“Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone” by Satya Nadella

Hit Refresh

I typically do not read business books. However, the author of this book, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, recently appeared on a talk show that I watch, and I was intrigued. Not just by the premise of the book — when do you hear the word “soul” in the context of a technology company? — but by Nadella’s own story. I found out that his son has severe cerebral palsy, and this topic only came up because he was talking about the power of technology to do good, exemplified by some students from the local university who had rigged his son up with a device that allowed him to play music on his own. While that was a truly inspiring example of how technology can help, what I found even more inspiring is how he had achieved so much, risen to lead the leading technology company of the world, all while having a very challenging personal life. Usually when I read about highly successful people, I assume that they must have a charmed personal life which allows them to achieve the great things that they have achieved. But clearly, this was not the case with Satya Nadella.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and having a child with special needs would, I think, certainly make you more empathetic, more generous, and overall, a nicer person. But I didn’t think it could actually make you capable of also rising all the way to the top as a business and technology leader, which is typically a highly competitive, cut-throat field. But, as it turns out, it can, as evidenced in Hit Refresh, in which Nadella describes how his personal experiences have shaped the way he leads Microsoft. It’s no longer just about being the market leader and increasing profit margins, but more about making a difference. It’s being able to steer Microsoft to use its vast engineering talents to continue developing devices and software that can improve the lives of millions of people around the world, using cloud connectivity, mobile access, data analytics and other technologies. It calls for cooperation with companies that were once bitter rivals, such as Apple, along with younger powerhouses such as Google. When the focus is more on doing good rather than on under-cutting rivals and being the “best,” even employees can feel imbued with a sense of purpose and meaning that makes their everyday work much more life-affirming.

For those curious about Nadella himself, Hit Refresh does provide a brief account of his background and journey from India to the US — a journey which will be familiar to many Indians who also came to the US to work in engineering and software — as well his many years working at Microsoft as he rose through the ranks before finally becoming CEO. The book also discusses upcoming technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, mixed reality, and quantum computing, all of which seem promising to our continued improvements as a society and which Microsoft is exploring. Hit Refresh also has some discussion about politically sensitive issues such as privacy, security, and globalization, but not as much as I had hoped. It would have been very illuminating to know how a progressive technology company, which wants to have a global impact, can operate in a political climate that is protectionist and nationalistic, almost regressive?

While the subtitle of this book, The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, is somewhat grandiose, it is a simple, non-pretentious, non-erudite, straight-from-the-heart account of how Satya Nadella — only the third CEO in Microsoft’s 42 year old history — has been inspired by his personal experiences to make empathy rather than competitiveness the essence of Microsoft, so it can contribute to making the world a better place for everyone.

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone
Author: Satya Nadella
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: September 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

This book has been selected as one of the two “Silicon Valley Reads” books for 2018, and as a result, it seems to be everywhere in the Bay Area where I live, prominently displayed on library shelves and multiple copies available for check-out. The author, Mark Lukach, is also local to the Bay Area, a high school teacher and freelance writer. As the title suggests, it is a memoir of his experience with the mental illness that afflicted the person he was closest to – his wife, Giulia.

Mark and Giulia had a fairy tale romance – they met as freshmen at Georgetown University, dated, fell in love, got married and moved to San Francisco to start their careers. They both come from loving families and had little to complain about – they were smart, good looking, ambitious (she more than him), and most importantly, they had each other.

Their idyllic life was unexpectedly shattered three years into their marriage by Giulia’s psychotic breakdown, which came literally out of nowhere. It started out with some normal stress at work which caused her some pressure, most self-imposed, and quickly ballooned into a full-blown panic attack, making her delusional and suicidal. She had to be admitted to the psych ward and was there for almost a month before she was allowed to come home. She went on to have two more psychotic episodes, one shortly after the birth of their son, and again a few years after that. The book closes with what seems to be the end of the third hospitalization. However, given the nature of this illness and its typical pattern, Giulia’s psychosis is likely to recur, so this is by no means the end of the struggle for her and Mark.

