It is not necessarily at home that we’re the best versions of ourselves.

This was the line that prompted me to pick up this book. A simple line that, to me, encapsulates how people behave differently when they travel. Maybe travel brings that out in most people – a better version of themselves.

Had come across the author earlier through a few of his videos on Youtube. And while some of them were interesting from a philosophical standpoint, I never had a chance to deeply explore his works.

As the title suggest, the book examines a few interesting aspects of travel. But this is not a simplistic How-To book. If you’re looking for a travel guide that tells you how to find the cheapest deals, how to prepare your itinerary, how to pack properly, and what souvenirs to buy, you’d be better off picking up a Lonely Planet guide. Sadly, for most of us, these activities are the highest priorities while travelling. The higher, more abstract purpose of travelling takes a back seat. Fortunately, this book explores those abstract parts of travel.

The book is divided into chapters that cover each part of a typical journey – the anticipation of the journey, the motive for travel, exploring the landscape and the beauty once you reach there, and of course, the return journey. What makes the book unique is the inclusion of a “guide” in each chapter. In each chapter, the author has taken the help of an individual who held strong views (for or against) travel. He explores the subject of the chapter along the guides, diving deep into their works and their own approach to travelling. This device makes the book much more unique and interesting.

Travel is much more than clocking flyer miles on your credit card. It is also greater than the number of countries that you travel or the number of photographs that you have taken in exotic locales. For example, for most tourists, a vacation involves covering the maximum number of destinations in the shortest time possible. This approach may get you the title of a globetrotter, but you’re unlikely to come back any richer in knowledge about the culture of the place that you’ve just visited. Alain de Botton explains that in order to truly understand a destination, one needs to take it slowly. The author talks about this through one of his guides, John Ruskin, whose family used to travel Europe in the following manner, “They journeyed slowly in a carriage, never covering more than twenty-five miles a day and stopping every few miles to admire the scenery – a way of travelling that Ruskin was to practise throughout his life.” The author explains that this is a way to understand the real beauty that is present in your destination.

Or for instance, if you do not take the time to think and talk with yourselves during your travel, you’ve lost a significant chance at self-improvement. “Journeys are the midwives of thought”, as the author says in one of the early chapters. The author also explains how photography is a passive way to capture the beauty of the places that you have been to. A more active and fulfilling way is to draw or write (word-paint as Ruskin put it) about the scene. It does not have to be a Monet, but what the process teaches you (about the skill of observation) is far more important than the output.

The Art of Travel will definitely change how I approach travelling in my life. This book is a must read for those who hate staying indoors and love heading out to new locations. You’ll definitely be a richer traveller by the end of your journey.

Picked up a fiction book after a long time. I do not read fiction too often. My go-to genre is business non-fiction with a little bit of self-improvement genre thrown in here and there. But this book was constantly popping up on my recommendation list as well as the best seller list whenever I logged on to Amazon. So I went ahead and picked it up to break the monotony of subject.

Only once I was well into the book, did I realize that this story was based in Sweden (when I came across the first mention of the currency used in the book – kronor). And that this book was a translation. I had a recent bad experience reading a translated book, so I was apprehensive. But I went ahead. And I am glad I did.

The plot of the book is simple. The central character is Ove (we never get to know his last name), a grumpy old man who lives in a quiet residential neighbourhood. Ove mostly goes about doing his business every day. Which is not much except making sure that all the rules laid down by the Residents Association are followed to the last t. He makes an unofficial daily patrol through the residential area to ensure this. All the while snapping at any of his neighbours who dared to transgress upon any of the rules.

Without putting any spoilers, the story further explores how Ove’s attitude changes towards people in general, and how he slowly learns to accept his neighbours as an unneeded yet an integral part of his life.

The book follows two time-lines, which is a very popular trope in story-telling considering its presence in many novels lately. One time-line explores the present day life of Ove, while the other explores Ove’s back story. Although an overused writing structure, I guess it is here to stay as it breaks the monotony of a linear plot line.

The book beautifully captures the loneliness in the central character’s life. It is especially amusing to read how Parvaneh’s (his new nosy neighbour) initially unwelcome intrusion into his life annoys Ove, and how he gradually becomes comfortable with it (all the while maintaining an external grumpy demeanour). Parvaneh and her two girls are the only other characters that are sketched out in detail. The rest of the characters simply serve to build up the story. But on the other hand, I liked that the author chose to keep the story crisp and avoiding any irrelevant side plots. Yet I would have liked if Backman had detailed out atleast the characters of Rune and Anita, the couple with whom he shared a special love hate relation.

