Doklam-2.0-Bookstalkist at Bangalore International Centre

Doklam 2.0 – Implications and Options

On May 28, 2018, the Bangalore International Centre hosted a discussion titled ‘Doklam 2.0’ to discuss the standoff that happened at Doklam between the Indian and the Chinese army and the sequence of events that followed. The panel included Ambassador Nirupama Rao, Lieutenant General Prakash Menon and Anirudh Kanisetti, Research Associate from Takshashila University.

 

Historical Overview

Anirudh Kanisetti kicked off the evening with a short presentation setting right the historic context for the audience. Anirudh said, we generally associate Himalayas with peace and serenity. However, the Himalayas are a cultural and ethnic melting pot and therefore is a site of great fractious conflicts. According to him, the 18th century was important for many reasons, the most important being the arrival of Gunpowder. Historically, Gunpowder has led to the replacement of existing power structures with new emerging powers. One such power structure in Himalayas was the institution of Dalai Lama. We tend to assume that Dalai Lamas were the Heads or the rulers of Tibet which is not true. As of the 18th century, Dalai Lama was one of the leaders of the many competing monastic orders and aristocratic nobles who were trying to take control over Tibet, thanks to its economic wealth.

 

This was also the time when China was pushing into the Central Asia because they had gunpowder. During the 18th century, new states like Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal were emerging. Sikkim and Bhutan are claimed to be founded by the Lamas from Tibet. Owing to a myriad of geopolitical factors, the period between 1720s to 1750s was full of conflicts for Tibet. During this time, the Dalai Lama was acting as an intermediary between the Chinese emperor and the tribes of Central Asia. So, the Dalai Lama called the Chinese to help with the domestic conflict in Tibet which resulted in the establishment of Dalai Lama’s authority as the central power in Tibet. This also led to the establishment of a small but permanent Chinese garrison in Tibet.

The Doklam triboundary region. Source: Google Maps. (thediplomat.com)
The Doklam triboundary region. Source: Google Maps. (thediplomat.com)

In 1790, when the kingdom of Nepal was formed, it soon invaded Tibet, thanks to its control over multiple, extremely wealthy trade routes. The Dalai Lama sought the Chinese help again. The Chinese defeated the Nepalese and established a formal protectorate in Tibet. That practically meant that a huge garrison was present in Tibet and the Chinese Governor had to sign off on few things that the Dalai Lama decided on. The same influence did not continue during the 19th century. China was struck by a series of catastrophes such as the Taiping rebellion and suffered humiliations in the hands of the western trading powers during the Opium Wars.

 

The British introduced a new element into the politics of Himalayas. They were interested in securing trade that went from China through Tibet into Kolkata which eventually resulted in 1890’s Anglo-Chinese convention. This led to the establishment of a border between Sikkim, which was already a protectorate of British and Tibet, a protectorate of China. It is interesting because Britain signed on behalf of Sikkim and China on behalf of Tibet. However, Bhutan which was also bordering the area was not part of the convention because the British were still working hard to get the Bhutanese to agree to the terms of the convention. This finally happened in 1910 when the British signed the Treaty of Punakha. Even though an alliance was signed, the Bhutanese never agreed to the 1890’s treaty. So, it meant, the parties who were involved in this conflicted area never really signed it and Bhutan did not ratify it.

 

As per the treaty, “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other Rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nipal territory”.  China asserts that by this Convention, the starting point of the Sikkim-Tibet border is “Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier” and that this clearly defines the tri-junction point. However, India’s perspective is that that there were no mountain surveys done during 1890s and after the mountain surveys, the actual peak of the mountain range is Batang La which should be the starting point of the border line. This is in line with the watershed principle and add to it the fact that Bhutan was never a party to this treaty.

 

In 1958,  after China had taken over Tibet, the head of the Chinese mission made a very
controversial statement,” Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhese form a united family in Tibet. They have always been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine.”. Going by history, this was not true since China was never the motherland and the influence that China had on Sikkim or Bhutan is questionable. This statement was received with greatest alarm in Bhutan because it seemed to imply that China wanted to invade Bhutan. This was further strengthened in 1960 by a massive influx of Tibetan refugees to the northern border of Bhutan after which Bhutan closed that border, cutting off ties with China. This meant good for India and the strengthening of Indo- Bhutan ties. All that changed after 1962 Indo-China war. Bhutan was no longer confident that India could protect its interests. So, in 1971, as soon as Bhutan got UN membership, they began negotiations with the Chinese to resolve the disputes. Since 1984, the talks between Bhutan and China have been proceeding and the crux of these talks have mostly been border issues. In 1990, the Chinese proposed an exchange of territories. China offered to exchange 495 sq km area of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys (where China and Bhutan overlap) in Bhutan’s north for Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhtoe with total area of 269 sq km, in the western Bhutan. The answer to the question of why China wanted this exchange lies in Paro, which is the only functioning airfield in Bhutan. It was of strategic importance to China. Although the Bhutanese agreed in 1995 to the exchange, nothing much came out of it. In 1998, China affirmed that it respected Bhutan’s sovereignty. However post 2000, the Chinese seemed to have forgotten their affirmations and these years have been marked by multiple Chinese incursions into Bhutanese territory. Over time, China seized huge area from the Bhutanese territory and this is a major point of contention between Bhutan and China.