This book captures Mark’s harrowing experience as he goes from being a “normal,” carefree, happily married young man — who can scarcely believe his good fortune at being able to spend the rest of his life with the girl he fell in love with — to having his life completely upended and being thrust in the role of caregiver to the same girl who now seems to be a completely different person. Caregiving is hard enough for physical illness, but at least the person that is being looked after is the same — the illness may have devastated their bodies, but not their minds. With mental illness, however, the person can literally become someone else. In Giulia’s case, while she was eventually able to get back to the person she was after the end of each of three psychotic episodes she has had so far, Mark had to keep drawing from the memories of their earlier life together to keep going when she became ill.

And the “going” was unimaginably rough — doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, keeping up with work, worrying about rapidly draining finances, looking after their baby boy during her second episode, and continuing to be a single dad to a preschooler during her third hospitalization. Thankfully, both his and her parents were very supportive and tried to help out as much as they could, but there was only so much that they could do. It really was his “cross to bear.” In addition to being physically exhausted and having no time for himself, Mark also captures his anger, his resentment, and his feelings of helplessness candidly. Even though he knows that it’s not Giulia’s fault that she is mentally ill, he can’t help being frustrated to the point where it seems almost impossible to go on.

I found My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward a brutally honest account of how mental illness can come from nowhere and utterly devastate lives, not just for those who are ill but for their family members, who have to continue to look after them even when they become completely different people who often have delusions, hallucinations, manic depressions, and suicidal tendencies. Kudos to Mark for not giving up on his marriage — the thought of skipping out because it was too hard did not even occur to him. In a day and age when close to half of all marriages in the US end in divorce, Mark’s commitment to Giulia is an inspiring affirmation of the “in sickness and in health” maxim that a marriage is supposed to embody.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward
Author: Mark Lukach
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny” by Zahir Dehlvi


This is an English translation by Rana Safvi of the Urdu original by Zahir Dehlvi. It gives a fascinating first person account of life in Delhi during India’s First War of Independence, an earth-shaking event that the British simply called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ Zahir Dehlvi was a privileged official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and he saw and reported everything that went on in those tumultuous days.

The Enfield rifles supplied to the Indian soldiers by the British rulers had greased cartridges said to be coated with cow and pig fat, which was obnoxious to Hindus and Muslims alike. They refused to bite the bullet. Instead they revolted. Soldiers from the Meerut cantonment killed their British officers, marched to Delhi on 11th May 1857 and declared the octogenarian Mughal as Emperor of Hindustan. The aged poet, a pensioner of the British, was simply not up to the task. Zahir Dehlvi was then 22 years old. His wrote his memoirs on his deathbed. While he is no historian and his narrative is prone to hyperbole and unmistakably pro-British it gives us rare insights into the events of the day, and for this reason alone deserves to be read. The translator has done a commendable job and the publisher has ensured that the book itself is a collector’s delight.

Dehlvi’s father and grandfather served the Emperor and he too was presented in court at the age of 12. He led a leisurely and lavish existence, riding horses, smoking the hookah, writing poetry and mingling with the likes of Mirza Ghalib. “Our days were festive like perpetual Eid….” Until the advent of the rebels.

After the mutiny was suppressed the Emperor was exiled to Rangoon and all his employees were fired. Dehlvi was destitute, having lost all his wealth and his ghazals as well. He fled with his family and later took up employment in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk which he described in great detail. He also presented interesting portraits of Bhopal, Baroda and Hyderabad where he had brief sojourns.

Here are some quotes and anecdotes from the book:

“There is a mosque here, which was built by Qutbuddin, though it is in a dilapidated condition. This mosque was built from the remains of temples. It had only been half done when the Badshah-e-Islam dies, and was thus left incomplete…….In the courtyard of this mosque is the broken temple, which is absolutely different and unique…….The iron pillar which people call killi or nail, has been installed in this courtyard. It has inscriptions in khat-e-shastri.” (The author meant Sanskrit but he was wrong. The translator tells us it was Brahmi script.)

“Once some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all the butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. The British government gave orders stating that these butchers should take their shops out of the city. They had all the shops within the city closed.” When the butchers and their families moved out and camped outside the city, the emperor insisted on pitching his tent alongside them. He stayed put until the British Resident rescinded the order.