There are some truly beautiful lines from the book worth mentioning here.

You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her.

…most of us fear more than anything that [death] may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.

One of the most painful moments in a person’s life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reached when there is more to look back on than ahead.

A man called Ove is a quick read and a poignant one at that. Now that I think of it, a close match to the general plot that his novel follows would be something like Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. Pick this book up in case you’re looking for a breezy read. At times, the book can get a bit heavy, but the underlying message of the book is clear – life is meant to be celebrated with those around you, no matter how much you think you don’t need them. Let me close this with yet another poignant line from the book.

All people at root are time optimists. We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like “if”.

I’m not sure if providing the source or inspiration of every book does add any useful information to the book review. But it helps me keep track of which recommendations work and which don’t. In the past, there have been some recommendations that have proven to be very wrong. These include recommendations by one of the richest men in the world today, and by one who is a maverick entrepreneur in multiple industries. But I guess no matter what the source, it’s a hit or a miss considering the sheer number of books available in the market today.

I picked up this particular book as a recommendation from one of the leading portfolio managers in India today, Raamdeo Agarwal. He heads Motilal Oswal, and I came across this book in one of his interviews.

This book closely mirrors another book that I’ve read recently – Makers and Takers. Both the books are about the same topic – the rise of finance as an industry from a supporting sector to businesses and entrepreneurs to an end-in-itself. The book traces the birth of modern finance during the 1960s when the Eurodollar market was set up as a “work-around” to the strict Regulation Q that limited the amount that American banks could give out as interest. The author talks about the early days of banking, when it was considered as a stewardship of people’s savings. Now a majority of the revenue for banks comes from trading and investment. The dropping of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 only served to hasten up the inevitable crash that would happen some ten years down the line, when financial institutions were up to their neck in exotic and complicated derivative instruments that ultimately resulted in the sub-prime crash.

Modern Finance is no doubt very complex, but it is ironic that this complexity was once considered as its strength. This, by no less than the doyens in the Finance field, names such as Alan Greenspan and Tim Geithner. The part about the Jackson Hole conference, where Raghuram Rajan made a fervent plea to check the excesses committed by the financial sector. Of course, he was ignored.

The excesses went on unabated and it caused the government to bail out these too-big-to-fail institutions by using tax payer money. And what’s worse, many of the executives of these financial institutions went home scot-free. After all, the financial sector does not have the same accountability that other sectors, such as airplane manufacturers may have in case of a major goof up from their side.

The book argues that part of the strong interconnectedness between the financial sector and the government is that many government officers have transitioned into high-level private sector jobs, and also the other way round. Robert Rubin, who served as the Secretary of the Treasury during Clinton’s term, was a Co-Chairman at Goldman Sachs.

The book concludes by setting out the urgent need for reform in the financial sector. The different aims of a commercial bank and an investment bank should be recognized and followed diligently. Firms that sell extremely risky or complicated products to the general public should be allowed to fail if the need arises. After all, most of the money in the financial system today is “other people’s money”. For example, “in a modern institution such as Deutsche Bank, around 3 percent of the capital at risk is the bank’s own: the other 97 per cent belongs to lenders and depositors”. Making managers more accountable, like in other industries, for their decisions will help straighten out the creases as well.

All in all, this is a good book for someone wanting to learn more about how the finance sector has changed over the years. We can already attribute at least one crisis due to this changing nature of Finance. And in absence of major reforms, there certainly will be more. As I’ve mentioned earlier in my review, the book touches the same topic as one other book that I’ve recently read. You can choose either one of these books as both provide a similar if not the same perspective towards financialization. Check out Other People’s Money here or Makers and Takers (and my review) on Amazon.

Other People's Money
John Kay
Finance, Business, Non-fiction
mobi, paperback, hardcover

Picked up this book as a recommendation on a podcast. Had come across this book and its peculiar cover a few times on Amazon, yet it did not pique my curiosity enough to pick it up. On this second recommendation, I chose to give it a try.

Amazon.com gives it four stars. In hindsight, that should have been a warning sign. Amazon.com ratings are often a very good thumb-rule for me to short-list books to read. Normally, I avoid anything that is not above 4, thanks to the wisdom of crowds or some such behavioural goobledygook. But the draw of the unique plot line made me disregard the rating.