After laying out the history behind the border conflict, Anirudh gave the stage to Prakash Menon who explained the importance of Doklam in military and strategic terms. According to him, this region is sensitive for India because if the Chinese come over to Doklam, there is only one ridgeline left between China and India. However, it is not about whether the Chinese will come to India but it is about the fact that the Chinese can come. He recollected the events of the first Doklam standoff which started from June 16, 2017 when the Chinese began construction of roads and Indian troops physically stopped them on June 18, 2017. A week later China made public statements and reacted to this standoff in an extreme manner reminding India of 1962.They published videos of live firing drills in Tibet and accused India of hegemonic diplomacy. India’s reaction to this standoff was however, very measured.  On June 29, Bhutan raised a complaint against China but China did not back off. On July 26, 2017, China published a new map, an official sketch map claiming Doklam to be part of China. On 28th of August, right before the BRICS conference, things de-escalated. However, the official statements from India and China were in different tones. India’s official statement on Aug 28, 2017 read, “In recent weeks, India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests.  On this basis, expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.” Chinese official statement on the other hand made clear it would “continue its sovereignty rights” in the area.

During the first week of September, China began the construction of a new road about 2.5 Kms away from the original standoff site. According to Prakash Menon, it is not possible that the Indian surveillance missed this new development. The Print magazine published the satellite images of the new constructions on Jan 17, 2018. The Ministry of External Affairs reacting to this news remarked that the status quo has not been altered at the face-off site. Later, on March 6, the Defence Ministry remarked that the PLA has started some construction but the troops from both sides have been recalled from the face-off site. A similar remark was made by General Bipin Rawat on March 17, that some temporary infrastructure work was being done by the PLA. On 19th March, The Print published new satellite images of new roads to Torsa La.  On March 23, 2018, India’s Ambassador to China made a strong statement that any change in status quo will lead to a situation as happened in Doklam 1.0. Once again, China came back strongly saying Doklam belongs to China and threatened India to stick to the historic conventions. While all of this was happening, the Indian media which was all over Doklam 1.0 was completely reticent. The public was uninformed about what was happening in Doklam 2.0 and it is not clear if the parliament was briefed about the developments. Interestingly, Bhutan has been silent too.

 

Pointing to the series of events that happened during September 2017 till now, Prakash Menon recalled how Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister made a statement on Dec 10, 2017 about “the Dragon and the Elephant dancing together and how 1+1 =11”. This was followed by another round of boundary talks. On Feb 22, the Foreign Secretary’s note to the Cabinet Secretary about moving the thanksgiving event from Delhi to Dharamshala was leaked to public. On the same day, MEA withdrew political clearance for the Asian Security Conference of the IDSA which was to discuss the relationship between India and China. On Feb 23, the Foreign Secretary’s visit happens and Wang Yi repeats himself about the Dragon and the Elephant. On March 27, 2018 China agreed to share data on Brahmaputra with India. Prakash Menon also pointed out the Indo-China meetings in the backdrop of Shanghai Conference and Wuhan Summit and how Australia was dropped from the Malabar exercise. According to him, the policy adopted by India at the moment is to not raise the issue of Chinese aggression in the disputed territory with Bhutan and this is going to have implications on the Sino-Indian, Sino- Bhutan, Indo-Bhutan relationships. This also affects India’s image amongst its neighbours and it might make them believe that India cannot handle a Chinese aggression.

 

Nirupama Rao, who took over from Prakash Menon remarked that she needed to articulate upon few factors that the Doklam Saga elucidates. Firstly, it is the kind of diplomacy that China practises today. We all talk about the power of diplomacy but what China practises today is the diplomacy of power. The Chinese are no longer a rising power and in the race for attaining global recognition, the Dragon has galloped ahead of the elephant. Secondly, what China practises today is coercive diplomacy. China is able to have its way as it wills when a dispute arises. She says she is not pointing to any incipient weakness on the Indian side or its Army because we have dealt with them for decades. A 3418 km long boundary is essentially undecided between India and China. The line that we took before 1962, the boundary that was decided by geography, tradition, custom, treaty etc. are now on the discussion table. According to her, the events that happened post Doklam, be it the treatment of the Dalai Lama’s 60th anniversary, the remark of the Dragon and Elephant dancing together, the decision of not including Australia in Malabar exercise, or the informal summit in Wuhan, indicate pragmatism coming into play.