The rebel soldiers after capturing Delhi appealed to the Emperor, “We are employees of the British. We have helped establish British rule from Calcutta to Kabul by sacrificing our lives, since they did not bring an army with them from England. All their conquests are due to the Indian army……And now…they want to destroy our faith and religion and convert the whole of Hindustan to Christianity. ….Now the time for revolt has come and the entire army has risen and refused to obey orders.” The Emperor’s response was, “Who calls me badshah? I am but a mendicant who is somehow living a Sufi’s life in the fort with my progeny…….The monarchy left my house 100 years ago.” His hapless grandfather had entrusted Hindustan to the British. He himself had no powers to take any decision. Therefore he has summoned the British Resident, Fraser. The Resident arrived soon thereafter.

The first victim of the riot was a Christian priest – a Hindu covert. Dehlvi says, “….as the sound of the shot rang out, the priest’s soul left for its heavenly abode.” The next to follow was Chamanlal, the emperor’s physician, who too had converted to Christianity. Then came the turn of the Resident.

Months passed. The rebels continued to hold Delhi. “The poor Badshah was always in a state of worry and anxiety and had stopped coming out of his Mahal. He was always sad and teary-eyed.” The Emperor said of the mutineers: ‘These rogues came to ruin my dynasty…..After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children, and hang it on the Qila merlons.”

After several battles the British finally gained the upper hand and the rebels had to flee. They requested Bahadur Shah Zafar to go with them but he declined. The Emperor left the fort and took refuge in the environs of Humayun’s tomb. The British commander “arrested thirty Timurid princes, including the Badshah’s sons, grandsons and sons-in-law, and murdered them outside the walls of Delhi. He sent their heads to the Emperor.”

I read the book with a heavy heart.

Overall Assessment: Read it if you have an interest in Indian history.

Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (Urdu original in 1914 at Lahore)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“A Revolutionary History of Interwar India” by Kama Maclean

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India.jpg

“On 12th April 1931, a conference of India’s martyrs was held in Paradise. We know because the proceedings were published in the Lahori Urdu newspaper Vir Bharat the following week.” This brilliant piece of anonymous journalism envisions a full-fledged conference with all the formalities and protocol, and presents an intricate blend of humour and pathos. Khudiram Bose, Ramparshad Bismil, Ishfaqullah, Haribhai Balmukand and Khushi Ram occupy prominent seats. The martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh appear in bloodied outfits. The martyrs of Sholapur are there too. Jatindranath Das as head the reception committee ushers in the much awaited trio of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Conches are blown, the gods shower flowers and shouts of ‘Shahidon ki jai’ rend the air. As Jatin Das delivers the welcome address, Jesus Christ arrives. Sardar Bhagat Singh says, “India’s martyrs greet the martyr of Jerusalem.” The Jallianwala martyrs chip in, “Accept our salutation O peaceful shepherd of bloodthirsty sheep.” Jesus announces that “Dyer is today being burnt in hell fire.”

Kama Maclean painstakingly traces the role of revolutionaries in ushering in India’s freedom, unearthing many enigmatic characters who fail to surface in mainstream narratives. In a 1937 book titled The Vanishing Empire, Chamanlal predicted that the British Empire would collapse in ten years. Later he became a Buddhist monk, ‘Bhikshu’ Chamanlal. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was fatally stabbed in Kanpur when he intervened to make peace amidst communal riots. Uddham Singh waited 21 years to avenge Jallianwala Bagh finally murdering Michael O Dwyer in London in 1940.

The Hindustan Republican Army sprang up in the 1920s in the United Provinces, later metamorphosed into the HSRA (Hindustan Socialistic Republican Association/Army) and shifted its focus to Lahore. There were invisible linkages between the HSRA and Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) and the Jugantar and Anushilan groups of Bengal.