I found the opening chapters funny enough, but somewhere after the first 10 chapters, I lost all interest in it. The humour is too dry and sparse. The events are repetitive. Following is a typical example of what transpires in each chapter.

  1. Hitler demands/mentions something.
  2. The people around him assume he is in character.
  3. They laugh.
  4. And a case of convenient miscommunication ensures that the plot moves ahead.

The original book is in German, and I’m not sure if the English edition is a case of lost in translation. The author also chooses to use a first person narrative. This is always a tricky device. I wonder if the story would have been more engrossing if the author had used a more traditional narrative. But then of course, we wouldn’t be able to know what Hitler was thinking all the time. Making Hitler as the narrator and spelling out the obvious, the writing felt too amateurish. It quickly became a case of show less, tell more. And the premise itself, after its initial novelty, quickly becomes convoluted. Imagine Hitler, or for that matter any other leader, waking up and realises that it is after over 50 years that he was last seen on Earth. What would his first question be?

Hitler: Is the war over?

Passer-by: Which war?

Hitler: The one with the Allied forces – Britain and USA.

Passer-by: Yes it is. The Allied Forces beat the crap out of the Nazis.

End of novel.

Even if I suspend my disbelief for a moment and agree that the people around him were just assuming that he was an actor simply portraying Hitler, I would imagine that Hitler was smart and sensible enough to realise that after fifty years, he is a lost cause. Or was he?

In the end, I chose not to go ahead with the book as I felt the rest of the book would contain more of the same events happening over and over again. However if you’re interested in knowing what happens to Hitler, have a look at Look Who’s Back. I, for one, will probably watch the movie instead.

Look who's back
Timur Vermes
Fiction
mobi, paperback, hardcover

Came across this book on Kindle Unlimited, and was interested in it as it was of a different genre than what I was reading lately. I am also going through a phase of learning more about Urdu poetry and this book seemed to fall into the right category, considering that Gulzar is one of the most respected names in Urdu poetry today.

The book is in the form of questions and answers, done through an interview, surprisingly on Skype. The author, Nasreen Munni Kabir, I learnt later through the book, is also the creator of the documentary, The Inner/Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. As a side note, that documentary is one of my favourites. It provides a candid glimpse into the inner world of one of the most successful actors in Bollywood.

In the Company of a Poet traces Gulzar’s entry into the world of poetry, and into the world of films. Gulzar started out as an assistant to Bimal Roy and has since played many roles in Bollywood. He was a writer, director and of course a lyricist. After a career spanning over 50 years, Gulzar chose to return back to his initial love – writing. And hence, after his last directorial venture Hu Tu Tu (1999), he left directing for good.

The book is an easy read and can be finished over a few days. In the book, Gulzar mostly reminisces about famous writer-poets of that time, including Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Salil Chaudhury, and others. He appreciates how the film industry has changed over the years and brought in new talent.

There were some new discoveries for me while reading the book, and finding that the writer of some of the most classic Hindi film songs was Gulzar was quite joyful. However, I also found that the book simply scratched the surface of Gulzar’s life and his works. Maybe it was the impersonal medium of conversation (a web cam interview) that prevented a more detailed examination, or maybe the author preferred to keep it that way. Hence, the book takes a brief dip in the vast pool of talent that is Gulzar. His daughter, Meghna Gulzar, has already written a biography on him. Maybe that calls for a more detailed and personal look at his life.

In the Company of a Poet mostly provides a few amusing anecdotes about the quirks of famous personalities of the film industry of yore. Read it if you’re interested in knowing more about the works of Gulzar.

In the Company of a Poet
Nasreen Munni Kabir
Biography
epub mobi

Way back in college, there was a perennial debate that raged on in classes. Whether people pursuing Finance as an MBA specialization are actually doing anything to contribute to the real economy or not. One side of the debate argued that Finance MBAs do not contribute anything real to society. It is entrepreneurs and manufacturers who are the real heroes of the economy. They’re the ones who create physical assets. All Finance MBAs do is conjure  assets up out of thin air (that are likely to disappear into thin air as well), a house of cards, so to speak. The other side fought for the view that Finance is very much a rock solid constituent of the world economy. It lubricates the wheels of business, by moving capital from where it is available to where it is needed most.

No points in guessing which side of the debate this book would take. But what we would have never discussed in our debates is how the financial economy would not only contribute to the world economy in such measure, but also control the functioning of the real economy. Makers and Takers explains this phenomena in the book in detail.