 

With all the high decibel levels of activity and rhetoric that was expressed, the government tried to calm the waters, lower the temperature and dial down the decibel levels. The reason India does that is because Doklam is not only about India and China, it is also about Bhutan. The disputed territory of Doklam is essentially in Bhutan. According to her the Sikkim – Tibet frontier is the only section of the Indo-China border where there is a treaty arrangement which decides where should the boundary be. We do not have such arrangements in the west. West of the Karakoram pass, we have the whole complication of what Pakistan and China have done together. They have a boundary agreement dating back to 1963 which covers Pakistan occupied Kashmir. East of the Karakoram pass, we decided on the boundary alignment in 1953-54, after the Panchsheel agreement was signed. There again we do not have an agreement on where the boundary lies. We have an actual line of control where you hear from time to time about the Chinese transgressions. East of that, where you have Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, it is a relatively uncomplicated border but there are a few passes which are disputed between India and China. We regard them as border passes whereas China claims them to be under their sovereign.

 

The eastern section of the boundary which the Chinese call as ‘Sector of the largest Dispute’ involves Arunachal Pradesh. The position taken by China when it comes to border disputes has been changing over time. In 1985, China wanted India to make concessions in the eastern section if we wanted China to make concessions in the western. They have their eye on Tawang. Speaking of how Bhutan fits in this narrative, she says eastern Bhutan abuts to Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh whereas western Bhutan is close to Sikkim. The Chumbi valley which is a triangular area referred to as the dagger points to the Siliguri corridor lies in between these two regions. This is a very vital and strategic area in Indo-China borders. In the early 50s, the political officer from Gangtok used to travel to Bhutan and to Lasa via the Chumbi valley. PM Nehru made his very historic visit to Bhutan from Sikkim through the Chumbi valley when he was 69 years old by travelling on a Yak and that really opened Bhutan up to India. We have very important treaty relationships with Bhutan and Bhutan undertook to consult India on matters relating to external security and where issues of national interest of both the countries were involved. There have always been close connections between India and Bhutan and we have the best bilateral relationship with Bhutan as compared to any other country. It is called the “Beneficial Bilateralism”. While you might hear voices in Bhutan about if they are getting the best deal in this relationship and about the effects of demonetization or GST in Bhutan, India still enjoys the trust of Bhutan and the constitutional monarchy of Bhutan has the closest relationship with India. China always regarded Bhutan as a vassal state and it has never withdrawn from that idea. This has kept Bhutan away from China. It would be suicidal for Bhutan to have a diplomatic relation with China without having a boundary agreement. Being a smaller state, it will be difficult for Bhutan to handle Chinese aggression and that is why it was important to calm the waters in Doklam. Issues of strategic importance which involves security have to be discussed quietly keeping Bhutan’s interests too in mind.

This was followed by an intense session of Q&A where Prakash Menon insisted that India could have taken the opportunity at Doklam and stepped up against China while it was bullying Bhutan. He was concerned that the outcome of Doklam will only encourage China to assert more of its bullying nature against other smaller states. However, the Ambassador maintained that India has been able to hold the Chinese off for the last few decades without a war. It has been 43 years since the last recorded incident of bloodshed across Indo-China frontier at Tulung La.  We need a very dispassionate assessment of where we stand with China. We need time to settle our challenges within this country. She questioned as to who wanted a war with China in present times and reiterated that we should be sensitive to what Bhutan wanted out of it. Bhutan and India needed to be on the same page to arrive at a solution. It was not about firing salvos at China and saying that Doklam 2.0 happened. “What is the use of telling public about it, because it just goes to the evening news with live fire on televisions and the anchors discuss what should be the next steps. That is not how diplomacy works”, she emphasised.

 

The Autobiography of a Stock – A Book Review

One of the benefits of being an Indian middle class child is that you learn much earlier in life that you need to save money, irrespective of whether you like it or not. Most children from these households might have grown up listening to how their parents had to shed blood to ensure financial security for the family. While one must be grateful for all that they have been provided with, one cannot deny the fact that the circumstances of an Indian household doesn’t really approve of or prepare you to take any sort of risks to improve your finances. There weren’t even many takers for entrepreneurship as compared to a paid job, until recently. Continue reading “The Autobiography of a Stock – A Book Review”

Shashank Kasliwal’s ‘Freedom From the I’ – A Jaico Book

 

When I was a child, my grandmother always told me about the guy who walked back from death with the help of a thread and woke up during his funeral procession. All these years, I have never been able to give a face to this guy from my grandmother’s story. But as I kept reading through the pages of ‘Freedom from the I’, I could finally paint a face to that character. This might sound like an exaggeration but the author of the book, Shashank Kasliwal, surely seem to have walked through hell and managed to have returned to life. Interestingly, this is a hell he designed on his own. However, as he walks you down the lanes of his own hell, most of you will realize that the sceneries are not too different from your own personal hell.
Continue reading “Shashank Kasliwal’s ‘Freedom From the I’ – A Jaico Book”