The revolutionaries were determined to free India from British rule. Their main strategy was to make targeted attacks on powerful people. They attacked a train near Lucknow on 9th August 1925, looted government funds and killed a passenger. For this ‘Kakori Conspiracy’, four men were hanged and five transported for life. On 17th December 1928 Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru shot dead a British policeman J P Saunders at Lahore, and Chandrashekhar Azad killed an Indian constable who gave chase. This was their revenge for the lathi-charge in November that had resulted in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. They went underground, regrouped in Agra and on 8th April 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw low intensity bombs and leaflets on the floor of the Legislative Assembly before courting arrest. Soon other co-conspirators were arrested. The trial dragged on for 23 months, and the bravery and brilliance of the revolutionaries captured the imagination of the nation. Interestingly, they had had themselves photographed in studios in anticipation of capital punishment. These pictures made their way to every nook and corner of India in a brilliantly orchestrated campaign, and soon Bhagat Singh was just as popular as Mahatma Gandhi.

In June 1929 in Lahore Jail the revolutionaries commenced a hunger strike in protest against the differential treatment meted out to Indian and European prisoners. On 13th September Jatindranath Das passed away after 63 days of fasting. Subhas Chandra Bose (on behalf of the Bengal Congress) arranged to repatriate his body to Calcutta, and all along the way it was hailed by wailing crowds.

Jock Scott, Lahore’s Senior Superintendent of Police (who had been the original target of the Saunders assassination) soon packed his bags and sailed for England. The California-based based Ghadar Party threatened that if Bhagat Singh was executed, they would assassinate the incoming Viceroy even before he landed in India.

The HSRA bombed the Viceroy’s train on 23 December 1929 as it approached Delhi but Lord Irwin escaped unhurt. In April 1930 the daring Chittagong Armoury Raid by the Bengal revolutionaries masterminded by Surya Sen rattled the British. However, the young militants were out-numbered and died fighting.

Azad managed to remain incognito until he was killed in a shootout with the police at Allahabad on 27th February 1931. British intelligence noted that the Allahabad Provincial Congress Committee “took an active interest in the cremation of Azad’s body.” Motilal Nehru had died only two weeks earlier and revolutionary memoirs recounted that Azad had taken part in the funeral procession in disguise. It came to light later that Motilal had communicated with and funded Azad. In fact the revolutionaries usually relied on Congress members for financial backing and legal defence.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on 23rd March 1931. It is one of the classic ironies of Indian history that Bhagat Singh, although shunned by Gandhi and neglected by historians, was omnipresent in visual culture. Though originally a turbaned Sikh, his ‘hat portrait’ was firmly imprinted on the Indian psyche, never to be erased.

In Bengal on 14th December 1931, teenagers Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury shot dead a British magistrate, and expressed disappointment when they received only jail sentences.

HSRA members had multiple aliases. David Petrie (who later headed the MI5) was convinced that Balraj, Chief of the HSRA, was Bhagat Singh but decades later Shiv Verma, a surviving member of the inner circle, disclosed that Balraj was Azad.

The book has a chapter on the secret life of Durga Devi, widow of HSRA leader Bhagwati Charan Vohra. The latter had died in a bomb-making accident on 28th May 1930. Durga had masqueraded as Bhagat Singh’s wife to facilitate his escape from Lahore in December 1928. On 8th October 1930 she took part in a daring shooting attempt on Lamington Road, Mumbai, leaving her infant son with Babarao Savarkar, brother of V D Savarkar.

Overall Assessment: The best part of the book is the exhaustive array of photographs and pictures.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
AUTHOR: Kama Maclean

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

The Story of the Jews

Well, I thought I knew their story – until I read this masterpiece and found out how little I knew. The Exodus story is something you can’t help knowing, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, how they wandered in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land. You needed faith to believe the story but I had believed it anyway, at least most of it, excepting of course the more fanciful parts, like the parting of the Red Sea and the encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews and enabled the rebuilding of the temple. Jesus was a Jew. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE and scattered the Jews in all directions. All this I knew. I also knew that my home state, Kerala, had a Jewish community from times immemorial – and after the birth of Israel many of them migrated. Like everyone else, I knew about the Holocaust. And well, the Qumran scrolls or Dead Sea Scrolls as they are called. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d learnt about the Spanish Inquisition in my schooldays but had forgotten what it was all about.)

