Archive for the ‘books’ Category

A voyage, long and strange indeed.

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Review:  Indica – A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal

Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2016, 384 pages, Hardcover

For long ages, we have read accounts of how the world came to be – from the supercontinent of Pangaea to the continents of today.  This book is unique because it focuses on the voyages and indiscretions of a small bit of Pangaea that went its own merry way and speeded through the oceans, finally crashing into Asia with a dull and rather sickening thud. This little sort-of-triangular land is India. This lovely book is about this beautiful and bounteous land.

The author takes us on a rollicking journey with India, from its origins to the present day, recounting all the adventures in between. What makes it very interesting is that this treatment has never really been done for the lay reader. God knows, it is hard to get people interested in geology but the author manages it easily.  Just see his introduction of the landscape of Bengaluru which goes like this:

“Closepet granite was formed between 3 and 2.5 million years ago and can be found in the district town of Ramanagaram close to Bengaluru. If the granite rocks of Ramanagaram, some of which seem perched precariously one on top of the other look familiar, it is because they provided the hideout of the archetypal villain Gabbar Singh in the film Sholay.[emphasis by author] “

Figure 1: Courtesy


What a great marketing pitch for a book on geology! Now every Hindi film fan who has a predisposition towards paleophilia is hooked. The author takes pains throughout this book to paint pictures (the illustrations are fantastic), even giving latitudes and longitudes for places so you can look them up in Google Earth/Maps if you are so inclined (I did look at them all). This makes the book even harder to just skim through.

Lest you think that Mr. Lal confines himself to geology, I would hasten to point out that this work encompasses much more than that. He takes into account all the wonderful plants and strange creatures (Rajasaurus, anyone?) that dominated the migrating landscape throughout its history. The book almost parallels the history of the planet looking from the perspective of the Indian subcontinent which further draws the Indian reader to it. The great calamities like mass extinction events are considered for the impact they caused in the migrating continent of India as are the formation events of the terrain like the Western Ghats and the Deccan Plateau.

This book is so interestingly and evocatively written that even after having read it two months ago, I am fascinated by the formation of the Deccan traps due to the rupture of the earth’s crust when India blundered into the deep mantle plume near the Reunion islands. It is theorized in some circles that this could have contributed to the great dinosaur extinction event 65 million years ago. Reading it definitely helped me make up a geologist’s pickup line which goes like this: Baby, your eyes are like Deccan traps; 4 million years of molten lava!

Hey, geologists are human too! In fact, that is one of the main strengths of this work. It is particularly written for those who wouldn’t know the difference between an igneous and a metamorphic rock. India’s geological journey, from the split up of Pangaea, to the squabbling and bitter splits with Antarctica, Australia and Madagascar, to the formations of the Giant Himalayas is narrated beautifully.

Interwoven as it is with facts about the flora and fauna that evolved and went extinct along the way, from Barapasaurus – the giant vegetarian dinosaur, to Titanis – the Terror Bird that preyed on ancient horse ancestors, add very much to this narrative. The story of how mammals evolved in India and how they migrated from or to the subcontinent (tigers are not native to India) when it joined with Asia are also very beautifully covered. I had no idea that the ancestors of early whales arose from the inland Tethys sea (which is now the large Thar desert in Western India and Pakistan).

This book really does remind one, with significant nostalgia, of the great biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He also did a lot to explain evolution and its intricacies in very simple language to all of us interested in natural history. Those who have read the famous geological texts of John McPhee, specifically “Annals of a Former World” and “Basin and Range” will notice that Mr. Lal gives the same treatment to India and its geological formations that Mr. McPhee gives to the continental United States. To some, this will also feel like a travelogue. Indeed, this book of science and travel most resembles in its humour, lucidity and vast range, “A short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson.

To all those who are interested in India’s geography, geology, fauna and human interaction with them will find this book very hard to put down even though it is a relatively long one. The reader gets that rare feeling that the author could write another book with his research material (the bibliography and notes take up more than 60 pages!). India is not done yet. It is still on the go, pushing up the Tibetan plateau on its way. I hope Mr. Lal is not done telling this story too!!




In praise of inefficiency

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Setting sun

What price Efficiency?

The glory of the dying sun on the plains of India stirred interesting thoughts. Why is so showy? Why are we so gaudy about everything? Is the beauty of the universe reliant on the waste of energy?