Making Sense of the Lingayat Controversy

This summer in Bangalore feels more heated up thanks to the impending Karnataka State Assembly Elections. The whole of India is waiting to watch if BJP will add another state to its fold or if the Congress under its new President will retain its stronghold over Karnataka. With only a few days to the poll, one cannot deny that the most favourite term during this election season has been ‘Lingayat’, a community which constitutes about 17% of the population in the state. Continue reading “Making Sense of the Lingayat Controversy”

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Empty-Benches

Unlike Pondicherry

1: Sunrise

I alight from my bus and it was still dark. I look at auto drivers buzzing around me. My destination shows 4 km away and he quotes a 100. I smile at him for I had somewhere else to go and something else in mind. I picked my bags and started walking. My new destination is only 3 km away. My love for google maps isn’t rock solid. I stop at a tea stall and confirm the route. At the end of a 30 minutes long walk laden with nostalgia, I arrive at this beating the morning sun to it. Strangely, it feels like home.

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Sunrise
 

2: Anna

As I grabbled for my route in the dark, I kept looking at the statues at every circle. I had to find Anna Circle to ensure I was on the right path. I could barely recognise the faces of the leaders or their names from my side of the road. Yet I knew, I would know Arignar Anna from distance. And I was right. There he was in his signature style hands raised and his fingers indicating victory and his party’s symbol. Some stereotyping is good!

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Anna-Statue

3: Empty Benches

Early mornings and empty benches are so irresistible. These seemingly empty benches are anything but empty. They are full of stories. Stories of love, stories of loss, stories of betrayal, stories of  longing, stories of a zillion kind. They hoard the secrets of  every passerby and I wait by them to steal some or more!

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Empty-Benches

4: Homeless in Pondicherry

I am no stranger to Pondicherry. The first time I visited the place was about 15 years ago. Since then, my association with the place has been bittersweet. Every time I tried rewriting my memory of Pondicherry, it would eventually end up being bittersweet. Nevertheless, I remember being smitten by the place right from the first time. I had even considered settling down here. Although I had grown out of that idea, this solo-trip to Pondy gave me the liberty to ponder over what made me fall for it in the first place. The first thing that occurred to me was that I love the roads there, at least those roads adjoining the beaches and the areas around. I did happen to witness a lot of the city, as I kept walking about these roads, but this one thing was a repeating scene. I was surprised to see  elderly people sleeping on footpaths and verandas of uninhabited houses. Not that it is an uncommon sign in Indian cities, but the number of such people seemed unusually high. This being a union territory with its own legislative assembly, one would expect better administration and social welfare. Add to it the fact that the place is now governed by one of the most decorated administrators of this country. What was even more shocking was that I found a few old women sleeping on the road right next to the Secretariat building. Its been almost a week now since I returned from Pondicherry and I can barely wrap my head around the whole thing. I believe its high time we formulate a better policy nationwide for geriatric care and not leave the elderly to the mercy of footpaths.

 

5: Colours

Some green, some  blue, some bright, some beautiful, some with darker shades and some with dual colours. These sacred threads decorating the temple streets of Thiruvahindapuram  reminded me of human bonds. No matter how sanctified they are made to sound, they are meant to  keep you bound. Bound to wishes , bound of promises, bound to expectations. And no matter how sanctified they are, when it’s time, you ought to break free of them; sometimes to make way for new ones and sometimes just because you are done with it.

 

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Colours

6: South Indian Meal

Ever wondered how does happiness smell? I think it smells like food. And what might disappointment look like? I would say it looks like a bowl of delicious looking dish that you had to forgo because you are too full. Which do you think is sweeter? An extra serving of your favourite dessert or a stolen kiss? I was going to go with the kiss, but I must say a sound sleep after a meal like this beats them both.

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-South-Indian-Meal

7: Stranger in Beach 

The beach was buzzing with crowd but a lone bench was waiting for me. I sat there  training my eyes to the growing darkness while trying to spot the faintest stars up on the January sky. She called out to me. “Didi, buy one of these to help me”. I told her I had no use of it, but I would still buy if she can tell me a story. She laughed and sat down in front me. She said she spoke only Hindi and  asked what did I want to listen to. I asked for hers. Mother of six, four boys, two girls. Eldest is fourteen and youngest just turned a year old. Been ten years in Pondichery since she moved from Uttar Pradesh. Lucknow to Barabanki, another bus from there to village. That is how far she is from. No electricity, no jobs, no means of survival. Why all the way to Puducherry? Why did she skip all the places in between?

“They are not good. I like it here in #Pondy”, she says. She compliments my broken Hindi and I, her unbroken smile. I asked if I could click a picture to remember her and our conversation. “I don’t look good in pics”, she adds shyly. I promised to click a good picture and we clicked. She seemed happy when I showed it to her. I kept the other  promise too. “Forty for others, thirty for you”. I laughed but I was her Bohni for the evening. So, we sealed the deal at forty and I let her pick one for me. As we said our goodbyes, Shakina touches my shoulder gently and says “Go home safely. Tonight seems colder than usual and your clothes aren’t warm enough. Don’t stay out for long”. “Take care and be safe”, she repeated, more than a couple of times. I assure her with a smile and then she called out to the next didi.

