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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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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If You Love Literature, Travel, and History Alike, Read Juliet’s Answer

We desire love. A love that seeps through our bones and lights up our very being.Some of us get lucky and find it right outside our doors. But for the rest of us, it is an achingly longer journey. It makes us wander across oceans and do crazier things before we find our true home. Glenn Dixon too went down the same road except Shakespeare kept him company guiding him all the way to “Fair” Verona, in Italy. His book, ‘Juliet’s Answer’ is a memoir of that journey towards love.

Glenn was a teacher for more than twenty years before he became a full time writer. During his time as a teacher, he taught Romeo and Juliet to high schoolers. So, when his love story turned tragic, he held on to this epic tale for comfort. His heartache and longing for answers brought him to the doors of Juliet’s house in Verona. Once in Verona, he volunteered to be one of the “secretaries of Juliet”, answering thousands of letters that are addressed to Juliet.

Love is a madness beyond measure. It can make you do unbelievably irrational things. So, it is not surprising that Juliet serves as a symbol of love for some of these heartbroken souls . However, the sheer volume of letters written to Juliet year after year and in so many languages, can take your breath away. As if that is not enough, someone thought that these letters needed to be replied to. What an amazing and equally outrageous idea! But such wild ideas keep the world going and bring comfort to many that are lost.

The book talks about the author’s life as a teacher, the events that led to his arrival in Verona and his experiences being Juliet’s secretary. So, one moment you are in Glenn’s classroom waiting for your turn to play a Shakespearean character and next, you are sitting in an office full of letters waiting to be replied to. While Glenn’s own story is heartbreaking enough, the excerpts from the letters he replied to makes you sob silently.

One might think that the subject of the book is quite the cliche. A heartbreak, followed by a trip to a foreign land sounds like a day in the life of a millennial but Glenn’s writing makes all the difference. The narration is so intimate and sincere that it becomes impossible to deny the instant connection. His interesting findings from his research on love keeps you hooked for more. However, what enthused me more as a reader was his passionate pursuit for everything that’s Shakespeare.

I was as overwhelmed as Glenn was when he eventually got to touch and feel the very old manuscript (printed in 1599) of Romeo and Juliet, in the British Library, London. I jumped in joy every time Glenn discovered something in Verona that indicated that Juliet and Romeo were probably real people. It reminded me of my days in Europe walking from churches to graveyards to museums to bookstores, because those places were once walked upon by some people who inspired me greatly. Although I regret missing Verona during my visit to Italy, I am grateful for the insights this book has given me.If you are looking for a heart-warming story to keep you hopeful during these stressful times, I recommend Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer. The book also serves as a guide to the city of Verona. So, if you love literature, travel, and history alike, pick this up. You might even end up adding Verona to your travel bucket list.

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An Uneven Song: Mistress of Melodies Has Its Moments and Flaws

Sometimes, we come across creations that make an impact primarily because of their subject’s natural allure. As a standalone piece, they falter because of loopholes in structure, presentation or language. For example, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet or adaptations like Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. By themselves, they come with a fair share of faults and areas of improvement. However, they flourish because the foundation is so exciting that the audience cannot help but be drawn to the vision. Written by the legendary screenwriter and author Nabendu Ghosh and edited by his daughter, curator and film journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, Mistress of Melodies is a book I believe resides in this category. It has its structural and linguistic flaws but offers an enticing narrative about a subject that has always been of interest to people; the lives of women employed in one of the world’s oldest professions.

Nabendu Ghosh was a man whose talent and philosophy percolated several creative industries. From working extensively with Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to writing evocative stories on almost every social upheaval, he donned many hats with a characteristic humanism. The legendary Soumitro Chatterjee has praised his inclination towards creating raw characters. The actor was a great admirer of Ghosh’s Daak Diye Jaai, a powerful piece of writing set against the Quit India Movement for which he lost his job with the IG Police. At that time, his 18-year-old wife Kanaklata encouraged him to pursue writing as a full-time profession. Compassion for those who struggle, who live their lives gasping for security and identity, is a fine thread connecting his multi-medium work. He is the screenwriter of masterpieces like Parineeta, Devdas, Lal Pathhaar, Sujata, and Abhimaan. They are celebrated films, remembered for their music, performances, and female characters internalising and fighting many forms of injustice. His keen eye for the varied manifestations of suffering and every person’s eternal struggle to overcome suppression finds its way into Mistress of Melodies, an anthology of courtesans and prostituted women in Calcutta.

