Saturday, November 15, 2008

A walk along the banks of history

The writer of London: The Biography has added another chapter to his prodigious output with Thames. This, in some ways, completes the picture Peter Ackroyd set out to create of the city of his birth and continuous fascination. If London was a meticulous study of land, Thames is its twin, a groundbreaking portrait of the waters that run beneath.

Much shorter than the other great rivers of the world, such as the Nile and the Danube, the Thames, at just over 250 miles from source to sea, is nevertheless one of the most written about and painted rivers in the world. Over a period of six months, Ackroyd reserved his weekends to walk by the river, starting from its source near Cirencester in Gloucestershire right up to the estuary, where the river meets the waters of the North Sea.

The most fascinating thing about the Thames, in Ackroyd's view, is the varied nature of civilization that has existed on its shores for thousands of years. Whether it is the quiet of country, memorialized in the pastoral idyll of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, or the filth-ridden repository of Victorian London's dark secrets, as brought out by Dickens, the Thames is the confluence of diverse cultures.

In England, Thames was released last year with the curious subtitle Sacred River. To Londoners who are wont to see it as a functional river, with a mercenary — even seedy — past, the subtitle was strange, if not outright shocking. Ackroyd challenges this view, saying the river has been an object of worship since time immemorial. During the Tudor period, it was a site of elaborate rituals; monasteries and abbeys on its banks point to a rich heritage of religious life.

There is an interesting YouTube video of Ackroyd promoting his book as he boats down the river. If you are still unsure of buying it, viewing the video (search YouTube for "Peter Ackroyd Thames") and hearing Ackroyd's stentorian voice will induce you to rush to the nearest bookstore.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Friday, November 14, 2008

When leviathans rise

At a time when the world is teetering on the brink of recession, a book chronicling the familiar story of China and India’s collective rise may seem out of place. Particularly when it also promises to show what this rise “means for all of us,” meaning, primarily, the USA. Given it’s celebration time there just now, I am unsure whether a rather sermonizing tone will find many takers.

Jairam Ramesh’s egregious-sounding catchphrase “Chindia” is routinely quoted in world capitals and by well-informed commentators to denote the rise of the two Asian powers — in fact, so frequently is it cited that one may well get the impression that the two countries are a joint entity hurtling past former giants, hungering to remove them from their pedestals.

Robyn Meredith, Forbes’ Hong Kong-based foreign affairs correspondent, adds her two cents in The Elephant and the Dragon. She begins by citing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, during which the former prime minister came face-to-face with the shockingly fast-paced rise of China’s capital city. “As the prime minister and his delegation drove into Beijing on a smooth new highway,” Meredith writes, “shiny cars zoomed past endless construction sites as the silhouettes of hundreds of cranes loomed over the cityscape.” China, she imagines Vajpayee noting, had left India behind.

Meredith’s explanation is the lazy refrain of India opening its economy a decade and a half after China, and the valid one of India’s system of governance forestalling the sort of projects that China, with its no-questions-asked government fiat, can implement. As evidence, Meredith adduces the resounding success of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Just the scale of displacement at Three Gorges — 1.2 million people — boggles the mind of an Indian commentator, accustomed as he is to protracted, and often failed, negotiations at rehabilitation.

To her credit, Meredith is balanced in her reproach of India’s crumbling infrastructure, taking pains to point out that China’s much-vaunted model of growth is not all that desirable. We may lambast the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Medha Patkar all we want, but the success of their agitations testifies to their resonance with the poor. It is this consensus seeking from various constituencies in India that frustrates the most well-laid out plans of government at all levels.

Meredith’s training as a journalist stands her in good stead — such as in coining eye-catching phrases to drive home her point. Speaking of the seminal contribution of globalization, she attributes the rise of India and China to the “disassembly line”. As against Henry Ford’s assembly line for automobile manufacturing, modern economies have perfected the art of disassembly; in other words, companies “rushing to break up their products into specialized subassemblies to drive down costs, ratchet up quality, and reduce the time it takes to get the product to the market.”

Meredith articulately puts forth her opposition to that great bugbear of international commerce — protectionism. China’s recent readiness to let the renminbi rise against the dollar has, at any rate, diluted the protectionist canard that the undervaluation of the Chinese currency was responsible for filling the world’s coffers with cheap Chinese exports.