Bookstalkist-Pondicherry-Didi

Yoddha from Jaico Publishing House

Book Review – Rajat Pillai’s Yoddha

The new arrivals section in most bookstores these days are overflowing with mythological fiction, making me want to run at the mention of fiction. The social media has barely recovered from the hailstorm of Padmavati (or should I say Padmavat?). So, I wasn’t sure if it was a safe idea to start reading a historical fiction at this juncture.

I looked at the title of the book again. It said Yoddha. I couldn’t help being reminded of Jodha (Akbar), who was a forerunner for the likes of Padmavati in terms of controversies. The subtitle of the book read, “The Dynasty of Samudragupta”.  The author Rajat Pillai must have thought, “Why should the Khiljis, Akbars, and Aurangzebs have all the fun? Let us also wake the Guptas up, from their forgotten graves”.

A friend who saw me reading the book, asked if the book speaks of the wars that Samudragupta had won during his time. Given that the title of the book refers to ‘a warrior’, one would expect the same. However, you get to see more of Samudra, the retiring king and doting father and less of Samudra, the warrior. The story starts after the point in history when the Ashwamedha horse sent by Samudragupta returned unconquered, invariably crowning him the King of Kings. The book begins with Samudra and ends with him but there are many a Yoddhas in the pages in between. While Samudra remains the glorious historical backdrop for the story to unfold, the book is more about the ascending of Chandragupta II. The book does deal with battles but most of them doesn’t involve a sword or an armor.

The challenge with historical fictions is that the readers always know who lives and who dies. The success of such books lies in the narration that keeps the reader hooked to the book even after knowing what is to befall their favourite characters. That way Rajat Pillai chose a rather unconventional plot to keep his audience’s attention. Who would have thought that the future king of the Gupta Dynasty had to be treated for mental illness? On the hindsight, I am wondering if the author tried to create awareness about mental illness through his book. The book has all the usual elements of a historical fiction – war, love, sibling rivalry, treachery and more. An important chapter of the book almost reminded me of a scene from the blockbuster movie ‘Bahubali’, but the later chapters made me realize that there was more to it than what I had assumed.

The chapters dedicated to the amorous adventures of Chandragupta are akin to a Bollywood dance number in the middle of a fast-moving thriller movie. It disrupts the flow of the story, but being an Indian audience, you are used to such fully-packed entertainers. So that way, the book caters to classes and surely is an entertainer. An interesting part of the book was the inclusion of the intriguing Kumari Devi (Kanya Devi) or the Living Goddess in the plot and touching upon the significant role these women play in a kingdom. When you have almost forgotten about Samrat Samudra after the first few chapters, there come the dark secrets from his past weaving some exciting subplots before the grand finale. From Vyom to Madhavasena, the book is quite engaging. However, I do personally think the editorial team could have done a better job.

I come from the creed of people who still can’t get over the Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan (1950) after all these years. 2400 pages and five volumes, one can imagine the amount of research and historical data that would have gone into the making of a book of such magnitude.

With Ponniyin Selvan as the benchmark, it becomes difficult to appreciate any new age historical fiction. However, I am also aware that it is unfair to the author to put his book against the mighty Ponniyin Selvan. So, I must warn you that if you belong in the Ponniyin Selvan fan club, then this book might leave you unquenched.  But, if you are a light reader and are tired of the mythological fictions or if you are looking for a page turner, then this is an excellent choice of read for you. I must also credit the author for choosing the Golden era in the Indian history that usually gets overshadowed thanks to all the political controversies. Even if the book doesn’t bring out all the true history of this period, I hope the book will rekindle the interest of the reading population to unearth more knowledge about these rulers and their administration.

Sunil Mishra’s Transit Lounge

A lot of us who are bitten by the bug of wanderlust, often envy those who are privileged to travel across the skies, as a part of their job. So, it goes without saying how green I was with envy when I read the blurb of Sunil Mishra’s ‘Transit Lounge’. It reads, – “An Indian’s account of travelling to thirty countries across six continents”. The envy turns into a smile as he explains how International travel from India has drastically changed in the last 20 years.

Sunil begins the book with a disclaimer that the book is a “non-expert’s account of capturing the world-view from personal experiences of travelling” and that his observations could be “partial, in pockets and non-exhaustive”. I think it was very thoughtful of him to mention that because as Roman Payne says “Depending on the city and on the traveller, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”

Sunil is an IT professional and has been travelling on business to various parts of the world. While some of his travels have been short stays, there are places he had revisited, some even multiple times over many years. So, while some accounts have limited information owing to the short stay, there are others that let you peek into these cities through various times and understand how they have changed. When you are a traveller, few of the first things that help make an impression of the place and its people are the airports, the taxis, the taxi drivers, the roads, the rails, the traffic on these and finally, the hospitality at the place of your stay. Sunil invariably talks about most of these in all his travel accounts giving you a taste of these places.

