On elitism: From Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Here is a dialogue between Kazu and Solomon, Mozasu’s son. Kazu is Mozasu’s boss at an investment back, and while both are Koreans, both are first-generation immigrants in the USA. Kazu appears to be this dynamic, go-getter, teamplayer kind of boss and Mozasu is in awe of him. His boss makes all the right noises.

Doesn’t it so happen that as a youngster we find ourselves looking up to someone… only to learn the truth a little later…?

This touched a chord in me because the Indian society has a colonial past, much like Korea, but much worse, if you consider the scale of exploitation we underwent. We see today 3-rd generation perfumed elites who still only want to be English and white. Deracinated from their culture and its historical context, they are unable to parlay with the changing mood of the nation.

Solomon grew up to become an elitist kid with a bright future because his father did the middle class job of running pachinko parlours, coming from an extremely impoverished family. Mozasu lived his struggle. Solomon had it all handed on a platter. While Solomon respects his father immensely, he hasn’t learned the same lessons, and ends up being used by Kazu. It’s the elite machine at play. Much like Pachinko, there is a gamble to be made.

“Listen, there is a tax, you know, on success.”


If you do well at anything, you gotta pay up to all the people who did worse. On the other hand, if you do badly, life make you pay a shit tax, too. Everybody pays something.

Kazu looked at him solemnly.

“Of course, the worst one is the tax on the mediocre. Now, that one’s a bitch.” Kazu tossed his cigarette and crossed his arms. “Pay attention: The ones who pay the shit tax are mostly people who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time and are hanging on to the planet by their broken fingernails. They don’t even know the fucking rules of the game. You can’t even get mad at ‘em when they lose. Life just fucks and fucks and fucks bastards like that.”

“But all those able-bodies middle-class people who are scared of their shadows, well, they pay the mediocre tax in regular quarterly instalments with compounding interest. When you play it safe, that’s what happens, my friend. So if I were you, I wouldn’t throw any games. I’d use every fucking advantage. Beat anyone who fucks with you to a fucking pulp. Show no mercy to chumps, especially if they don’t deserve it. Make the pussies cry.”

“So then the success tax comes from envy, and the shit tax comes from exploitation. Okay.” Solomon nodded like he was starting to get it. “Then what’s the mediocre tax? How can it be wrong to-?”

“Good question, young Jedi. The tax for being mediocre comes from you and everyone else knowing that you are mediocre. It’s a heavier tax than you’d think.”

Solomon had never thought of such a thing before. It wasn’t like he saw himself as terribly special, but he’d never seen himself as mediocre, either. Perhaps it was unspoken, even to himself, but he did want to be good at something.

“Jedi, understand this: There’s nothing fucking worse than knowing that you’re just like everybody else. What a messed-up, lousy existence. And in this great country of Japan – the birthplace of all my fancy ancestors – everyone, everyone wants to be like everyone else. That’s why it is such a safe place to live, but it’s also a dinosaur village. It’s extinct, pal. Carve up your piece and invest your spoils elsewhere. You’re a young man, and someone should tell you the real truth about this country. Japan is not fucked up because it lost the war or did bad things. Japan is fucked up because there is no more war, and in peacetime everyone actually wants to be mediocre and is terrified of being different. The other thing is that the elite Japanese want to be English and white. That’s pathetic, delusional, and merits another discussion entirely.



The business of patriotism: From Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Understanding Hansu, the shrewd businessman who does the honourable thing by his wife as well as his son Noa, born out of wedlock with a much younger Sunja, is not easy. Hansu is the way he is – bold, powerful, assertive, but also tender, caring, and loving, for a reason. He can be said to have impacted Sunja’s life the most – unwed mother to his child. Protecting Sunja’s entire family during wartime using his ample resources. Losing her young son Noa to suicide because he could not accept the fact that his father Hansu is a Yakuza – a glorified but richly powerful busybody.

I found this dialogue between Hansu and Kim, his protege, extremely sharp and touching on the questions on how a businessman views his world, different from how the power-brokers view it. Enjoy!

Hansu smiled at Kim, amused by the young man’s sincerity.

“How long have you worked for me?”

“I must’ve been 12 or 13 when you gave me a job.”

“How many times have I really talked politics with you?”

Kim tried to remember.

“Never. Not really. I’m a businessman. And I want you to be a businessman. And whenever you go to these meetings, I want you to think for yourself, and I want you to think about promoting your own interests no matter what. All these people – both the Japanese and the Koreans – are fucked because they keep thinking about the group. But here’s the truth: There’s no such thing as a benevolent leader. I protect you because you work for me. If you act like a fool and go against my interests, then I can’t protect you. As for these Korean groups, you have to remember that no matter what, the men who are in charge are just men – so they’re not much smarter than pigs. And we eat pigs. You lived with that farmer Tamaguchi who sold sweet potatoes for obscene prices to starving Japanese during a time of war. He violated wartime regulations and I helped him, because he wanted money and I do, too.