This book was an eye-opener. It brought to mind just as many questions as answers. If the Israelites found Egypt so abhorrent, why did they keep going back there? “The very first time that ‘Israel’ appears on any historical artefact is on the famous late thirteenth century BCE triumphal inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II.” The inscription claimed that Israel had been routed. This lends credence to the belief that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the Exodus probably did happen, though no evidence has been found till date.

Egyptian sources claim that when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE it was an army under the Nubian pharaoh that broke the siege. Very plausible, says Simon Schama. So Egypt wasn’t a permanent enemy after all.

In the 6th century BCE Jews were settled in many parts of Egypt. In Elephantine, the capital of the Pathros region, they even had a temple. They kept the Sabbath, made animal sacrifices and circumcised their sons. Surviving documents related to marriage and divorce reveal interesting facts. While Israelite men had unilateral rights to divorce their wives, in Egypt Jewish women were also entitled to initiate the separation. Tragedy truck in 410 BCE when the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. By the middle of the fourth century BCE, before the coming of Alexander, the Elephantine colony had ceased to exist. However, a century later Jewish settlements had popped up all over Egypt, especially at Alexandria and Thebes.

The Hebrew Bible was written over three centuries – eighth to fifth BCE. While it proclaims monotheism and an exclusive bond with Yehowah, it chronicles a saga of betrayals, transgressions, atrocities, disasters and defeats. “David’s best-loved son, Absalom, is killed in a particularly horrifying way while in rebellion against his father. Solomon’s imperially aggrandizing kingdom lasts not even one generation after his death. King Manasseh institutes the horror of child sacrifice by fire. The Egyptians are always at one gate and the Mesopotamian empires at the other.”

The Song of the Sea has much in common with the Phoenician epic of the storm god Baal’s conquest of the sea. Ecclesiastes is a ‘Wisdom Book’ that owes something to Persian-Babylonian proverbial literature. It was the Hellenistic Jewish world that invented the synagogue. ‘Holocaust’ was the Greek word for ritual cremation of whole animals. Only Greeks and Jews made fire sacrifices of whole animals.

Judaism was imposed at the point of the sword (and the circumciser’s knife) on neighbouring peoples like Itureans and Idumeans. In the first century BCE the Roman general Pompey marched through the Temple, tearing aside the curtain veil and entering the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was admitted. But he spared the temple, as Alexander had done centuries ago. Eventually Vespasian would destroy it.

The mass social upheaval in the towns and villages of Palestine, the coming of Jesus and his crucifixion, the exaltation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, the birth of Islam, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews by Christians in various parts of Europe, and the horrors of the Inquisition are set out in explicit detail. One is left feeling sorry for the Jews, although the author recounts the atrocities committed by the Jews as well.

There is much that would evoke shock and/or surprise. Here are some examples:

  • Judaism and Zoroastrianism had shared purity obsessions,including a belief in the uncleanness of menstruation.
  • Peter the apostle refused to share a table with the uncircumcised.
  • The Prophet Muhammad first commanded the Believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. It was only when the Jews of Yathrib rejected his beliefs that he switched the orientation to Makkah.
  • Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest. So it wasn’t just the Jews and Muslims who had this prohibition!
  • Much of the heart of Westminster Abbey comes from the estate of Licoricia the Jewess and her husband, David of Oxford. The Crown had appropriated the estate in the thirteenth century. Soon thereafter the Jews of England were all sent packing. This happened in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. By the time Columbus had set out to discover America in 1492, Spain had been wiped clean of its Jewish population and five years later Portugal followed suit.!
  • When Vasco da Gama returned in triumph after his India expedition he brought to Portugal back not only spices and animals but also a Polish Jew. I wonder what became of the poor man in a country that had evicted all its Jews!

The book has a sequel. I intend to read it soon.