Even so, continental Europe, especially France, continues to delay the finalization of the Doha round. Meredith says this is in spite of evidence that legislation to protect jobs can inadvertently contribute to unemployment. Thanks to government efforts to protect jobs, companies are reluctant to hire new workers for fear of trouble when they are no longer needed and so fired.

Meredith’s argument is the most robust when she broaches the similarities between India and China in their pursual of economic interests in preference to human rights concerns. It is no secret that the foreign policies of both countries have come to be dictated by their energy needs. China’s indulgence of Tehran, and support of the Sudanese government even as the latter perpetrates genocide in Darfur, closely mirror India’s refusal last year to reprimand the Myanmar junta for its treatment of pro-democracy Buddhist monks.

Written ostensibly to portray the effects of India and China’s rise on the West, The Elephant and the Dragon ends up clubbing the two and comparing and contrasting one against the other. So, who wins? The Elephant or the Dragon? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s quote is instructive: “We are a relatively slow-moving elephant economy, but when the elephant does move, it makes a sizable difference.” Perhaps in that hope lies our redemption.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Disney magic

Lee Cockerell, who rose from a humble background to become the executive vice-president of operations at Walt Disney, is an emphatic proponent of leadership virtues. He narrates here the secrets behind the global success of the Disney enterprise, with people from all over the world partaking in the joy of entertainment resorts, theme parks, cruise lines etc.

Cockerell grew up on farm in Oklahoma. He recounts fondly how he used to milk cows and then haul the milk across the neighbourhood in return for 50 cents and some peaches from a kind couple. This, he says, instilled in him a solid work ethic. Later he moved to Washington and worked as a banquet waiter at the Hilton. This was his first real job and he attributes learning the importance of diversity to the time spent there—he had co-workers from all over the world.

In 1970, he became the personal assistant to Eugene Scanlon, the food and beverage controller at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Scanlon made him attend countless banquets and paid for several rounds of wine tasting to enable Cockerell to see the importance of good service. Each of such tiny lessons, he says, stands him in good stead to this day.

Cockerell also relates incidents when he was directly confrontational with junior members of the staff, and surprisingly, for which he suffered physical injuries at times (one humiliated waiter smashed a Budweiser bottle into his face). However, it is his attitude that stands out. Rather than nurse grudges, Cockerell chose to learn, and committed himself to treating all his employees, irrespective of rank, with respect.

More importantly, he started searching for solutions to his workplace crises, and discovered that nearly each of them could be traced to a leadership failure on his part. He realized that “great leaders always focus on others, not on themselves. They hire the right people, train them, trust them, respect them, listen to them, and make sure to be there for them when needed.”

At Disney, Cockerell incorporated the principles that he enumerates in this book. One of his prime strategies is the concept of equality. He stresses on the importance of every job in the office hierarchy. In this regard, he does well to cite an early job as the grease man at a Nevada restaurant. It involved pushing a little cart around the kitchens and emptying grease from the griddles. He was, of course, treated with disdain, or just plain indifference, as though he didn’t exist. Only he seemed to appreciate how crucial keeping the griddles grease-free was to the running of the kitchen, and in turn, the restaurant.

This lesson stayed with Cockerell. As he rose to become an executive vice-president at Disney, he came to propagate the notion that everyone, from the cleaning staff to the ticket seller, had an equal role in the Disney success story. Towards this goal, he put in place a nomenclature system under which all Disney employees were called “cast members”. Laundry, for instance, was handled by “textile services”.

In a world bustling with brands, Cockerell is of the view that people are the real face of an organization’s success. If you don’t have good people, he says, no amount of PR, marketing, branding will make up for it. Successful organizations know this and nourish their human resources. He suggests a variety of ways to bring this about, one of which is training. Training employees vigorously and purposefully inspires them to reach excellence in their work, which in turn, optimizes the organization’s profitability.

Another is appreciation. Cockerell reminisces how, during a visit to the house of a senior employee, he came across a letter of appreciation he had written him, “handsomely framed and hanging in a prominent place in the foyer.” Battling embarrassment and curiosity, Cockerell was nonetheless genuinely moved.