He probably thinks he’s a decent, respectable Japanese, or some kind of proud nationalist – don’t they all? He’s a terrible Japanese, but a smart businessman. I’m not a good Korean, and I’m not Japanese. I’m very good at making money. This country would fall apart if everyone believed in some samurai crap. The Emperor does not give a fuck about anyone, either. So I’m not going to tell you not to go to any meetings or not to join any group. But know this: Those communists don’t care about you. They don’t care about anybody. You’re crazy if you think they care about Korea.

“Sometimes, I’d like to see my home again,” Kim said quietly.

“For people like us, home doesn’t exist.” Hansu took out a cigarette, and Kim rushed to light it.

Kim had not been back home for over 20 years.

Hansu took a long drag of his cigarette.

“You think I like it here? No, I don’t like it here. But here, I know what to expect. You don’t want to be poor. Changho-ya, you’ve worked for me, you’ve had enough food and money, so you’ve started to think about ideas – that’s normal. Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much. You can’t fix Korea. Not even a hundred of you or a hundred of me can fix Korea. The Japs are out and now Russia, China, and America are fighting over our shitty little country. You think you can fight them? Forget Korea. Focus on something you can have. You want that married one? Fine. Then either get rid of the husband or wait until he’s dead. This is something you can fix.”

“She’s not going to leave him.”

“He’s a loser.”

“No, no, he’s not,” Kim said gravely. “And she’s not the kind of woman who’d just-” He couldn’t talk about this anymore. He could wait until Yoseb died, but it was wrong to want a man to die. He believed in many ideas, including the idea that a wife must be loyal to her husband. If Kyunghee left a broken man, she would be less worthy of his devotion.


PACHINKO, by Min Jin Lee

I finally got around to reading Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, hailed as one of the best works of fiction to come out in 2017. A good start to the year-ender, I suppose.

When I started reading it, I was surprised to note that this story, which spans an inter-generational struggle of a poor Korean family to survive the Japanese occupation and resulting war as well as post-war era, written with such a simple narrative, has gained such great fan following. It starts with the line – History has failed us, but no matter – and grips you until the very end.

But, stay with the story awhile, told through the life of Sunja, the only daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin, and you’ll know that Sunja’s life is just a drama, a motif on the tapestry of history. This motif is made of a commentary on the impact of Japanese occupation of Korea and especially that on the lives of the average working class families such as Sunja’s. Sunja’s father Hoonie is the son of a fisherman on the island of Yeongdo, itself nothing more than a fishing village, and her mother Yangjin, the daughter of a widower living in abject poverty. Hoonie and Yangjin make a living by letting out space in their meagre homestead to traveling fishermen and labourers.

The book is written in a most elaborate narrative flavoured with the oriental simplicity of thoughts and words, cultural wisdom. However, Pachinko, the word refers to a mechanical game that became a rage around 1930 in Japan and occupied Korea. Pachinko machines, resembling pinball machines that are now common in gaming areas of several Indian malls, were used as arcade games and often as a gambling device then.

The story moves forward with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. These are hard times for the Koreans. Hoonie dies and Yangjin takes charge of the guesthouse they have been running together, facing severe financial hardship. Isak, a new guest arrives at their doorstep, dressed in a suit and looking like a rich Japanese man, requesting for room and board, and the women are filled with hope of making some extra money. By morning, they discover Isak is down with tuberculosis, then a major killer, throwing the entire guest house into a tizzy. Meanwhile, the now teenaged Sunja crosses paths with Koh Hansu, the new fish broker in their village.

Hansu is the smart, go-getter businessman that Yangjin should have warned Sunja about. Hansu gets close to a naive Sunja who is dreaming of eternal love, and she becomes pregnant. Hansu is all for taking care of her and their baby, planning to buy Sunja a house even, but Sunja rejects it all after she comes to know that Hansu is married with three daughters already and that he can do everything but marry her. She never forgives him for not telling her about his family while she nursed dreams of true love, home, and family. Isak, cured by the constant care and devotion he received in Yangjin’s home, is moved by the plight of the young girl and the child she is carrying, and marries Sunja, bringing her to Osaka to live with his brother Yoseb’s family.

We find Hansu weaving in and out of Sunja’s life, protecting her and her family – out of her knowledge for the most part. Sunja goes through painful trials: Her struggle to make enough money to support Noa, her son from Hansu, as well as the younger Mozasu, her son with Isak, while all of them tried to fit into Isak’s brother Yoseb’s tiny household. The money is scarce because opportunities are scant and threats are plenty. Under Japanese rule, the Koreans struggled to survive, as it so happens in all instances of imperialism and colonialism. Later, when communism arrives in the country, there is violence all over, in which Isak loses his life after being in jail for two years.