The book starts with the author quoting what seems to be her favourite statistic, [Finance] represents about 7 percent of our economy but takes around 25 percent of all corporate profits, while creating only 4 percent of all jobs.

The book goes on to describe how Finance has risen in the economy in the recent few decades. The author has even coined a term for this phenomenon – calling it financialization. The author explains that a majority of this was due to the incessant lobbying by the heads of the financial sector to make the authorities go easy, and in some cases, even reverse certain laws, for their convenience. What is even more shocking is that many such lobbyists and heads of too-big-to-fail institutions later get plum government positions after they retire.

There is an interesting bit of history about Corporate America’s obsession with numbers and the gradual shift towards cost-cutting and optimization. This the author argues is partly due to the way management education (read MBA) has changed over the years. The focus, according to the author, has shifted from managerial skills to balance sheet manipulation. And that leads to questionable decisions and a lot of short-term fixes.

There is an entire chapter (and rightly so) that is devoted to the bad boys of Finance. No, I’m not talking about the investment banks (although they’re there too). I’m talking about the creations of these investment banks – derivatives. The notorious financial weapons of mass destruction. The author explains the danger inherent in giving derivatives a centre-stage in the financial market through an infamous example. In around 2011, Goldman Sachs had cornered the aluminium market and had caused its price to shoot up, much to the detriment of major aluminium consumers such as Coca Cola. This story alone is a must read for those wanting to understand how derivatives can cause an uncontrollable change in commodity prices suddenly.

The author closes the book by discussing the impact of the growing financialization on the retirement and taxation benefits of individuals, and what are the possible solutions on how “finance might be put back into the service of the real economy.”

The basic question that resonates throughout the book is – why does a sector that was meant to facilitate business now have such a stranglehold over the very businesses that it was meant to support?

What makes the book engrossing is the author’s use of real life examples to explain how the financial sector has crept slowly into the realms of the real sector. Old and reputed institutions such as Citibank, GE, Enron (reputed until it no longer was), Goldman Sachs, had a major part to contribute to this growing financialization in the American corporate economy.

There were some concepts that I did not agree with, though. The author seems to be very much against buybacks, arguing that companies should utilize this money into more meaningful endeavours such as research or investment in factories and other infrastructure. This expectation goes against the very fundamental goal of a business. According to the economist Milton Friedman, the main purpose of a business should be to maximize profits for its owners, and in the case of a publicly-traded company, the stockholders are its owners. If investments in real assets would be the most profitable investment, then a business should do so. Else, if there is no future growth in doing so, the company would do well to distribute its earnings through dividends or share buybacks. In fact, Warren Buffett was one of the strongest proponents of buybacks, and has mentioned it in his letters many a times. According to Buffett, when used correctly, buybacks are one of the most shareholder friendly ways to improve the ROE of the company.

Also, the author seems to repeat many points to a point of infatuation. I feel the editor could have done a snappier job in identifying and reducing these. However, for someone interested in the learning about how Finance has today become the biggest cog in the global economy, this book will be a very good place to start. Get this book on Amazon.

Makers and Takers - The Rise of Finance and The Fall of American Business
Rana Foroohar
Finance

Prior to this book, I have kept reading Osho off and on. His books are no more than a compilation of the talks that he gave when he was alive. And hence it is easier for most people to look up his videos on the Internet. I don’t think I have completed any other book of his from cover to cover. But a chance conversation with a relative led me to pick this book up for my next read.

I had heard from many people that Osho’s writings make you pause and introspect – about your thoughts, your philosophy of life, and your beliefs. People say he was one of the most intelligent observers and sharpest commentator on religion and spirituality. In his time, he was definitely a controversial figure, but many of his teachings were probably misinterpreted or twisted from what he originally meant.

I chose this book based on recommendations on Goodreads and Quora. Krishna – The Man and His Philosophy is a massive 850 pages long and by no means an easy read. You have to take your time with this one. Rushing through this book will be a waste of time. There are two reasons for that. First, if you rush through this book, you’re not likely to understand a lot given the denseness of his teachings. Second, as I mentioned above, your brain would want to slow down and introspect, as he demolishes the grand models of life that you’ve so carefully built over the years.

As the title suggests, the book is about Osho’s interpretation of Krishna’s philosophy. Osho refers a lot to the Bhagavad Gita, as a majority of Krishna’s philosophy can be derived from what he spoke to Arjun on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. However, Osho also touches upon other parts of Krishna’s life, mainly his youth. Many of the questions asked by his followers refer to the differing personality of Krishna painted in the Bhagavata Purana and in the Bhagavad Gita.