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories” by Catriona Mitchell (Editor)

Walking Towards Ourselves

This book is a brilliant mosaic of many feminine voices from India, a collection of short stories carefully crafted to present a consistent and yet diverse pattern of thought and emotion. From Ira Trivedi’s Rearranged Marriage to Sharanya Manivannan’s Karaikkal Ammayar to Urvashi Butalia’s Oxygen, the book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride that is both exciting and frightening. The voices are by no means weak or even similar – and no facet of the feminine experience is left untouched. From the embarrassment of dark skin, to the agonies of match-making, marriage, motherhood and childlessness, alternative relationships and alternative sexual identities, difficult choices and painful lives, this book leaves no stone unturned in its quest for free expression of thought.

Mitali Saran writes, “This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who’s allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.”

Bollywood belle Tisca Chopra writes of the legendary casting couch, “I have been asked, plenty of times — by actors, directors and producers. I play dumb. Smile and pretend I don’t get the hint. Yet, somehow, many men from the film business think it is their right to ask.”

Describing the near trauma of hunting for toilets in the Mumbai metropolis, Annie Zaidi writes, “The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one. Which was several times a day every day. The city seemed to be lurching along anyhow, kidding itself that women didn’t get out much and, if they did, it was never long enough for their bladders to fill up. Mumbai was rumoured to have public toilets, at least at train stations, but to my dismay and fury, I found that most toilets were either non-functional or locked up, especially at night. The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for ‘other’ purposes.”

“Women were so central in the battle for independence, why did we hear virtually nothing about them afterwards? Or for that matter during colonial times?” asks Urvashi Butalia, the firebrand founder of the publishing house Kali for Women.

Salma’s account of her urge to write (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyanraman) and the vicious suppression she encountered is especially heart-rending. The reader is left wondering: Is this my Incredible India? “After hiding within the lime-coated walls of my parents’ home for several years, I moved to my husband’s family house on a neighbouring street and was enclosed by brand new walls, freshly coated with paint.” Salma’s predicament would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience. “Writing poems and reading books were considered serious crimes. My husband warned me to stop reading. He threatened that if he happened to see any books lying around the house he would burn them, and if he saw me writing he would break my fingers.” Salma didn’t stop writing. Today she is a celebrated author, and everyone knows her given name is Rokkaiyya Begum.

“Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drink. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee. He is the husband who can shrug it away and ask me to stop imagining things.” This one is by an anonymous author – not even a pen name.

Saranya Manivannan writes, “In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen.” And she elaborates, “In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remembers seeing the picture of ‘Sultana Raziyya’ in her brother’s history’ book and being impressed with the way the queen exuded power. “In this picture the woman sat on a tigerskin while a man knelt nearby, offering her his scimitar. Instead of flowing veils, she wore the male attire of the time: baggy pants and a vest. Instead of daintily sniffing at a rose, like the women in my father’s book of Mughal paintings, she leaned forward boldly to grasp the weapon offered to her.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories
EDITOR: Catriona Mitchell
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Ira Trivedi, Rosalyn D’Mello, Mitali Saran, Urvashi Butalia, Annie Zaidi, Anjum Hasan, Salma, Anita Agnihotri, Tishani Doshi, Margaret Mascarenhas, Sharanya Manivannan, Tisca Chopra, Deepti Kapoor, C S Lakshmi, Nirupama Dutt, Chitra Banerjee Diwakarunni and one ANONYMOUS writer.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy1

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was my first real insight into white working-class America – what he describes as ‘hillbillies’ from a poor Rust Belt town. The author gives a compelling explanation of why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to ‘make it.’ I picked up this book after the 2016 election to get an idea of the Republican base.

I just loved the glimpse into Vance’s chaotic family history – his grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother dealing with demands of their new middle-class life while struggling with the legacy of addiction, alcoholism and poverty that is so characteristic of their part of America.

Vance’s grandparents moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them and to raise a middle-class family. When J.D. graduates from Yale Law School, he succeeds in achieving generational upward mobility – a story interspersed with its fair share of humor and colorful characters. He was mostly raised by his grandparents along with his half-sister because his mother was an addict who went from husband to husband and Vance barely knew his father. He did poorly in school and was lucky to get out of the cyclical poverty when a cousin pushed him into joining the Marines, which was an American melting pot. From there he went to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School.