It is interesting to learn how some countries have evolved rather too quickly, while some have conveniently remained stagnant in their glorious past and some have shattered beyond recognition thanks to political turmoil and extremism. Sunil also talks about the various stereotyping that exists, how the dominant media paints an incorrect picture of the other parts of the world and how travel has made him see them all in a different light. You will also find the author constantly comparing the place that he is visiting with the state-of-affairs back at home, in India. He also records the appalling disparity in the standards of living among various countries.

The book is a mixed bag of travel tales. While few stories will introduce you to the culture or historical significance of the place, some of his stories will surely help you prepare for international travels especially to those countries with stringent and difficult immigration processes. There are stories that warn you of the fraudulent elements and there are stories that reassure you that the world is a better place than you thought. You might even get to relive the anxiety of your first travel and all those times when things went wrong with your travel plan and also those times when you got lucky.

The language of the book is free-flowing. It is an interesting and light-hearted read. While I empathize with the author’s trouble in getting a publisher, I feel the book could have used another round of editing. For a travelogue, the book is lacking in photographs, but then you must remember that some writers give you better stories than any picture will ever give you. That is true for this book as well. Also add to it, the fact that some of these stories are from before the mobile camera/DSLR era. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The learnings that Sunil talks about, at the end of his book proves how true those words are. After finishing the book, I am left with just one question – When is Sunil planning to cover the seventh continent?

 

Richard Rothman’s ‘Master Opportunity and Make It Big’ from Jaico

I have never been a great fan of self-help books, even if it is about business. I always believed that ‘’one man’s food is another man’s poison”. Our strengths and weaknesses are different and so are our secrets to success. So, when I picked Richard M Rothman’s ‘Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Master Opportunity and Make It Big’, I was skeptical if I will enjoy reading. However, the author did put some of my doubts to rest in the very first chapter where he narrates a very interesting anecdote from Essel Group’s Chairman Subash Chandra’s life. No matter how delicious your recipes are, you need to learn to plate them well to appeal to the target audience. How can Richard who is one of the world’s leading experts on Business Opportunities go wrong when it comes to his own readers?

I was expecting some more anecdotes in the chapters that followed, but every chapter surprised me and the reader in me was all excited. Each chapter painted ‘opportunity’ in distinct colors and I realized that the book is not trying to be a singular rule book to success but rather an encyclopedia, chronicling the paths to success. You are free to pick and choose whatever suits you. Have you always wanted to establish something that puts social welfare before profit? Do you want to work on areas you have absolutely no knowledge about? Are you worried that you have been trying for years with no real profit? Fear not. Richard’s book seems to have answers to these and a lot more of such questions. If there is one huge take away for me from the book, it is that money or the lack of it won’t stop you from achieving your business goals if you learn to play around with opportunities.

The Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book has two parts to it. The first part covers the success secrets of India’s Opportunity masters. From Subash Chandra to Sasha Mirchandani, there about 18 success stories that will inspire you to march towards yours dreams. These do not merely talk about the success stories, but also about how they perceived opportunity, persevered through tougher times and had the courage to venture into unknown territories. At the end of each chapter, he also summarizes the golden rules of success for each of these masters. In the second part of the book, Richard talks about forty-four opportunity sutras which includes Opportunity Accelerators, Opportunity Activators, Opportunity Evaluators, Opportunity Expediters.

The Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book has arrived at a time when the Indian market is abuzz with startups. The years 2016 and 2017 saw a lot of seemingly promising startups shut down. A study by inc42.com reveals that “50% of the founders, post-shutdown, have joined another company and are working on leading positions such as category head, CEOs, VPs and more. But only a small chunk has made a comeback as founders”. I believe this book would provide the impetus to turn that number around. The insights that this book provide makes it, a must-read for any aspiring entrepreneur even those with a string of failed attempts. It does have its own cliched 3Cs, 3Ds, 5Ws etc. but if you can take them on your stride, this book is a good place to reach for some encouragement. Even if you are a non-reader, you can still try the book because the presentation of the book is simple and keeps you engaged. You can read in parts or may be just the golden rules.

I was a tad disheartened because all the Opportunity masters listed in the Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book were all males. I do really hope Richard would care to tell us about the masters from the other genders in the next edition of the Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book. Not that any of these secrets to success are gender-dependent, but there are gender-dependent challenges. Bringing out the stories of Opportunity master from the other genders will add an extra boost to the aspiring entrepreneurs from the other genders. Having said that, irrespective of your gender, this is one of those books, you can read and reread multiple times.