These are heavy thoughts and perhaps belong to the philosophers, poets and mystics among us. On to more prosaic matters, a few weeks ago, I read an article on how Amazon had figured out a no-friction way to make shoppers get what they want. Just this week, the Economist brings in an interesting article on why too much efficiency can be a bad thing. The one-click ordering from that makes me buy too many books or the no-click Pizza buying from Domino’s through it’s app comes to mind.

Similarly, in SAAS products, we try to make the funnel narrower and thinner all the time to induce the customer to buy right away. What we forget many times is that subscription products are longer terms commitments and do require some thinking before the “Buy” button gets clicked. It may help to introduce some inefficiency the process by required watching of a training video or some demos from experienced sales folks before we allow users to swipe their cards. “But we will lose a lot of orders”, you might say. Well, perhaps. Have you considered the amount of churn you already generate by allowing anyone to just swipe their card and then cancel a few days later. I bet, that impacts more of your bottom-line than people taking their time ordering pricey services online.

The Volga Vikings

Talking of inefficiencies, let’s talk of these tribes of marauding Vikings who traded and raided all over Europe, sometimes to everyone’s credit and at other times, just causing mayhem all around. It is conjectured that these people came to so ferocious because a cataclysm(a meteor or comet) hit Northern Europe in the middle of the 6th century. It caused lots of hardship and caused the people to spill out looking for food and provisions for their families. Couldn’t they just trade, one may ask?

Two excuses come to mind. One, there were already established trade networks in Northern Europe and the raiding of Monasteries was to break their stranglehold on these networks. Two, there was lots more loot to be had when you could use physical threats with those you traded, Imperial East India Companies of later years come to mind.

They had mastered the sail and some raided on the coasts of Europe to get loot and other went the route of the Volga and traded with Byzantium and Baghdad. They brought in slaves and furs and traded them for gold, silver and spices.

Volga Trade Routes

Some of these groups of Vikings settled lands like Iceland, parts of Greenland and some early settlements can be seen in the coastal United States and Canada. The trade route linked to the famous silk route and so flourished until the Abbasid Caliphate had control, petering out in the 12th century.

To learn some more of their achievements, please listen to this lovely podcast and read about them in these lovely books.




Interesting reads for the week of 27th March 2017

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Gathering quantitative and qualitative data for sales leads.

We have been struggling to divine what customers tell us via their click trails for the last 2 decades. For the last few years we have the capability to gather data in real time. That doesn’t mean it can be put to proper use. After all, what hits the bottom-line matters most. Real-time engagement and segmentation on where the visitor lands on your site and making them into leads right there is a challenge that Segment is trying to solve. This isn’t the only path but it is a good idea nevertheless.

While bed sheet sales may seem to be a bit of a stretch to move using data but Brooklinen seems to have a good strategy figured out. This site focused on collecting all the quantitative and qualitative feedback, used some good intuition and tested it. They had a great thought in trying to satisfy men who are often under-served customers of bed linen. Also, they carry a ruthlessly narrow inventory based on all that customers demand and don’t go for any frills. Do read this lovely piece on their efforts


Les Miserables and how it rings true in every era.

It is a horrible read. Torrid at times, uplifting and cautiously optimistic rarely; and truly sad most of the way. However, Victor Hugo was probably on the money when he said

“AS LONG as there are ignorance and poverty on Earth,” wrote Victor Hugo in his preface to “Les Misérables”, “books such as this one may not be useless.”

The Economist put together a really nice piece on it. Do read it.

The Sasquatch fights, tooth and nail and hide!

Now for some contentious reads. The book by Mr. Meldrum is written for people who operate from a premise that there could be a hominid still living in the boreal forest of North America. He has some personal experience as an encounter with a beast like that while hiking in a very remote area. There is lots of evidence presented, presuming that all sightings are NOT hoaxes.

Mr. Nash operates entirely on the other side. His starting premise is that human cognition fails entirely when they encounter something strange and no eyewitnesses can be trusted at all. He is not really being very cynical. He has lots of data to back up his premise. However, it is impossible to deny certain eye-witness accounts, not only of Sasquatches but also other “monsters”. Just labeling them as cultural myths and not be treated as real beings. Please do read the following books. They are very interesting and quite cheap too!



Reading list for the midst of March

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

As always, I am going to try to foist only three thoughts on you this week.

Horrors of War

The First World War was one which killed enormous amounts of people. The numbers were truly staggering for the time.  There  were 17 million dead and 20 million wounded!!! All for European powers to prove who could rule over more people. It ended the most prosperous era the western world had seen in a long time and also ended the dominance of the British Empire forever.

