and diyas to pay pompous respects to these corona warriors. Then they organized political rallies and offered 200 bucks and alcohol to the attendees in order to create noble causes for our corona warriors to die. There is not one missing link, no loose ends in this political drama.

If you are more religious than political, not that there has remained much of a difference between the two, you can also visit the Kumbha Mela. They have made state-of-the-art arrangements for you to get infected. In any case, going by the popular saying , “Modi ji kar rahe hain toh kuchh soch kar hi kar rahe honge”, it could very well be ‘Modiji’s Surgical Strike’ on one of our lingering problems since Chacha Nehru’s time – India’s population explosion.

Note: The image used in the article has no scientific basis and is purely based on political hearsay. For more accurate data and charts, please refer here.

Wild Gujarat Prods You to Plan Your Next Trip to Gujarat’s Rich Biodiversity

Co-created by Biswajit Roy Chowdhury and Shiladitya Chaudhury, supported by Gujarat Tourism, and published by Rupa Publications, Wild Gujarat takes you on a jungle safari through the rich biodiversity of Gujarat. The book covers the Gir National Park, Blackbuck National Park, Little Rann of Kutch, Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Marine National Park, Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, and finally the Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary. There is special focus on the Gir and quite deservingly, lions get the lion’s share of the book.

The book has been composed in the coffee table style and boasts of breathtaking pictures of the wildlife of Gujarat. The pages and prints are lavishly done and the brief notes that go with these pictures provide ample context without losing focus of the subjects. While it is a must have collection for the wildlife enthusiasts, for people new to the study of wildlife, it introduces several new species not commonly known or spoken about.

From the pages of the book – Wild Gujarat

An important aspect of the book is how the authors have provided the details of how several of these species have been endangered for a long time, how their population came to paltry figures due to poaching and game shooting, and how a preservation and protection movement was effected over time. When we get to read that the number of Asiatic lions grew up to 674 last year from 287 in 1936, a realization that while a region’s biodiversity can be destroyed in no time due to our callousness, the recovery can take up to several centuries, hits us.

While the book begins with Gir, it does not limit itself to Gir and takes us to several other hotspots of biodiversity in the state. The visages of the majestic Gir Lion, richly produced images of the leopards and endangered blackbucks, strikingly captured pictures of the innumerable birds, both native and migratory, the vast stretches of forests and wetlands, the expansive salt wasteland of Rann of Kutch are put in front of the readers as an open invitation to pack their bags and explore all the biodiversity Gujarat has to offer. I am about to do just that.

K.C. Ajayakumar’s Sankaracharya Explains and Summarizes Advaita and Adi Sankara’s Life

Even though it is an arduous task to talk about Adi Sankara’s intellect authoritatively, there is no dearth of books on Adi Sankaracharya. While the historicity of his life and events have been dealt differently by different authors in these books, the best means to understand his darshan (philosophy is the closest word in English) of Advaita (Non-Duality) are his own works, appended by the works of his disciples who wrote commentaries on his creations. However, even with all the available resources, not many tend to go deep into his philosophy while writing a book about him and end up writing a few peripheral and more miraculous details of his life and time. Through time, this has rendered his thoughts more obscure or complex.

K.C. Ajayakumar differentiates his work on this aspect. He does not entirely skip the biographical details but they only work to advance the story that is essentially about Advaita and its chief preceptor. The author has probed deep into Adi Sankara’s life, his experiences and experiments, the inner working of his mind, and his universal philosophy. All this, with the simplicity and clarity of a child, the author brings Sankaracharya (published by Rupa Publications) to us in simple and engaging prose without losing the essence of that ocean of knowledge the great philosopher has left behind for us.

The story begins with the story of Sankara’s birth and his intellectual prowess even as a child. As Sankara learns all that is there to learn with and around him, his longing for a Guru, a teacher who would help him realize the absolute truth grows stronger every passing day. His pleadings with his mother to let him take Sanyaasa and leave home to find a Guru make for an interesting section in the book. Once he leaves his home, the author retraces all the routes he took across the length and breadth of Aryavarta (India) with all the major events taking place during this journey.

The descriptions of all these places come with brilliant imagery and without any compromise on essential details. Hence, many a time, the author is successful in putting the reader right beside Sankara, following him with his disciples. There are a few disputable facts or events, for example – Sankara’s contemporary scholar Mandan Mishra is shown to be living at a place near the river Narmada. There are other accounts that locate Mandan Mishra’s place to be in the Mithila region of India. However, since scholars have differing views on this subject, these conflicts can be safely ignored. The soul of the book remains intact and without a blemish. As it is difficult to ascertain several facts of his life with pinpoint accuracy, there are parts where a few events have to be recreated with imagination and logic. K.C. Ajayakumar does a fine job there as none of these explanations feels out of place. The author also does a great job in explaining a few miraculous elements or events in Sankara’s life with the help of logic and reasoning.