The book begins with two notes; one by filmmaker Muzzaffar Ali and the other by Ratnottama Sengupta. Both speak of the enormous cultural influence asserted by courtesans and prostitutes and how their lives are a never-ending source of inspiration for writers, poets, dancers, musicians, photographers, and artists. Sengupta calls them “the custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts” and thinks of the book as a salutation to their talents and ability to survive in a man’s world. However, she vehemently rejects the notion that such professions could be “innocuous or even wholesome work.” They result from desperation for stable livelihoods, deception of loved ones, and obliviousness to the inherent abuse.

Mistress of Melodies has six stories; Market Price, Dregs, Songs of a Sarangi, It Happened One Night, Anchor, and Mistress of Melodies. Five of them are translations; the load is shared among Ratnottama Sengupta, Padmaja Punde, and Mitali Chakravarty. Mistress of Melodies was a screenplay written by Nabendu Ghosh. He wrote all his scripts in English.

The stories revolve around women engaged in sex work or work as courtesans, spread across a protracted timeline. Some are prostitutes just before Independence, in the Calcutta of tram strikes. Others are famed courtesans flourishing in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny. Each inhabits a fascinating world which is one of the best parts of the collection. The geographical spaces are beautifully set up and help gauge the visual quality of Ghosh’s writing. Whether it’s a widow’s rundown hut by the river or an elaborate two-storeyed makaan owned by Chitpore’s Hasina Baiji, each area has been intricately designed. From the sparsely decorated rooms of brothels with Ma Kali’s image on the wall to the wealthy rooms of courtesans adorned with photographs of Radha, Krishna, and the Kaba, one can feel the influence of cinema in Ghosh’s writings. He writes extravagant word pictures like an art director designs a set, detailing every corner. This is one of the most vital aspects of his storytelling and something you will genuinely enjoy.

Customs are crucial to Ghosh. In Songs of a Sarangi (my favourite story of the lot), he describes rituals like the Nath-utarna and a three-month nikah prevalent in the world of courtesans. The former is an elaborate celebration in which a young baiji is made to wear a beautiful Nath (nose ring) by her mother or madame. An auction is organised where her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. The man is treated like the affectionate jamai (son-in-law) of the courtesan’s household. He is permitted to deflower the girl and spend three months with her. This ritual marks her entry into the world of performing arts. Once her Nath has been removed, she is ready to entertain an audience and perform mujras (dance recitals). While it may sound vile to the evolved reader, Nath-utarna used to be a huge celebration where courtesans from across the city would participate in the festivities.

The pressures of the economic milieu on forcing women into the flesh trade have been brought out in quite a few stories. In Market Price, Dregs, and Anchor, we are shown different points in the historical timeline of urban and rural Bengal where realities like the Bengal famine, debt trap, loss of land, and exploitative landlords severely impacted the social standing of women. Poverty, maltreatment, and malnourishment took a severe toll on their health and stability, causing unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and untimely deaths. Alongside such issues was the prevalence of con artists who tricked young windows and prostitutes into selling their jewellery, taking away whatever little money they possessed and then leaving them stranded. There are insights into security concerns faced by courtesans. Disgruntled clients disturbed courtesan households and sent lathiyals when their demands weren’t met. Baijis and their musicians kept a constant lookout for dangerous men. One such vengeful babu brings the downfall of Hasina Baiji’s business in Songs of a Sarangi.

One of the most appropriate things said about Nabendu Ghosh and his storytelling is illustrious filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s praise for the author. According to Sen, “As a writer and creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed that evil is a mans natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting it, as always, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.” Ghosh’s belief in a fresh chance at survival is evident in several instances. Characters like Tagar, Chhaya, Hasina Baiji, and Gauhar Jaan crave compassion and normalcy. Sometimes it works out; Tagar elopes with Shashi, her souteneur yet faithful beloved, while Hasina Baiji runs away with Uday, her sarangi player, at the very end of her career. Sometimes, this chance at a new life is unsuccessful, like for Chhaya and Basana. A fascinating story is Anchor, in which Ghosh follows the journey of a man who has lost his family to the famine. After years working on a ship, he jumps off the deck, desperate to swim towards a new start.