Sunja also has to contend with the temperamental Yoseb who, after Isak’s passing, would not allow the women of the house to step out to earn money while himself being crushed under the burden of two jobs, barely able to survive. On the other hand, Hansu becomes one of the most powerful men in Japan, the kind who are known as the Yakuza, who offer protection to businesses big and small in exchange for a cut, who fuel enterprises and use their muscle in ways that are not always legit. They are generally feared and earn little respect, but they are moneyed and powerful, of course.

Sunja’s story is but an outline. The details lie in the political reality of the world of the Koreans, in whose occupied land, they were the disenfranchised natives dealing with control, first under the Japanese emperor and later under the rise of communism. Violence, disrepute, financial hardships, and societal differences all impacted every aspect of the lives of people like Sunja. Her grit is nothing short of heroic but rarely do we get to see the everyday struggle of a working class person in this light of heroism.

In 1939, while Isak finds himself jailed on flimsy charges, Sunja takes control of her life by selling kimchi and candies at the railway station, much to Yoseb’s disapproval, with the help of Kyunghee, Yoseb’s wife. She supports her sons’ education as well as Yoseb’s treatment following a severe illness. Noa and Mozasu grow up to be two very different kinds of people. Noa is the bookish one, ambitious to get ahead in life through erudition. Mozasu has the street-smarts, is aggressive and seen as a troublemaker; he decides to quit school to help out at pachinko parlours, the new craze in Korea and Japan.

In Sunja, I see the ubiquitous mother, or rather, Mother India, whose life is all about duty and perseverance in the face of challenges not of the regular garden variety. Poverty and an antipathetic government work take this Pachinko of life to a very high level of complexity and desperation. And yet, in Sunja’s son Mozasu’s success, one sees a winner. In Noa’s suicide, one sees how such bets can go bad.

The following comment is telling: All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer – suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother – die suffering. Go-saeng – the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

That question truly sums up Pachinko for me.



The wisdom of Guru Gobind Singh

There is a lot to be said about the Sikh motto of ‘Guru Granth Panth‘. Guru here means the spiritual leader, Granth generally means scriptures, and Panth denotes the following or the community.

The ‘Sacred Sword’ by Hindol Sengupta, a fictionalised account of Guru Gobind Singh’s life, beautifully shows us how this motto came about. On how it became the Holy Trinity of the Sikhs. It also shows Guru Gobind Rai as the tall leader he was.

Throughout history, we have seen spiritual leaders proclaim their divine power over their strength and status in the society. Not Guru Gobind Singh. So here’s a story:

He told his bard one day, ‘I have been thinking… what is the meaning of the gaddi of the Guru?’ 

‘Surely the guru is the leader, the father of his people?’, said the bard. 

‘But should that figure be decided only by birth? What is birth but fate?’, asked Gobind. 

‘There is the wheel of karma, and birth follows that wheel. One is born according to fate and must live by that destiny,’ replied the bard.

‘You are born where you are born, bard, but your destiny you decide together with God,’ smiled the guru. 

‘Why, though, are you thinking of this?’, the bard asked.

This is when Guru Gobind Rai recounts briefly their history, which is riddled with stories of the descendants of the very first guru; of sons and brothers – of men – whose hearts were filled with hate and jealousy for one of their own, which moved them to murder and join hands with the common enemy. All for this gaddi.

The bard, who had now heard it all, offers, ‘But the guru rules by divinity, not just by birth, I have heard. It is the deed that defines the guru.’ 

Addressing the bard directly, ‘Ram Rai Meherban, there have been many conspirators for the name of the guru. The list, I am afraid, will only grow. Not everyone understands the difference between birth and deed,’ said Gobind Rai.

So there, the bard asks, “What are you planning to do?”

‘Guru Granth Panth – this, I believe, is the holy trinity of the Sikhs,’ said the guru.

‘But what about your sons?,’ asked the bard.

‘What about them?

Isn’t the gaddi theirs – belongs to one of the them, that is? Surely one of them is worthy?’

‘And why should their worth – or his worth – only be determined by their inheritance? Guru Arjun gave us the Adi Granth. I am adding to it all the wisdom Guru Tegh Bahadur left for us. The Granth will be the new Guru,’ he said. 

‘The masands would hate it. They would rebel,’ said the bard. ‘They believe they have the power over life, death, God…’

‘And tax,’ Gobind Rai completed the sentence. 

At this point, I imagined the great guru smiling, even in this fiction.

The guru continues, “The masands have divided us into smaller and smaller parts. Each of them wants his share; many of them openly extort money from the poor farmers; they contribute little to the spread of Sikhism and its financial and military power, but they take away a lot.’ 

‘Will you be able to reform them?’ asked the bard. 

‘Who is thinking of reform?’ smiled the guru. 

And rightly enough, he did what was the least imaginable thing then: he put the masands out of business. He banished the power structure. Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, appointed the Granth as their Guru, and declared that there would be no guru after him. He encouraged his people to unite under Sikhism and follow and support the Khalsa.