The most evocative part of this book is the author’s deep dive into Adi Sankara’s darshan. He recreates the most prominent debates the great thinker was involved in without shying away from details. Sometimes, the best way to say something is to say it as it is. K.C. Ajayakumar cites from the most notable works of Adi Sankara (Vivek Chudamani, Commentaries on Upanisads, etc.), and provides us with detailed minutes of his meetings with thinkers and influencers of his time. These minutes have a lot of questions, their answers, counter arguments, refutations, and explanations (including his debates with a couple of Buddhist monks).

It would have been easier to keep floating on the surface but that would have made this an ordinary book. On the contrary, because of its deep indulgence with the philosophy itself, this book acts like a primer which you can read before you begin to explore Adi Sankara’s original works.

Special Mention – If you want to know why the head priest of Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand has to be from the southernmost state of India i.e. Kerala, give this book a read!

Ratan Sharda’s RSS Retraces the Organization’s Footprints on India’s Social and Political Journey in the Last 100 Years

There are ideas that are widely understood and widely disliked, and there are ideas that are hardly understood but widely liked. The phenomenal rise and popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the decades that culminated into BJP’s rise and ascent to power for the first time in 1998 and then (on its own) in 2014 have been discussed on several occasions through op-eds and prime time debates. However, most of such deliberations have failed to set the premise properly. As a result, even though the offspring has now come to power for a consecutive second term, the parent organization is not adequately understood. Part of the blame lies with the organization itself as it kept a conscious distance from the media for a long time. Much of the blame though lies with the chroniclers of our time who according to their self-interests, painted the organization either completely black or entirely white whenever they spoke or wrote about it. All such pursuits only resulted in a glacier of misinformation and a contagious borrowing of opinions to ‘fit in’ with the popular opinions.

Noted public intellectual and an RSS member who has also worked with most of the affiliate organizations of the Sangh, Ratan Sharda has authored RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement in his attempt to do a course correction. He has chronicled the history of this massive organization from an interestingly chosen vantage point – Sangh’s Sarsanghchaalaks (Head of the organization). By looking at their lives and their time in the organization, the author successfully encircles the birth and rise of the Sangh.

Starting from Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who was a Congressman before starting the RSS to its current day chief – Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, Ratan Sharda touches upon the most defining moments of this organization. As this movement began to take shape in the year 1925 and continues from strength to strength till today even in the face of tremendous hostility from the Congress party and the Left, the book also gives us a peek into modern Indian history. The repercussions of Congress’s support to the Khilafat movement, the makings and results of the Quit India movement, the partition and the freedom, China’s expansionism and the 1962 war, the freedom of Bangladesh, the corruption charges on Indira Gandhi, the emergency years, first elections post emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the riots that followed, the liberalization years – the author takes us on a journey through all these events and also RSS’s position as well as response to these milestones of the last 100 years.

A subtle but important element of the book is the detailing of the working style of each of its Sarsanghchaalaks and the Sangh’s policies during their tenure. It is interesting to see how even though the unique personality of each of these chiefs influences and inspires the general working of the Sangh, the underlying vision of the organization as espoused by its founder remains the same. It’s not that there have been no departures in its working style. However, most of these tweaks have only helped the organization reach out to more people with its message and meaning.

The book is not intended for the followers or the converts who know everything there is to know about the Sangh. On the contrary, this book is intended for the readers who predominantly read in English and have a ton of questions in their minds about the Sangh while forming their opinions on any debate of national, religious, or social importance. It is also for the people who have always taken a tinted view of the organization, thanks to the negative press it has been given over the decades. When you read about how many congress leaders took RSS’s help or cooperated with the Sangh in different times, you also realize how much politics goes into winning the perception war in public view. The book is also a counter-attack on this perception war being waged by one faction within the Congress party that was once spearheaded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and his blind followers.

I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratan Sharda for leaving a few debates open ended. For example, there is a constant reference to the question of Hindu versus Bharat for the nomenclature purposes in RSS’s vision. The author conveys that the word Hindu is not antithetical to the word Bharat and they are, in fact, interchangeable because of the meaning and origin of the two words. He also weighs in on the possibility of the word Bharat getting adopted by the Sangh instead of Hindutva in future for greater reach and acceptability but puts it on time to answer the question in future.

The book is not without its flaws. First and foremost, the book needs better editing. There are spelling typos as well as several repetitions. Although these repetitions are perhaps placed to reinforce the message, at times, they sound like a resume desperately trying to impress. These repetitions could have been avoided. There is one more error that this book makes. While the book sets out to clear misconceptions about the RSS, it ends up creating a few of its own for other organizations that are doing some great work and have empowered millions of individuals and thousands of smaller organizations in the social and spiritual domains. While the author takes Swami Vivekananda’s and the Ramakrishna Mission’s help to explain a few misgivings about the Sangh as well as explaining its core concepts, it also makes some sweeping observations about the Mission (page-340, RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement). While there is a scarcity of books in English about the Sangh from the Sangh, the Ramakrishna Mission has plenty of books, reports, and journals in the language for readers to understand their vision or scale of their activities. So, a bit of due diligence there would have helped the author avoid the mistake he doesn’t want others to commit while assessing the Sangh.