Unfortunately, Mistress of Melodies weakens on the translation front. In multiple places, the words are so literally expressed that the reader becomes excruciatingly aware that these stories were not written in English. It disrupts the flow of the paragraphs and makes many places awkward to read. The language does not possess the fluidity of translators like Arunava Sinha and Khalid Hasan. When you read the latter’s translation of Manto’s Kingdom’s End, you do not feel that you are reading something initially written in Urdu. However, this becomes an issue for Mistress of Melodies. The verbatim dialogues have a jarring quality to them that takes away from the emotional essence of the stories. So many times, I read the sentence in English, but I knew the authentic Bengali dialogue in my mind. Overall, I would say that Mistress of Melodies has an exciting canvas but stumbles on account of its uneven colours. However, I think it deserves our time because of its humbling intention; to remind us of the rich influence of these women who otherwise are shown in unidimensional and garish ways by commercial cinema and pop culture. The book humanises courtesans and prostitutes, presenting them as flesh-and-blood characters with hopes and journeys.

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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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It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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“The Willows in Winter” – An Ode to Those Long Treasured Books on Our Bookshelves

I came across this page through a friend, and I saw Vidisha Ghosh’s review of the Wind in the Willows and felt compelled to write about my experience with its sequel this winter. I was gifted the sequel The Willows in Winter as a first edition hard back upon its release back in 1993.  At the age of 10, this hard back with thoughtful character illustrations was probably one of the most beautiful books I owned, but in its beauty and huge size, relative to that of a 10 year old, it almost felt too grown up to read and too beautiful to touch. Needless to say, as teen years passed through to adulthood, I did not feel the draw of a book written for children and it remained on the shelf in its pristine condition. The Willows in Winter has since travelled with me to each home I’ve moved to where it has always taken pride of place on my bookshelf, untouched and unread, but certainly not unloved.

I finally got around to reading The Willows in Winter this January, amidst a bit of a reader’s block and the need for something easy and comforting. The UK government had just effectively cancelled Christmas with its no-mixing-of-households rule and announced its third indefinite lockdown. January can be hard enough in a normal year, let alone without the usual things that keep us going and I’ll admit my mood and resolve was starting to wane. I desperately needed something light and as I perused my shelves, I found myself reaching for The Willows in Winter. I picked it up thinking it might be the perfect book to cosy on up with in the dark winter and to get me out of my reading slump. What I wasn’t expecting was for the words on the first page to hit me with such force, that it brought tears to my eyes.

“I must not be uncharitable” said Mole “I have my home, I have my health and I- I must not be unfriendly”. 

I sat down in my cosy reading chair and felt the weight of those words sink in. The words resonated deeply with the lockdown experience and the gradual increase in feelings of unease. During our first lockdown, I gave myself the motto, “don’t be a brat”. Not eloquent I know, but it was short, sweet and easy to berate myself with whenever needed. By this motto, I meant that regardless of how tough things might become, I resolved to remember our blessings, be grateful for what we have and be extra kind and mindful of how we speak with others, who may be facing more difficult challenges. But, I have to admit that in January, after too many zoom calls, and a seemingly endless stream of calls from others looking to offload their own concerns and troubles, I was starting to feel the need to retreat even further and hibernate in my own little world to feel a bit sorry for myself.

So, at the perfect time, after almost 30 years on my bookshelf, along came the wonderful characters of Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger to remind us of some important lessons. Mole’s opening dialogue is referring to his nephew as an unwanted lodger, when Mole craves nothing more than his peaceful home and privacy. What follows is a tale of adventure and friendship as they each go in search of rescuing each other from various escapades. We are reminded of the need to embrace each other’s differences and that friendship does not have to be with those who are like-minded but should span different personality types, and as a result how much we can learn from each other. For example, in contrast to Mole’s introverted nature, is the polar opposite of Toad. Toad can often be perceived as an arrogant and self-centred rich character, often reckless in his pursuits. However, in reading between the lines, we see a character who has had his sense of adventure subdued and so desperately seeks some kind of release through risky pursuits, much like how some would see a few of our rebel entrepreneurs in the real world, who can be revered and disliked in equal measures. The Willows in Winter is written by William Horwood as an homage to Kenneth Grahame’s classic and is faithful to the original in capturing the essence of Grahame’s characters.