History says that Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, which means ‘pure’, in 1699. The Khalsa comprises fully initiated devout Sikhs. Men in the Khalsa were to be known as Singh and women as Kaur. The initiated Khalsa has a behavioral code and a dress code to uphold; the behavioral code includes the duty to protect the innocent from any form of religious persecution.

This is a huge lesson in innovative leadership. Guru Gobind Singh deeply analysed the issues ailing his community. He acted to solve them without fear or favour. He did not have a power-hungry, myopic vision. He ensured the sustenance of his ideas through creation of worthy institutions such as the Khalsa. He energised his people by making them feel a part of these reforms. Most of all, he sought to unite people under a common, lofty goal. These are major issues that would take a lifetime to correct. But, with innovative ideas, Guru Gobind Singh managed to tie up all loose ends with one idea: Guru Granth Panth. In a very short time.

This is something that we, even in our world full of research scientists, policy makers, and a willing bureaucracy, advanced technology, cannot always do.

How many such leaders do we see in our society today? 


Hit Refresh: Questions for a CEO

This is where Satya Nadella delves into why issues of ‘culture’, ‘ideas’, and ’empathy’ are so important to him as CEO of Microsoft.

He says: Well, my father was a civil servant with Marxist leanings and my mother a Sanskrit scholar. While there is much I learned from my father, including intellectual curiosity and a love of history, I was always my mother’s son. She cared deeply about my being happy, confident, and living in the moment without regrets.

And then he goes on to describe her as someone who worked hard both at home and in the college classroom where she taught the ancient language, literature, and philosophy of India. And she created a home full of joy.

That description tugs at my heartstrings as I think it applies in general to a lot of Indian mothers. I wouldn’t even have to go as far as mothers, actually. Even my dear Ajji who comes on her daily housekeeping job at my place brings with her little caring endearments: ‘I come in late on your off-day so you can sleep in late but you’ve already made breakfast! Go rest a little’.

So that’s Indian moms.

Satya Nadella, he’s a mama’s boy, this one, but in the most positive way possible. Sample this:

One time, my father hung a poster of Karl Marx in my bedroom; in response, my mother hung one of Lakshmi, the Indian goddess of plenitude and contentment. Their contrasting messages were clear: my father wanted intellectual ambition for me, while my mother wanted me to be happy versus captive to any dogma.

Nadella’s mother must have been amazing for he has described Goddess Lakshmi not as the goddess of wealth – which is how she is most commonly and quite ineptly described in India – but that of plenitude and contentment. That’s such an inspiring reading of his own culture, no wonder resulting from his closeness to his mother.

The thought being that a man’s hunger for wealth is limitless but it is contentment and a sense of plenitude that makes one truly wealthy, free to direct its use for constructive goals.

It takes a deep understanding of humanity and culture to see this difference and it is inspiring to see this MS CEO making this his top priority.

.       .       .

Nadella has more to say about his mother and how her philosophy of life inspired his choices as a student and as a professional that would be great for anyone even today:

“She always believed in doing your thing, and at your own pace. Pace comes when you do your thing. So long as you enjoy it, do it mindfully and well, and have an honest purpose behind it. life won’t fail you. That has stood me in good stead all my life.” 




Hit Refresh: On Corporate Culture

The First chapter of Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh starts with the one challenge that Nadella made his top priority on being appointed Microsoft CEO in Feb, 2014. And the issue comes very close to the very basics of human nature.

In his own words, Nadella describes the difficult times that Microsoft was going through: Microsoft authored the PC Revolution, and our success – rivaled perhaps only by IBM in a previous generation – is legendary. But after years of outdistancing all of our competitors, something was changing – and not for the better. Innovation was being replaced by bureaucracy. Teamwork was being replaced by internal politics. We were falling behind. 

So when I was named Microsoft’s third CEO in Feb 2014, I told employees that renewing our company’s culture would be my highest priority.

.       .       .

Nadella started with his Senior Leadership Team (SLT), with some of world’s topmost engineers, researchers, managers, and marketers on it, at a meeting. He got psychologist Michael Gervais to take charge, who then went on to ask the SLT if they were interested in having an extraordinary experience. To which, the entire SLT nodded yes. Then he asked for a volunteer to stand up. And in response, no one did. Until Amy Hood, the CFO finally did so.

She was given a simple challenge – to recite the alphabet, interspersing every letter with a number – A1B2C3 and so forth.

But Dr. Gervais was curious: Why wouldn’t everyone jump up? Wasn’t this a high-performing group? Didn’t everyone just say they wanted to do something extraordinary?

As Nadella says: The answers were hard to pull out, even though they were just beneath the surface. Fear: of being ridiculed; of failing; of not looking like the smartest person in the room. And arrogance: I am too important for these games. “What a stupid question,” we had grown used to hearing. 

Isn’t this an amazing observation? These were some of the smartest people on the planet and had pretty much the same issues as us lesser mortals.

I think anyone and everyone can see a lesson in this.