The monarchies of Europe felt the brunt of the war and were clearly responsible for starting it. The workers International could not prevent it even by appealing to worker solidarity. The armies of Europe were downright eager for it. The following three books talk very eloquently of each and the part they inadvertently played in each other’s roles; both in fomenting and then exacerbating the conflict.


The Ambassador car

AmbassadorCan anyone who lived in India through the 1980’s ever forget this classic car? Even now, Kolkata taxis are all Ambassadors. Why, I asked a taxi driver. He responded ” They are the cheapest to maintain and we can manufacture spare parts locally.

This fabulous article by the sagely Mr. Thomas conveys the mystique and the genuine love for this model that we all possess. He is a Master of branding and he should know.


Smoothing the path through a customer’s task flow

All product makers struggle with making it easier for customers to use said products. Stumbling onto a product and not realizing what you can do with it, is probably the most probable cause for abandonment. No amount of hard selling or discounts will effectively make the customer loyal to your product. Well, Amazon understands this very well as this article in the First Round shows us.

Do you want me to cover any specific topics or have questions that are creating a slow burn in your brain? Do write to me and I will recommend the palliative, balmy books or studies to deal with them.

Holi Week Reads

Sunday, March 12th, 2017


This week is Holi, the festival of colors in India. This festival is mainly celebrated to mark the coming of spring. Lots of folk gather around after the winter harvest and sprinkle colored water, throw gulal(made out of flour and psychedelic colored dyes). Let’s take a look at the three interesting articles/videos that came my way this week.

Cooked by Micheal Pollan.

This is a great show in four parts: Fire,Water,Air and Earth. It is really fascinating for old lovers of Mr. Pollan’s books.


The Real American Pie: No, it is not Apple Pie. It is mince pie instead. The author explores ways in which this pie became famous and how it lost it’s mojo over time.

Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge
Enough about my fascination with food. Let’s get real and talk of one of the most dangerous lads in history: Genghis Khan. I first read about him in Mr. Weatherford’s seminal work, Genghis Khan and the making of a Modern World.

Over time, several other writers have come forward and tried to complete, compare and contrast the picture of this ruler of the largest empire known to man. In this article, the BBC History magazine explores the various facets of this fascinating ruler.

Until next week then! Have a good week and remember to play some Holi with friends and not get too drunk on Bhang. Yes, it is indisputably legal in India, during Holi, at least.

Three fabulous travel writers

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

Today, I will give you three authors who have written really great books on travel. These authors all have a common approach. They don’t judge;they include lots of anecdotes and personal interactions with locals; they use dollops of humor very judiciously.

Paul Theroux

One of the originals in travel writing. Very few people have invested so much effort in knowing and empathizing with people and places they have visited. Two recommendations for you.

Micheal Palin

Monty Python maybe his more famous work but his travelogues are some of the best in recent times. Rich in wry humor, very english! i would recommend that you listen to him in the following books.

Bill Bryson

An American who writes like an Englishman. Great humor! Some of his books read really well as Audio books while you are traveling. I will give you a couple that you will really enjoy.

The confessions of Sultana Daku

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

sultana Daku

Oh! Such a sad tale, full of pathos and foreboding. I was so moved that I went into active depression for a couple of days.

This is a supposed narrative that Sultana gave of his life to a white Sahib the night before he was supposed to be hung.

It makes for great reading because it seems that Robin Hood has come alive again. Sultana is a charismatic bhantu outcaste who has no other choice but to rob and thieve, such is the abject poverty that he is born into. This book is set in the backdrop of the non-cooperation 20’s, probably just after the Chauri-Chaura incident.

The author narrates the events in Sultana’s life and his love for his Phoolkanwar(a nautanki girl) so well that one is moved to will him to survive this night! At the end, we can sense the despair of Sultana and the distrust of the white Sahib towards all Indians. The climax is quite gripping. This book is a must read for all those who think on how Dakus have arisen in India.

To get more from Mr. Saraf, please visit his website.

The White Tiger and other miseries

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

The White TigerThe White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

this is a horribly depressing read.


It has too much truth in it,and it hurts. The problems that plague India have not gone away because of the recent prosperity, they have just morphed into different shapes. The corruption, caste and class system and, now the massive influx of wealth to a select few has created vast imbalances in an already perilously balanced society.

This book’s narrative follows all the seamy underside story of India Shining. VERY well writen indeed

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