At Yale, his mentor was Amy Chua – the famous ‘tiger mom.’ But he feels the disdain from his fellow-mates who come from a different socio-economic class and cannot relate to his ‘white poverty’ or his marine background. He meets his future wife, Usha, at Yale and finds much more

Vance doesn’t pretend to be a policy expert or offer solutions – he merely opens our eyes to them. But after reading the book, it did make me think about what can be done to create opportunity in poor communities, especially in ‘middle America.’

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel” by Tom Wainwright


I was at the Munich airport and had time to kill. I went to the bookstore and my eyes fell on a book with an intriguing name. I went ahead and bought it. And sure, I got my money’s worth.

I was startled to learn that this is the author’s first book. He sure writes like a pro. And he’s chosen a mind-blowing topic. I’ve read many books written by journalists, but this one’s the best of all. It’s a lesson in economics, sociology, crime and the dark side of human life.

We learn that the world’s taxpayers spend $100 billion a year combating the illegal drugs trade. “There is an overwhelming focus on suppressing the supply side of the business, when basic economics suggests that addressing demand would make more sense.”

The global narcotics industry has annual revenues amounting to about $300 billion and serves a quarter of a billion consumers. It closely resembles a professionally run multinational corporation. “Colombian cocaine manufacturers have protected their profits by tightening control of their supply chains, along the same lines as Walmart. Mexican cartels have expanded on a franchise basis, with the same success as Macdonald’s.”

Monopsony means ‘single buyer.’ While a monopolist can dictate prices to its consumers as it’s the only seller, a monopsonist can dictate prices to its suppliers, because it’s the only buyer. Drug cartels keep the price of coca stable by putting pressure on the suppliers who in turn squeeze the growers. So any production loss or destruction of crop affects only the farmers – those at the very bottom of the supply chain. On the international market the price of cocaine has remained steady for over two decades. So has the number of cocaine users.

“Prison is fabulously expensive. Sending a teenager to jail costs more than it would to send hint to Eton College, the private boarding school in England that educated Princes William and Harry.” For criminal organizations, prisons pay a pivotal role in the recruitment and training of staff. The La Nuestra Familia (our family), a California based prison gang was founded in the 1960s by prison inmates looking to protect themselves from another gang, the Mexican Mafia. The Aryan Brotherhood is another American prison gang. (Gosh, there’s a whole world out there that we’re clueless about!)

“Buy cocaine in Europe or the United States and it’s an uncomfortable certainty that you have helped to pay for someone to be tortured to death…” Drug cartels often seek publicity for their gruesome murders. The author was told that the worst time to step out in Ciudad Juarez (in the Mexican state of Chihuahua) is 5-45 p.m. because that’s when the gangs carry out their executions in time to lead the 6 p.m. news broadcast.

There’s a whole lot of interesting information:

  • In the early 1970s, Stanford University students used Arpanet (a precursor of the internet) for the first time to arrange a deal with the students of MIT. The subject of the transaction was a bag of marijuana. Today, on the ‘dark web’ of the internet drugs and weapons are anonymously bought with bitcoins, and contract killings are said to be on sale. A recent Global Drug Survey revealed that in the UK 22% of illegal drugs are purchased online.
  • Many hotels in La Paz, Bolivia serve coca tea to guest on arrival.
  • The UN estimates that the average coca grower in Columbia earns $2 a day.
  • Brazil is the world’s second biggest market for cocaine after the United States.
  • Spain is the main gateway to Europe for Latin American drugs.
  • New Zealand shuts down more crystal-meth labs each year than any country in the world apart from the United States and Ukraine.
  • “For criminals looking for an offshore base in the Americas, Guatemala has a lot to offer. But it faces stiff competition from its southern neighbour, Honduras.”
  • Guatemala’s president Otto Perez Molina, stated that, “Today more people are dying in Central America through drug trafficking, and the violence it generates, than are dying in the United States through the consumption of drugs.”

The book talks of the franchising of criminal brands, the manufacture of ‘designer drugs’, the emergence of “Frankenstein drugs’, and lots more. In short, it’s one deadly cocktail.