So when Nadella presents his thoughts on work culture, it makes a sharp point: How do we connect our work persona with our life persona? 

Which takes me to this big question that is the work/life balance. Isn’t our work a part of our lives? If life draws on strength and pride from our work, shouldn’t work draw on sense of purpose and a certain joy from life? And it does so, already. I think we are confused in not seeing this.

Life cannot become a race and work cannot become a to-do list. Sure, you can and may have rules about not receiving emails on weekends and so on, but really,  life and work merge. They must. Otherwise we have reduced people to zombies.

Nadella puts it so well here: I told them we spend far too much time at work for it not to have deep meaning. 



Why ‘Hit Refresh’: Bill Gates’ Foreword

‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella is my book of the week and Bill Gates’ foreword is great for its simplicity. It is also crisp, refreshing, and straightforward.

It is Gates who puts the title of Satya Nadella’s book in perspective, with:

“It was no surprise to me that once Satya became Microsoft’s CEO, he immediately put his mark on the company. As the title of this book implies, he didn’t completely break with the past – when you hit refresh on your browser, some of what’s on the page stays the same. But under Satya’s leadership, Microsoft has been able to transition away from a purely Windows-centric approach.” 

Summing up his foreword: “And he (Satya) offfers his own fascinating personal story, more literary quotations than you might expect, and even a few lessons from his beloved game of cricket”

You know what he’s talking about when you later come across Satya Nadella quoting these beautiful words by Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet known for his ‘mystical’ writing: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” He explains, ‘Speaking to us from another century, Rilke is saying that what lies ahead is very much within us, determined by the course each of us takes today.’ That course, those decisions, is what I’ve set out to describe.’ 

This is very much the CEO of Microsoft, one of the world’s leading tech giants talking. 

Gates also has a few words on what Satya Nadella has set in motion at Microsoft as its CEO: He (Satya) is part of a constant conversation, reaching out to customers, top researchers, and executives. And, most crucially, he is making big bets on a few key technologies, like artificial intelligence and cloud computing, where Microsoft will differentiate itself. 

It is a smart approach not just for Microsoft, but for any company that wants to succeed in the digital age. 

Well, my personal favourite by Rilke is this, and may also resonate with all these companies and business organisations with regard to the forward march towards a digital age:

Let Life Happen To You

What should I say about your tendency to doubt your struggle or to harmonize your inner and outer life? my wish is ever strong that you find patience within you and enough simplicity to have faith. May you gain more and more trust in what is challenging, and confidence in the solitude you bear. Let life happen to you. Believe me: Life is in the right in any case.  

And then this, since today is Dusshehra, a day that celebrates success, this one is amazing too:

In the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone. And many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled for one human being to successfully advise or help another. 

Sacred Sword: Guru Tegh Bahadur

‘Sacred Sword’ is an historical fiction about the life of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru.

The book begins with the death of Guru Gobind Singh’s father, Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh, who was called to Delhi by the then Emperor Aurangzeb under some pretext, taken into captivity, tortured for weeks trying to force him to convert to Islam. When the Guru refused to budge, Aurangzeb had him beheaded in public on November 11, 1675. That was after the Guru was made to watch the deaths of his two followers who had accompanied him to Delhi and also refused to convert. Bhai Mati Das was sawn into pieces and Bhai Dayal Das was thrown into a cauldron of boiling water.

The scene, as described in the ‘Sacred Sword’ is chilling. Here is a moving passage:

Seeing them die, his most beloved men, was supposed to break the guru, make him cry out in submission. But Guru Tegh Bahadur had told the Mughal Court, “You are trying to change the fragrance of the earth of this land. My body will not submit, for my soul does not. What god wants a man broken in order to supplicate to Him?

Reflection: Why did we need to “break” ourselves in order to gain His (and why His and not Her?) favour – why couldn’t we simply dissolve ourselves into the sea of humanity and self-acceptance and why that wasn’t enough? Why weren’t more people asking this question? 

Why do I like this book so much? – Because it speaks to me of people of such integrity that is hard, in fact, impossible to imagine.

Why do we fight?

Reproducing here a beautiful excerpt from ‘Sacred Sword, The Legend of Guru Gobind Singh’, by Hindol Sengupta.

This is a 10 year old Gobind Rai, revered as the Guru of the Sikhs, conversing with his teacher: 

“But tell me Gobind – why do we fight?”

“To keep our freedom and our pride, to honour the martyrs and avenge their blood,” replied Gobind. 

“Forgiveness, Nanak taught, is infinitely more powerful than any weapon. So why do we still fight?,” the teacher persisted. 

“Blood must be paid for – with blood.”

“Bloodshed only begets more bloodshed. There is no end to it. There is no courage in endless, mindless killing. But still we must fight, Gobind. Fight we must.”


“Because we realise that no matter what we do, our enemy wants to destroy us. There is no reason which he will listen to, no negotiation that he seeks. He does not want settlement, nor does he want our friendship. He does not seek our hand of reconciliation; he seeks only our head. What does one do, then?”