Since reading the Willows in Winter several months ago, I’m now ahead on the reading challenge I set myself for the year and so my readers block has been officially cured. Whether I found a cure for my “uncharitable” nature as Mole would call it, is yet to be confirmed, but I vow to keep being mindful of others and provide a listening ear, whilst protecting my own needs as an introvert to retire and recharge in my own space. As social creatures, this lockdown has been hard on introverts and extroverts alike, and if Toad and Mole teach us anything it is that we need all types and all kinds of friendships to get the best from this world.

The experience also made me reflect on what it is to be a bibliophile. Thinking of the books we covet on our shelves for years, from those in pristine condition too beautiful to touch, to the well-thumbed copies of our favourite books.  Those books that remain with us reminds us of who we were when we read them, much as that “to be read pile” is a nod to who we hope to become as our future selves – I’m thinking here of my literature classics section, that I want to be intellectual enough to read, but still feels somewhat of a chore to start! I also think about the journey of those books that we decide not to keep, those that we pass on to friends in the hope that they will bring similar joy or understanding to them as it did for us. The Willows In Winter, will now remain forever cherished on my bookshelf as a reminder of that Winter lockdown and however tough life gets, we must be grateful for our blessings and keep goodwill in our hearts.

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.

Boating On the River, With Lemonade and The Wind in the Willows!

In 1906, the charismatic 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between Japan and Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. It is difficult to imagine that such a politician who was once a kingpin of global politics read, re-read and fell in love with a so-called “children’s” story about talking animals living by an English River. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest admirers of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In 1908, while still in office, he wrote to Grahame how Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad had become his companions. He loved it so much that he convinced a publishing house to take on the book, whereas England’s initial response to this endearing book had been rather dismal.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, the concept of childhood and its portrayal in literature underwent a significant change. The socio-political milieu contributed. Labour laws were rectified, more children began to attend school, literacy improved, and reading material became cheaper to print. In such a time in history, corresponding to the Golden Age of Children’s Literature and the Edwardian Era in England (1901-1910), The Wind in the Willows was a landmark publication in the literary tradition of anthropomorphic animal characters. They compete with AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh universe to be the most famous human-like animals in literature. During this time, children’s fiction moved away from its instructional, pedagogic leanings. Narratives became about compassion, fun and frolic, domesticity, subtly expressed ideas of morality, and a romantic way of British living. For children, this is an adorable tale of four animals enjoying each other’s eccentric and warm company while exploring life as it passes them by, like the gleaming River around which space grows and blossoms.

For an adult in their 20s, what can The Wind in the Willows possibly signify? If one is to overcome the infantile nostalgia attached to Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad, what literary merit does this spectacular piece of animal fantasy contain within itself? As a child learning the art of finishing a book and understanding complex sentences, The Wind in the Willows was fantastical living at its best. It offered young minds the dual stimulation of thrill escape. As children, it makes us wonder, “Can animals talk?”, “Where is the hidden world where they have picnics with sardines and beer?” and “How do animals drive cars, paddle boats and dispense justice?” As children, books such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book imbue animals with charm and authority. So, when kids notice a rabbit lounging lazily in a pet store, there’s a chance that in the parallel reality of children, that hare is wearing a waistcoat.

Last week, I had the privilege (yes, I believe that is the term) to read the unabridged version of The Wind in the Willows for this article, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. Before, I had only read the Ladybird Classics version. Remember their graceful illustrations, soft fonts and smooth pages? The complete version is exactly 200 pages. It is a story of four friends; their species’ names becoming the names of their characters: Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad.