 

Cover of the book Commando for the review on Bookstalkist

Commando – No Mission is Impossible

I don’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction that kept me on the edge of my seat while I kept turning the pages, one after the other. Commandohappens to be that rare-breed of a non-fiction which makes your heart skip a beat and won’t let you put it down until you finish a chapter. However, you will want to pause, take a breath and soak in what you just read before you move on to the next chapter. The next chapter is going to be another breath-taking ride. Written by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, and published by Jaico Publishing House in India, Commando brings to you the real stories of some of the death-defying missions of the Israeli Special Forces.

The book starts with a scintillating narration of the legendary Entebbe Operation of 1976. But what makes it more interesting are the details of how this “insane” rescue plan was originally hatched, how it was improved and eventually approved by the cabinet, how the special forces impersonated Idi Amin and how they carried out a successful mission right under his nose within an unbelievable duration and how it was named Operation Yonatan eulogizing the courageous Yoni Netanyahu who laid down his life during the rescue. Although all these details must be available from the declassified archives of the IDF, one must credit the authors for knitting them into a gripping story. After this enthralling opening chapter, the book goes on to tell you about many such riveting missions starting from the Independence war in 1948 to the fight against Gaza terrorism in 2014.

Entebbe-Bookstalkist

Reading through each of these missions, one realizes how half the battle is won in the planning room far away from the battlefield. While the unfailing Israeli Intelligence and the far-sightedness of the commanders are commendable, the crazy ideas that these men came up with during extremely delicate situations are truly outstanding. But that is only half the battle. Even the best-conceived plans can go wrong and they did go wrong for the Israeli Forces. Some of these wrongs did result in tremendous loss of lives as in the case of Ammunition Hill. But their perseverance and presence of mind saw them through these glitches even when they were far away from home and they returned with great victory.

The book gives a peek into how Israel’s defence strategy has evolved with the ever-changing geopolitical landscape, the internal political situation, advancement of defence technology and the change of face of terrorism. The book doesn’t dive deep into the political reasons behind certain decisions but gives you transactional details of these operations. You also get introduced to some of the prominent figures of Israel, their interesting nick-names, their impressive careers, and how they together drove the fate of this Jewish nation.

In the beginning of the book, the authors talk about some of the important principles of the Israeli forces. In the words of the authors, “Israel’s army has been involved in two never-ending combats. A combat on the front lines with Israel’s enemies, who never give in, and an inner combat – the effort to conceive and apply strict moral and humane principles, unequaled by any other army.” They talk about “purity of arms”- referring to protection of non-combatant civilians on both sides of the enemy lines and “Follow me”- the battle cry of Israeli Army. Almost in all the missions curated in this book, one can see examples of how at every point during the mission, these forces and their commanding officers strive to enforce these principles. But the world hasn’t seen a war that has not claimed an innocent life. That goes for the Israeli Missions too. The authors do touch upon a few cases where civilians were killed and Israel was accused of human rights violation. However, if you are looking for a noble justification for these killings, you will be disappointed. You will instead find a defensive answer that says, “not too many were killed”.

The authors also talk about the Israeli principle of “Never abandon a wounded Jewish soldier”. The valour and spirit of medics and soldiers who sacrificed their own lives to rescue wounded soldiers is heart-wrenching. The book also ends with a fitting epilogue which speaks about the rescue of Jews from Ethiopia.

The book is an easy and engaging read, for the most part, giving you an adrenaline rush through every chapter. There might be an occasional drag but the authors make up for it with gaping stories from the battlefields. You might dream of MiGs, Mirages, Flotillas, Iron Domes, M-75 Missiles, handguns and Kalashnikovs in the days that follow. You might also lose sleep over devastating losses especially after reading Raya Harnik’s verses foreseeing her son Gioni “Goni” Harnik’s fate.

“That day I’ll stand, eyes wide open, facing the calamity

My whole life freezes before this tomorrow

A lodestone I am, iron doesn’t cry… “

Nevertheless, this is a book that must be read. This must be read, not just for the real scintillating tales, but also because it shows you the other side of the same truth. We live in times wherein we are constantly blinded by the stories and images carried by the newspapers, televisions, and other media. We almost always never get to hear the complete story. This book will be a significant piece in completing the story while studying the history of the Middle East.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

It was the 10th Chennai International Film Festival. I surprised myself during the film festival that year by managing to watch a respectable number of films despite a hectic schedule at work. Michael Haneke’s Amour, which later went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, was also scheduled to be screened that year. It was on my must-watch list. I made it on time for the show and the movie was surely beautiful. However, I could not sit through the entire movie and had to walk out.

I am the kind of person who might cry through the entire movie giving my friends enough reasons to make fun of me, but walking out of a beautiful movie did not sound like me. Yet, I did. I walked out not because it was boring, but because the emotions captured in the movie was too painful and disturbing. It wasn’t that I fear difficult emotions or movies. In fact, I used to be one of the very few females among the audience during the screening of movies on subjects of violence, yet Amour was too much for me to take. All these years, I never once thought of watching it again, until recently.

‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ was screened this week at IIHS, in Bangalore. The event caught my attention probably because the title seemed to have been borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I reached ten minutes late, sneaked in, took a seat at the darkest corner of the room and settled into what seemed like silent poetry. It is a feature film on the 4-feet 11-inches tall grandeur dearly known as ‘Pocket Hercules’. Like any traditional documentary films, this did not have a dozen people talking about the greatness of the much-celebrated Mr Universe Monohar Aich. Instead, Prateek Vats, the director of this film, takes you to the man himself. It is as if you were given the privilege to sit beside him, watch him from close quarters as he goes on about his day, and hear him breathe through a 102-year-old body.

Thirty years, and I have so much to complain about life. And there was Mr Aich who had spent a 100 year and more, but his eyes still seemed to have their twinkle. There was a certain charm about him that makes you smile. Even when he seemed to have forgotten a lot of things and hardly speaks, every now and then he does something that reminded you of his flamboyance.

I do not have the expertise to comment on the cinematic excellence of the movie but I can talk to you about the emotions that this movie stirred within me. Every time the camera captured sound or music, there seemed a certain watchful silence underneath it just like a calmer ocean beneath a stormy sky. Every time the camera captured the stillness in his life, there was something distressing about it that I squirmed in my seat, restlessly. However, I must thank the director or probably the editor for making this beautiful blend of storm and calm. It was as if they knew, that I wouldn’t be able to survive another minute of that stillness or that noise, that they decided to cut to move to the next frame. An old footage of Monohar Aich’s interview along with his wife was a surprise addition. Sorry about the spoilers, but that, I believe, gives a quick insight into the kind of person he was, even for people who did not know him.

There were moments during the film when that familiar feeling of discomfort, which happened during Amour was coming back to me. This was because both these films bring you the reality of old age in very intimate details. It’s a terrifying to even think that someday you will forget who you were. You will have no memory of your life’s deeds and will become entirely dependent on people around you. While I thoroughly empathize with the frustration and helplessness of any family that is taking care of an elderly person, it’s petrifying to learn that despite everything that you have accomplished, your own people will be disappointed in you. You might have to spend every minute of every day looking forward to nothing. But, somewhere the film also gives me the courage to deal with my fear of growing old and helpless. I might as well watch Amour soon.

The timing of the movie’s screening can’t get too perfect since it has been only a few days since Manushi Chillar brought home the Miss World Crown. It is amusing to watch our leaders wage war over twitter about how she must be rewarded. For all the gender equality we talk about, it is interesting to note that we as a nation have celebrated all our Miss World and Miss Universe winners. How many in our Mister Universe or Mister World winners do we even know about? That brings me to the next point about which the movie doesn’t talk about directly but gently nudges you to ponder upon. We are a young and dynamic nation, but we seem to have forgotten to plan on taking care of our elderly. We have left them at the mercy of their children who too, are caught up in the troubles of life, with less or no time to attend to the needs of the older generation. The life of Monohar Aich is a classic example of institutional negligence. The movie reminds us of how it’s about time we think about a wholesome plan for geriatric care in the country and also set up a standard procedure to acknowledge the accomplishment of people who represent the country in the International arena.

At the end of the screening, I wanted to thank Prateek and his team for having done this because this is going to be a very significant artefact for anyone who wants to study Mr Monohar Aich. But then the movie was too overwhelming for me, to talk then. So, I decided to write.

To Prateek Vats and his team – Thank you very much for doing this. I can only imagine the amount of labour and patience this would have needed. Hats off to the sensitivity and compassion your guys displayed throughout.

To my readers – Watch out for the screening of this movie in your city. This is a movie you might want to sit tight and watch, irrespective of whether you knew Mr Aich. I say so because the movie is not merely about Mr Aich but also about life in flesh and blood.

Here is a two-minute-long excerpt from the movie.

The City as a Protagonist

How often do we flow into the city and see it as a living, breathing space that weaves in memories? Imraan Coovadia, the author of five novels (‘The Wedding, ‘Tales of the Metric System’, to name a few), Suketu Mehta of ‘Maximum City’ fame, in conversation with Ravi Singh of ‘Speaking Tiger’ were in to discuss the workings of the city, and what these residents bring to help the cities thrive. Both authors bring in their experience of being in multiple cities in their lives, tracing it from their forefathers seeking to move out of their cities in India to cities elsewhere around the globe. Continue reading “The City as a Protagonist”

Whose Side are You On?

Two of the most prominent sports writers and columnists sat to deliberate on the ever-changing landscape of the game of cricket. As T20s shatter all records of sports viewership and fandom and the International cricket based on the idea of nation loyalties paves way for the domestic leagues of T20s, Gideon Haigh and Suresh Menon discussed the significance of modern cricket dynamics and the future of fandom in the session titled ‘Whose side are you on?’.

Continue reading “Whose Side are You On?”