“This is a different battle, then,” said Gobind

“A dharmayuddha, a battle for faith and justice, for survival, a battle you must fight for there is no choice – this, Gobind, is a righteous war. This is war that has been thrust upon you. This is war where the enemy is merciless and seeks annihilation of our race. Nothing will convince him to let us live, let us be free. And what are we if we are not free?

“We are not human.” 


Now the question:

What are the things that make us ‘not human’ in today’s day and age? What fights MUST we fight today in order to remain ‘human’? 

Life lessons from literature – Murakami

Reading ‘Men Without Women’ by Haruki Murakami, generally described as a cult novelist.

The first Murakami book I’ve picked up since his 1Q84, which, to me felt like a betrayal. After years and years of adoring Murakami’s writing, reading a book that ended with “and the little people said Ho, Ho, Ho!” left me gasping.

With Men Without Women, we’re back in familiar territory. Wondering what makes his writing tick with so many people in such a strong, mysterious way.

Well, here’s something to take back:

About life, when you know you take a few mis-steps and no matter how hard you try, you can never go back to things being EXACTLY AS THEY WERE. You want it. Everyone else involved wants it as badly as life itself. But, there’s always that little knot, little crack, little pain somewhere throbbing with a memory that says ‘I got hurt here once’.

So here’s a passage from ‘Men Without Women’ that describes it beautifully: 

“It wasn’t easy,” Kafuku said. “It made me think things I would prefer to have ignored. Remember things I would rather have forgotten. But I was acting. That is my profession, after all.”

“Becoming somebody different,” Misaki said.

“That’s right.”

“And then going back to who you are.”

“That’s right,” Kafuku said. “Whether you want to or not. But the place you return to is always slightly different from the place you left. That’s the rule. It can never be exactly the same.”

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

The story of a spiritually barren Francois. But, not just. His story is set in what MH sees as near future France: the 2022 national elections are fast approaching. The change in political climate is so rapid that the society’s intellectuals completely miss the key milestones of the transformation this election unleashes.

That a part of this struggle might actually have played out in the latest French elections #2017 is a testimony to MH’s prescience… but more of a good reading of what’s going on in Europe. In ‘Submission’, 2022 elections have two favourites facing off – Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim fraternity.

So far, two things in the current reality of the French society concur with the what the story says: The impact of the minorities on the ‘French way of life’, and French votes moving from Left and Left-of-centre to Centre-left (Macron, maybe?) and far-Right, which Le Pen represents.

That Michel Houellebecq has chosen Francois, a professor and an intellectual hit by mid-life crisis as the voice of a rapidly changing French society already says a lot. France, just like Francois, is living an excruciatingly confused reality.

Apparently, Francois’ most important work has been his dissertation on the works of a 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, which he defended in 2007, to get him his professorial job. Completion of his studies at the university gave way to the typically French existential crisis: ‘I would have to see about entering the workforce.’ And, typically so, he explains, “the prospect left me cold.”

Francois is least prepared for a career as a prof of literature, a career he has analysed with these words: the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time.

As with academics, so with personal life. String of girlfriends, nights spent at one’s place or the other’s, and then within a year it is over, usually before the start of a new academic year. A lot of these women happened to be his students, especially now that he was no longer young. The book has the required French staples – the use of sex to define dark longings for a “connection”, the expected laundry list of ‘ennui’-causing acts but those which are also a staple because well, without it, how to keep going?

And then, the elections are just three weeks away. Although, Francois’ comments on democracy are interesting: “Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”

Francois sees but unsees the signs of change enveloping his reality. The election is crowded with Marine Le Pen, the socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood. She loses. The other two come up with power sharing agreement, with Muslim Brotherhood having the upper hand.

That’s when things change drastically, for both France and Francois. In a way that was previously only talked about by Marine Le Pen and her coterie.

Francois ponders how women in the Western societies had it rough: Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicoloured lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favour of clothes that were loose and shapeless. If Francois seems to be making women and their sexuality a cornerstone of his understanding and comment of social landscape while being a liberal intellectual, this is certainly not a coincidence.

Finally, it happened. Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots meant the transformation of Francois’ university into an Islamic-style institution, as the society itself started responding to the new political landscape appropriately. Francois loses his job. His Jewish on-again off-again girlfriend leaves for Israel for good. Francois hits the road to trace his literary hero Huysmans’ journey, alone and lonely. A few restless months here and there and Francois finds himself being courted by his peers back at the college who have completely modified their lifestyle to suit the demands of their current masters, finding that they were actually flourishing like never before.

Women in workforce had been replaced by men. So, more jobs around made men happy. Those who wanted power, converted. Francois was alarmed to see his former colleagues and seniors who had more than one wives, some of whom were half their age. They had breathtaking houses, money, and of course this.

If you are anything like me, you’ll find the biggest surprise the author deals us is to see Francois tempted.