They live around a River, which is the centre of their lives and the focus of the surrounding landscape. Each is different from the other; their personalities, preferences, backgrounds, role in the group and yes, even financial standing! It is incredible how Grahame has built a world of animals where a Rat and a Mole sit by the fire and discuss how the latter gathered the funds to purchase his burrow. When the book is adapted for children, such aspects are left out because they are not too relevant. However, when you read it as an adult, these little details about wealth, inheritance, and Animal Etiquette add such a loveable layer of realism to the narrative.

A fascinating feature that I enjoyed reading was Grahame’s conversion of the geographical setting into full-scale characters. In the book, the English countryside is more than just a descriptive element, its purpose goes beyond beautification. Grahame injects each location with a distinct personality, mirroring its owner. The primary destinations are the River, The Wild Woods, Toad’s Hall, Rat’s Home, Mole’s Home and Badger’s Underground Burrow. While Toad Hall is large and showy, Badger has a hidden, functional, and practical burrow reflecting his paternal and reserved personality. One of the most unforgettable parts is The Wild Wood, where Mole loses his way in the fabled woods that Rat had forbidden him from entering alone. Grahame conveys the terror of the space through the gleaming eyes of unknown animals, the rustle of trees and the pitter-patter of footsteps. We don’t know who is following Mole or what those eyes are that shine at him through the dark stillness of a winter night. It is the sharp acoustic quality of the words that does the trick. It is a reminder of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, where we never get a perfect visual image, but its idea is terrifying enough. The way Grahame expresses the terror hidden in The Wild Wood is both frightening and amazing. 

Grahame’s writing echoes his love for the countryside. He exhibits a clear bias towards nature and living in a rustic setting than in industrial cities. The detailed, idyllic descriptions of the River, meadows, woods, and every little berry and bush convey the soothing rural atmosphere. The possibilities of thrills and fun are much more in a pastoral setting. So, we have charming anecdotes of boat rides, walks, carol singers, picnics and road trips. Grahame’s disdain towards the uglier side of industrialisation is evident in how he writes about motor cars, a common motif for trouble and the source of unfortunate happenings in the story.

Two recurrent cultural symbols are food and home. Both are interconnected and important to the narrative, especially home. While adventure is important, Grahame believes that there is always unbound joy returning to the place you belong. The essential contribution of an animal/person’s home to their happiness is highlighted, connecting it to virtues like domesticity. Food is a part of that setup. So, the author spends a lot of time laying out an elaborate table for his animals and readers. Quintessential English treats function both as a connecting device and a symbol of stability after a distressing episode. Beer, lemonade, sardine, sandwiches, ham, cold tongue, gherkins and French Rolls are passed around to initiate friendship. In fact, I came across a blog by a lady who created an entire picnic menu inspired by the Rat and Mole’s picnic!

Today, I can see why it is such a popular book amongst children. It is a very different book. It has no human characters but a variety of animals that behave exactly like them. Moreover, they are not regular domestic animals like kittens, puppies or farm animals you find in nursery rhymes or television shows. Every aspect of the book is novel. For parents, Grahame’s inclination towards teaching children etiquettes, camaraderie, and acceptance is a benefit. Something that comes up repeatedly is Animal Etiquette, which talks about things like the correct time to visit someone or how to judge the situation before asking a favour. We are taught to be accepting of differences and make one another feel included. Badger’s character, who appears to be stern and anti-social, is a loveable paternal figure who is always around to mentor and help. It’s an invaluable lesson; do not judge someone at the first go.

Compared to a child’s imagination, The Wind in the Willows offers something entirely different for adult readers. It represents a charmed, simple life sprinkled with adventures, food, friends and coming back to cosy fireplaces and well-made beds for a good night’s sleep. It is a book you can read on days when the commute is too noisy, the traffic unbearable, and monotony raises its ugly head. The language has an elegant, transportive quality that practically airlifts one to the countryside. Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad’s realm is devoid of things that weigh us down; competition, complexes, and even romantic challenges. It is interesting to note how all the characters are bachelors, living a very standalone life with only their dearest friends!

If you are looking for comfort, The Wind in the Willows is a reliable choice. Remember when Mary Poppins, Michael and Jane jumped into Burt’s paintings and enjoyed a day in the country? The Wind in the Willows is its literary equivalent! 

Take a trip down the River. Smell the sandwiches and lemonade.

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.

Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.