Cockerell’s strategizing also touches upon an organization’s structure, which, he says, is as important as the structure of a building. He believes that structure isn’t a constant, rather it is a fluid entity which is modified regularly. This is especially relevant in today’s times, when advancements in technology are redefining work spaces. This is a direct upshot of his view that delegating authority is an important step towards accountability, since authority is a cornerstone in the exercising of responsibility.

Cockerell finishes the book with some deft self-promotion, giving out the details of programmes conducted at the Disney Institute, a management training centre in Florida. A book can only take you so far, he says, attend the programme for full benefit—as you imagine the oracle, until now charming and hilarious, ending his monologue on a rather unsavoury note.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

'Poppies' set before Opium Wars

Amitav Ghosh's anthropological incursions into the migrants of yore have resulted in fine specimens of both fiction and non-fiction. In his bestselling novel, The Glass Palace, Ghosh wove a rich tapestry of a precocious 11-year-old Indian boy's adventures in Burma. In The Hungry Tide, an Indian-American biologist explores the lush beauty of the Sunderban delta, only to discover the terrible secrets that the mangroves hide.

Now, his latest, Sea of Poppies, the first in a proposed trilogy, dabbles in the seldom explored consequences of the British opium trade on Indian colonials. The East India company, a trading enterprise that morphed into the British crown in the late 19th century, was the world's chief opium trader at the time. The novel is set on the eve of the Opium Wars -- occasioned by the British smuggling of opium from British India into China and the Chinese government's efforts to ban this illegal trade.

After the outlawing of slavery in British India in 1833, British merchants took to transporting "coolies" or indentured labor to nearby islands, most notably Mauritius, to continue work on their plantations. Along with coolies, criminals, too, were transported across the Bay of Bengal to be sent to island prisons.

Ghosh brings these disparate strands together in crafting a story of rapacious greed and its inhuman aftermath. Benjamin Burnham, a sexually deviant merchant, is the owner of the Ibis, a giant vessel formerly meant to carry slaves. By a quirk of fate orchestrated consummately by Ghosh, a motley set of people converge on the Ibis. A heartbroken zemindar-turned-convict, the widow of a poppy grower, the runaway daughter of a French biologist -- many a life discovery is played out on the Ibis.

Ghosh does many things to the art of novel-writing here. Not only does his exact historical inquiry blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also the intricacy with which he meshes diverse tongues to come up with an eccentric pidgin is truly ingenious. From genuine languages (Bhojpuri) to workers' lingo (Laskari), Ghosh dispenses with convention in not including a glossary at the end, leaving his readers to derive meaning from context. Sea of Poppies is a veritable cauldron of energy intermingling with craft.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times. Sea of Poppies was a finalist for this year's Booker.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Nazi experiment lives on for generations

Nancy Huston, an intelligent and perceptive writer, has scored handsomely with her 11th novel, which has garnered wide praise in her adopted country of France. There it has won the Prix Femina and sold more than 400,000 copies.

Narrated backward by 6-year-olds in four generations of the same family, Fault Lines attempts to meld writerly confidence with an acute eye for historical injustice. It begins in California circa 2004, with the scarily distant voice of Sol, a precocious boy who surfs the Internet for porn and plays along with his mother's delusion that he is too young to watch Bridget Jones's Diary.

We are taken into the crux of the story with the visit of Sol's grandmother Sadie, a world-renowned authority on Jewish affairs. We learn that Sadie is a passionate advocate of the Jewish cause, but Huston keeps delaying the reason, until two chapters down the line, when we hear Sadie's childhood voice from 1962.

Sol's father, Randall, whose voice we hear in the second chapter, was raised in a devout Jewish household. His parents take him to Israel in 1982, where Sadie collects material for her work. Even as the First Lebanon War gathers momentum in the background, little Randall struggles to make sense of a new, frightening place.

The central theme of the novel is the effects of the Lebensborn ("fountain of life"), a Nazi organization set up by Hitler to provide families for "racially suitable" kids from occupied territories and raise them as Germans. Sadie's mother, Kristina — the narrator of the final chapter — was one such child, taken from Ukraine as an infant and raised by a loving German woman. Kristina, however, was "rescued" and relocated to a Ukrainian family in Toronto after 1945.

Huston writes movingly of the role of history in our lives — how the past is not just a memory, but an affliction that seeps into the blood and gets passed on to subsequent generations, its effects unpredictable and unquantifiable.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.