Read Submission for a scathing comment on the present state of liberal thought and priorities.


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson

Mark Manson is a superstar in the blogiverse.

The only thing that previously kept me away from picking up this book was his use of the F-word in the title – for hasn’t someone said that the use of swear words means you have run out of good arguments? I’ve always made a scattered use of swear words myself due to what I have called time and again ‘circumstances’ but have generally felt bad about it later because of my belief in what I just quoted. This actually became my feedback loop from hell. What’s a feedback loop from hell? Read the book.

So, as in this case, what do you do when an argument starts only with the F-word? You read on. Because, this book isn’t just immensely readable, it’s something I’d recommend to everyone except my worst enemies (in case they exist) – or maybe not, for I hope they learn to stop giving a fuck about me. Maybe this is getting to be too much. Yeah, maybe 🙂

Oh, and by the way, a lot of people call it a self-help book. Traditionally, the usual culprits under this section would be stuff like ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Secret’ and the ‘Who Will Cry When You Die’ and the ‘Monk who Sold His Ferrari’ and the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – which was more of a tome than a book really, and the ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul’ Series. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck is so anti-self help it is the one book that might get you to stop giving a fuck about self-help books altogether. I, for one, certainly stopped giving a fuck about putting the F-word in black & white, even if it is just for this one blog post.

How is it anti-self help? Sample this: “But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice – all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time – is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasises them for you.” 

This book is like that much-needed no-nonsense chat you get from someone who has your interests at heart, who walks into your home in the middle of afternoon to say, “look buddy, I think you should know this”. And he cuts through the fat and calls a spade a spade, which is you. It’s honest and unpretentious and somehow, just what you need.

Some of my fav passages:

Everyone and their TV commercial wants you to believe that the key to a good life is a nicer job, or a more rugged car, or a prettier girlfriend, or a hot tub with an inflatable pool for the kids. The world is constantly telling you that the path to a better life is more, more, more, – buy more, own more, make more, fuck more, be more. 


The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important. 








The Sellout: Paul Beatty

‘They’ called it hard-hitting, blistering satire of America. And, after Trump got elected President, they added ‘especially in these times.’ Maybe they were pointing at America’s switcheroo from ‘Yes we can’ to ‘Make America Great Again’.

Paul Beatty didn’t like his work described as a humorous satire. No wonder.

Beatty is not okay being called a satirist and a satire his book ‘The Sellout’ most definitely isn’t. It’s another matter that he said he wrote the book because he was broke and he slam-dunked a Man Booker.

With writing such as this comment: ‘Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except to start a war.’

And such critique: ‘This whole city’s a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds.’

and such satire – Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyworld was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-saharan African nation like Detroit.

And such linguistic analysis: Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To protect and to serve. These are more than just greetings and sayings. They are reenergising codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto.

And burning social critique: Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.

And stinging critique on gender equality: ‘I can’t think of a more despicable word than ‘nigger,’ I volunteered. “Like what?” “Like any word that ends in -ess: Negress. Jewess. Poetess. Actress. Adultress. Factchecketress. I’d rather be called ‘nigger’ than ‘giantess’ any day of the week.” – kinda like a double take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’.

And critique of financial affairs, even if citing Mike Tyson: I once heard Mike Tyson say, “Only in America can you be bankrupt and live in a mansion.”

A critique of history: That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (relationship advice!!!)

A critique of women at workplace: College wasn’t for her, because to her mind the workplace turns black women into indispensable, well-paid number threes and fours, but never ones or twos.

A critique of modern-day marketing: “But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn’t Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it’s traffic.”

A critique of religion as we know it: The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method.

As well as,… “A look that said, It doesn’t matter if you’re too stupid to understand God’s love. He loves you regardless, just hand over the women, the distance runners, and the natural resources.”

There. That’s a critique. A literary critique of how America is and how it got where it currently is. Calling it a satire would be like turning a scene of heinous crime into an art installation. It puts a gilded frame around scathing critique which should push and prod us to do something about it, only to be hung up on the walls of a museum – in this case the Man Booker hall of fame – as a blistering satire. As if saying, you wrote a real book, now we give you the Man Booker, good job done. Moving on…

I don’t know if the Man Booker and such literary prize panels are consciously on the lookout for pieces ridden with angst which they can pretend to then address it by decorating the cover with a coveted prize. A book is a product of a mind that is going through a life. It’s a live, throbbing mechanism. It’s not a thing. If history is not the pages it is printed on, a satire isn’t the pages it is printed on. Nor a critique.

The society would imperil itself by looking at The Sellout as a satire that attained its unintended goal – The Man Booker. The book is not ‘funny’, as a judge on the Man Booker Prize panel said among other big things. And no matter what the literary panels think, Beatty is not a comic genius that gave us the year’s ultimate humorous satire.