When we are discussing the RSS, it is important to remember that we are talking about a group of people who are some of the firsts to reach any part of the country needing support in the face of any calamity. It is the ideology that gave birth to a viable alternative to the Indian polity after the Congress. It is an organization that has constantly shunned caste divisions and discrimination in the Hindu community. They have also consciously evolved their position on matters of social importance, the latest one being on Homosexuality.

For us to understand the social and political path our country has taken in all these years before and after independence, and the RSS’s deep footprints on it, this book is an indispensable read for all Indians irrespective of their religious, social, or political beliefs. RSS has been an idea widely popular in one section of the society and largely misunderstood in other sections of the same society. Mr. Ratan Sharda hopes to change that and this book is a successful attempt at setting the context right. I’m sure there are more books coming up.

Fifty Shades of Feminism in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

In newspapers, news channels, magazines, and social media – we have met these three kinds of people. One is the avowed feminist, as Roxane Gay would have it – the one who sits on the pedestal waiting to be dislodged at the first sign of betrayal of the idea of ‘perfect’ feminism. Second is the anti-feminism who is a self-proclaimed feminist-hunter waiting for the decimation of the ideology itself. Third is the Bad Feminist. This one doesn’t hide the fact that she loves listening to those sexist hit numbers or shaves her legs or that pink is her favourite colour and at the same time, believes in equal opportunity for women and wants them to be represented on par with men in publications, board-room meetings, or the parliament. This one comes with all the little imperfections that we human beings come with. Roxane Gay, the author of a collection of essays, primarily on ‘Feminism’ as well as several other intersectional subjects, is a Bad Feminist.

Roxane Gay is an American writer and professor who has also written Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Ayiti, An Untamed State among other works. She is a New York Times best selling author and is vocal with her pen and speech on issues of feminism, race, sexual violence (rape), immigration, and LGBTQ rights to name a few. Her personal brush with most of these issues lends her an air of sincerity, authenticity, and seriousness that these subjects deserve. This does not mean she is divorced from humour. In fact, Bad Feminist is laden with a wry sense of humour throughout.

The book begins with the author’s constantly evolving understanding of feminism, her struggles to acknowledge the feminist inside her even at the cost of offending the ‘sisterhood’ that wants you to play by the inviolable playbook of feminism. So, even if she does and likes a lot of things that the feminism police would absolutely abhor, she comes to terms with the idea that she can still be a feminist, maybe a bad one at that, but still a feminist! The imperfections of the practitioners doesn’t imply that the idea itself is a dispensable one.

With feminism as the centre point, she moves about the circumference and speaks on a range of issues through her essays. You will find thought provoking critiques of several best selling books, popular films and television shows. As I read through, I realized that a lot of content in the book is focused on American pop culture and its icons. She tells us about the misogyny that comes with most of the Hip Hop lyrics, inadequate or misrepresentation of people of colour in the book as well as the movie The Help, criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, Django Unchained, her likes and dislikes about The Hunger Games in straight-from-the-heart prose without carrying any burden of formal writing. 

“Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal — entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave,”…. “I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.” – Roxane Gay

It’s not that Roxane Gay doesn’t contradict herself in the book but she is acutely aware of these contradictions as well as her personal flaws. At times she can be too harsh and sometimes more forgiving than you would expect her to be. Also, since she is an ardent follower of pop culture, the book is full of examples that readers from other countries may not appreciate. However, because her contexts are well explained, it should not be difficult for a reader in India to replace Yin Yang twins with Honey Singh and understand what the author means. But for someone entirely disinterested in pop culture, a few essays can get weary.

For me, one of the defining parts of the book is when Roxane talks about sexual violence and crimes. Starting from her own horrific experience to reflecting on the way ‘rape culture’ as a phrase is frequently used in media, she explores several facets of the subject. Her own experience is heartbreaking and her deliberations on how popular icons rarely get adequately punished for their sexual crimes are piercing. The essay will remind you of how in our own backyard, a rape joke by Salman Khan could not make a single dent on his box office collections or how Mulayam Singh Yadav remains an Honourable Member of Parliament even after saying something as shameful as “Ladkiyan pehle dosti karti hain. Ladke-ladki mein matbhed ho jata hai. Matbhed hone key baad usey rape ka naam dey deti hain. Ladko sey galti ho jati hai. Kya rape case mein phasi di jayegi?” (First girls develop friendship with boys. Then when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape). He is not alone. Several people have contributed to the cause of defending or glorifying rape at different times.

Roxane Gay’s book is as inward looking as it is outward looking. She keeps creating bridges between the two worlds to draw her observations. She is candid in her narrations, and talks about a lot from her own life and struggles through its different phases. If you are someone who is conflicted between the three types of people I mentioned in the beginning and would like to have some clarity on matters related to feminism, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist makes it easier for you. She is there with her essays sitting right beside you telling, it’s okay not to tick all the mandatory boxes of feminism, you can be a feminist even without applying to the sisterhood.

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