The book’s scope is so vast that you may not resonate with all of what Osho explains. There are some parts that you may want to gloss over, while others need to be highlighted in red. For example, the concept of advaita is still too abstract for me to visualize, let alone imbibe. In this humongous book, there have been many instances where the sheer monotony of the text wanted me to close this book and look for something more inviting. But every time I decide to read one more paragraph and the roller-coaster ride starts again. There Osho is again, with a new interpretation on things, hacking away at your marble palace.

Osho mentions in the book that what he is saying is his interpretation of Krishna. Yet, he encourages others not to blindly follow his interpretation. Instead, he encourages everyone to be independent and think for themselves. Another thing that Osho was known for was his bluntness. On a very contemporary topic – cow slaughter, he has a view that would probably not sit well with the right wing. Osho mentions that although he is against slaughter of any animal, cow slaughter is something of a necessary evil. He questions the motives of those who are protesting against cow slaughter, and even goes so far as to call them hypocrites  He mentions that although their motive is noble, their reasons are wrong. He questions whether the people who protest cow slaughter are in a position to provide better facilities for the animals when they’re still alive? Judging by the condition in which these animals live and by their health, it is unlikely. Caring is possible only when you are in a position to take care. Without the facilities and the wherewithal, caring is impossible. We have to be pragmatic; it is no use being sentimental. Also he mentions that the earth does not have enough plant-based resources to support the entire population. So what, according to him, is the harm of letting people prefer meat over vegetarian food? The cow cannot be saved when man himself is facing death. As I said, something that the right wingers would not take lightly.

It is all the more amazing when you realize that these sentences were first recorded sometime late in the 20th century. And they still ring true in an India that is wanting to stake its place in the global economy. But Osho speaks it like it is, not pandering to any religion or group. Another instance of Osho truly speaking from his heart, is when he claims that Mahatma Gandhi was a violent man. The only difference was that Gandhi used violence upon himself.

For example, Gandhi thinks fasting is a kind of right means to a right end. And he resorts to fasting – fast unto death every now and then. But I can never accept fasting as a right means, nor will Krishna agree with Gandhi. If a threat to kill another person is wrong, how can a threat to kill oneself be right?

Gandhi once undertook such a fast unto death to put pressure on Ambedkar, leader of the millions of India’s untouchables. And Ambedkar had to yield, not because he agreed that the cause for which Gandhi fasted was right, but because he did not want to let Gandhi die for it. Ambedkar was not ready to do even this much violence to Gandhi. Ambedkar said later that Gandhi would be wrong to think that he had changed his heart. He still believed he was right and Gandhi was wrong, but he was not prepared to take the responsibility for the violence that Gandhi was insisting on doing to himself. In this context it is necessary to ask if Ambedkar used the right means, or Gandhi? Of the two, who is really non-violent?

There are countless such moments in this book, when you’ll be forced to put the book aside and think – think hard – as you carefully collect the pieces of your thoughts that have been broken so effortlessly by this fearless man. Go pick up this book if you want to understand more about Krishna’s playful philosophy towards life and want to watch your mind get twisted by one bold badass of a guru. As of the time of writing, this book is available on Kindle Unlimited. Else buy the Krishna – The Man and His Philosophy on Amazon.

Krishna - The Man and His Philosophy
Osho
Religion, Spirituality
Jaico Books

Restart

Mihir S Sharma

I picked up this book at Crossword after reading the rather provocative subtitle – “The Last Chance For the Indian Economy”. The author is a well-known columnist and an active participant on twitter. Although I don’t subscribe to the same political views as him, this book is on a different topic (mostly). On flipping a few pages, I found the premise interesting and decided to dive in for a read. restart book review

The crux of the book is how the Indian economy, after many false starts, hasn’t yet made significant progress on becoming a world power. The book starts with introducing the much-hallowed reforms started by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and how they are considered a watershed moment for the country on its path to a better future. The author argues how these “successful” reforms were actually made less effective by the half-hearted attempts of the politicians who had a chance to actually change the direction of the country towards a brighter future. But with the politicians themselves not completely convinced of the reforms, they failed to make the impact that India needed at the time.