The Sellout is a critique. It happens to be the nickname of the protagonist who had an unconventional upbringing who goes on to do horribly unconventional things on the very edge of racism such as slavery and bringing back of segregation into his town of Dickens in the present-day America, things which were, of course, once disturbingly normal. The book is a brilliantly written solid piece of literary critique of a society that has changed its stars but not its stripes and I’m glad my 2017 started on such a great note.

Note: The featured image is of an ad I found on my FB feed with the following caption: A historic advertisement to sell slaves dated 24th July , 1769 AD- 260 years before [ who were caught in Africa ] and loaded in cargo ships to America for slave trade ……Later great and brave American President , Abraham Lincoln started fight against slavery and Civil war started in 1861-65 , between pro and against states [ Confederate and the Union ]. This civil war continued for almost four years and Abraham Lincoln Army [ The Union ] won the war but later , he himself was assassinated . Kindly note that 7,50,000 soldiers died in this civil war [ much more Americans than in first or second world war.

That’s too much reading

I’ve always loved books. Books have nurtured my childhood as much as my parents and the grown-ups around me did. It’s a big deal when I say this because I belong to a state where the intellectual way to live is through being a ‘foodie’, and books aren’t exactly something you brag about at any stage in your life. A Gujarati child being into books outside of academic coursework is a ‘waste of money’, if you’re an adolescent and like to spend time reading books you’re trying to impress others, especially elders, and if you’re older and still reading books, you probably don’t have enough friends.

I may be exaggerating a bit but growing up Gujarati is fraught with peculiarities, but I’ll keep these for later. This blog is primarily about books. It’s going to be an ongoing comment on my journey with my books. This is a precious one, for I feel we don’t pick books, books pick us 🙂

Currently reading: The Sellout by Paul Beatty 

As well as, Deep Work by Cal Newport


The First Principle: Ray Dalio

I’m still just warming up with ‘Principles’ and I see a definition here:

“Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behaviour that gets you what you want out of life.”

And, to be principled means to consistently operate with principles that can be clearly explained.

Finally, when he says: And it’s very rare for people to write their principles down and share them. That is a shame. I would love to know about what principles guided Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci, and others so I could clearly understand what they were going after and how they achieved it and could compare their different approaches. I can’t help but agree.

With the exception of Winston Churchill, the man who hated my country and my people, and was responsible for millions of deaths from war and starvation. Would I like to know what principles he operated on? Maybe. Would I want to know what principles Hitler or Pol Pot operated on? I don’t know. Maybe. That’s probably a discussion for another day.

It makes sense when Dalio says: I’d like to know which principles are most important to the politicians who want me to vote for them and to all other people whose decisions affect me. Do we have common principles that bind us together – as a family, as a community, as a nation, as friends across nations? Or do we have opposing principles that divide us? What are they? Let’s be specific. 

Yes, let’s be specific.

If you can think for yourself while being open-minded in a clearheaded way to find out what is best for you to do, and if you can summon up the courage to do it, you will the most of your life. – Isn’t this most difficult for a lot of people? To think for ourselves? How do we know it is our independent thinking and not our conditioning?

But my favourite is this:

First principle: Think for yourself to decide

  • 1) What you want
  • 2) What is true, and,
  • 3) What you should do to achieve #1 in light of #2

… and do that with humility and open-mindedness so that you consider the best thinking available to you.

So here’s a good idea: Write down your principles. Make sure they fit the definition.

Here’s one of mine, lifted from my Gujarati heritage, and it goes like this: Hisaab Paisa no, baksheesh lakh ni. Settle the accounts to the very paisa, even though you may gift away lakhs. It’s a great principle for those who value relationships and like to save them from getting ruined due to money.

Principles: Life and work by Ray Dalio

Yes, this book found its way on my list after Bill Gates’ recco.

I love the intro in fact. It connects very well with something I found in one of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s videos: he says (I’m paraphrasing him, not quoting him, please note), the Western religious systems have always identified with what they know, while in the Indian system, we always identify with what we do not know.

In the Indian system, there is no God. Therefore, no certainty of God. In the yogic systems, particularly, you know what you know, you don’t know what you don’t. Whatever you do know, comes from your experience of something, essentially from within. There’s no way but to turn inward, meditative, calm.

That’s why, when Ray Dalio writes this: Before I begin to tell you what I think, I want to establish that I’m a “dumb shit” who doesn’t know much relative to what I need to know. Whatever success I’ve had in life has had more to do with my knowing how to deal with my not knowing than anything I know. 

There’s something scary about certitude, I find. The sheer arrogance and the sheer stupidity of it. Once upon a time, the Church used to sentence scientists who claimed that it is the Earth that goes around the Sun and not the other way round. There’s something scary about these belief systems, I find. And today, exploration is all I truly value.

“What are you all about” can best be answered with what am I trying to find a solution to in my life.

Don’t you think so? Are you hanging on to certitudes because you’ve experienced them on some level or are you hanging on to them because somebody told you it was so?

Reading this book is surely going to be fun.