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel
AUTHOR: Tom Wainwright
PUBLISHER: Ebury Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This Child Will Be Great

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first woman president and this book is her memoir. She recounts how she came to power in her native Liberia and the tremendous odds she had to overcome to get there. Sworn in as President in January 2006 at the end of a fourteen year long civil war, she remained at the helm for 12 years and oversaw a peaceful transition. Liberia went to the polls in October 2017 to elect a new leader.

The book reveals the complexities of Liberia’s links with the New World and its long and painful history. While the slave trade saw Africans shipped from West Africa to the Americas to undergo forced labour, there was a reverse flow of freed slaves to these shores in the early 19th century. Monrovia, the capital of Liberia is named after US President James Munroe and the country’s flag resembles the American flag. The settlers thought they were somehow superior to the indigenous peoples and the seeds of conflict were sown. Liberia’s first President was a man born in Virginia.

Ellen’s paternal grandfather has eight wives and god knows how many children. Her maternal grandfather, a German trader, had married a local woman and the couple had one daughter. At the start of World War I, Liberia expelled all Germans, to demonstrate its loyalty to the US. The grandfather returned to Germany and was never heard of again.
Ellen’s father was the first indigenous man to be elected to the legislature. He suffered a paralytic stroke while in his early forties and soon the family fortunes nose-dived.

At 17, Ellen fell in love and married James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from college in Alabama. They both found jobs and had four children in quick succession. When James moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study further, Ellen went too, leaving the grandmothers to care for the little ones. She studied at the Madison Business college, and worked part time, sweeping floors and waiting tables.

“In Madison I was so cold I sometimes feared my tears would freeze.” James was alcoholic and abusive and Ellen had to learn to cope. “Doc always did enough to hurt but not enough to maim or kill. Just enough to keep me in a state of fear.” Twice he put a gun to her head but did not shoot. She knew that if she walked away, or even if her husband did, she would lose custody of the children. When they returned to Liberia, James did, in fact, take away the children from her. Following their divorce, he remarried and moved to Florida with the youngest child.

Ellen had a government job and soon she had an opportunity to study at Boulder, Colorado and Harvard. She had already created ripples in government circles by criticizing the powers that be. Her American education, work experience and contacts stood her in good stead as she returned to Liberia and slowly but surely worked her way up the political ladder. When the President of Liberia died in 1971 and a new President came to power, Ellen was offered a new job- that of Deputy Minister of Finance. Eight years later there was a coup. Ellen left the country and took up a position with the World Bank.

Liberia had enjoyed political stability for century but glaring economic disparities threatened the delicate equilibrium and the insensitivity of the men in power brought things to ahead. The Rice Riots saw police fire upon a crowd of demonstrators killing at least 41. Soon thereafter at a conference of the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now African Union) in July 1979, President Tolbert remarked that the most pressing problem of the continent was apartheid in South Africa. The following month Ellen was made the first female Finance Minister in the nation’s history. A year later there was a coup and president Tolbert was killed. Only four ministers were spared – and Ellen was one of them.

The United States bolstered the new government and Liberia soon became the CIA’s main station in Africa. Ellen went back to the World Bank and later worked for Citibank. By then three of her sons were studying in the US.

Ellen never ceased political activity. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for speaking out against the government. But she was offered clemency due to intense pressure from Citibank and elsewhere. One of the messages passed to her in prison had read, “We’d rather have a live ant than a dead elephant.” Of her subsequent flight from her homeland Ellen writes, “As much as I wanted to stay in Liberia, I wanted even more to stay alive. It was time to go.”

In 1990 civil war erupted and there were massacres in Monrovia followed by a massive exodus to neighbouring countries and total internal displacement of indigenous peoples. A Boston Globe reporter was told by a local, “The dogs ate the dead, and we ate the dogs.”

The book is one long politico-historical story that almost eclipses the personal. But there are interesting insights too, not entirely about Africa. For instance, the Confederate general Robert E Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia. Wow! Do you think his statues ought to stay?

Overall assessment: Good read.

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President
Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.