A few of the chapters also takes on a important yet neglected topic – to leave well enough alone. Today people often complain about what is wrong with the country. But such arguments often end with heavy sighs and a resigned acceptance of the good things that have happened till now. Unless the apathy of most Indians towards demanding the best from the government is reduced, the common man is doomed to suffer while the rich 1% (and their political allies) keep off skimming the cream from the top. The examples of how, allegedly, sibling rivalry has held up important infrastructure projects in the city of Mumbai are incredulous. But not impossible.

According to the author, the country also made a risky move by not improving the manufacturing infrastructure and directly jumping to the service industry. Although both banking and Information Technology have made rapid strides over the last couple of decades, the manufacturing industry still suffers in most parts of the country.

The book goes on to explain the spread of that notorious epidemic consuming true innovation in the country – jugaad. What was once a mental model worth Harvard case-studies has stifled real innovation. Where entrepreneurs should demand their government to remove the barriers to business, jugaad has resulted in entrepreneurs making their own way within the box itself. Within the same barriers and bureaucratic nightmares.

The author, as a closing salvo, presents the way India can yet get out of the mess that her politicians have forced her into.

Restart is eminently readable. What is good is that it doesn’t go into a dry monologue filled only with numbers. I’ve read books about India that have made me snore after only few pages. Thankfully, this is not such a book. It is a breezy read for someone familiar with basic economics, or even for someone without that background.

The content of the book is varied and covers a lot of ground, in terms of geography and time. I particularly found interesting the chapter on Mumbai and its chequered history from being a potential world-class cosmopolitan city to a den of petty politicians and crooks.

The only thing I could find fault with was the tone of writing. The book is generously peppered with sarcasm. But just like a good dish can be ruined by an excess spattering of salt, sometimes the sarcasm goes overboard. For example, just how many instances of “no sirreee” in consecutive pages can you smile at? As a result of such repetition, the author often sounds condescending towards the government and its leaders, both past and present. There are two things that the author seems to forget with his excessive use of sarcasm – one, that hindsight is always 20-20, and second, that India politicians are also subjects to human foibles, just like anywhere else.

Another example of a minor flaw in the structure is how the author has a habit of interrupting, sometimes too often, his sentences which affects, to a great extent, the flow and continuity of sentences. Once a while it does break the monotony. But when you find yourself going back again and again to understand what the never-ending sentence is about to say, it becomes formulaic. Again, this should have been the responsibility of the editor.

But these minor quibbles aside, Restart is a very interesting book about India and a must read for entrepreneurs, businesspersons and others alike, who wish to understand why India is in the state that it is, and how it came to be. Who knows, if enough people make an effort, there’s still a last chance for India.

As part of the search for the Perfect GTD system, I stumbled upon Todoist as one with many rave reviews and users who swear by the system. Even before I decided to try it out, I knew that it worked on a freemium model – which meant that basic features of the app were free, whereas you would have to pay for the more advanced features.

1) No reminders for the free version – You read that right. The free version of Todoist does not support reminders. So here you’ve got a whole list of tasks nicely categorized into projects, with proper contexts and due dates. And you’re all expecting for Todoist to remind you when each task is due. Sorry son. If you’re using the free version, it is up to you to remind yourself whenever a particular task is due. Well then, a todo app which does not provide reminders. Imagine buying a watch which doesn’t tell you the time, unless you insert a coin.

I was still interested in the tool based on the praise it got online. So I went ahead and signed up for the free version. While I was previewing the app, I got an email that Todoist was providing me a one month premium upgrade. That was fortunate. I could now test out the other advanced features including the reminder feature and see whether it was worth the $30 they charge for a year. The application is simple to use, be it the Android version of the Web version. The interface is clean and adding a task is easy. Todoist supports natural language due dates and times. i.e I could add a task saying it was “due tomorrow at 3pm” and it would automatically identify the correct due time and set it. But then you would have to set a reminder separately if you wanted to be reminded through SMS or push notifications.

You can set up projects as separate top level or in a hierarchical manner which is a useful feature for keeping everything sorted in minimum groups at the topmost level. For example, Personal and Work could be just two top level projects with others nested below either one of them.

The mobile push and the email notifications work well enough. However, I could not get the SMS notification to work (mine is an Indian phone number). Google Calendar, on the other hand, sends perfect SMS reminders.

Todoist also has a karma system which increase with each task you complete on or before time. Don’t know how useful it is in the long run, more of a gimmick to me.

2) Limited compatibility – Another thing which disappointed me is that although they claim that Todoist is compatible on a wide variety of platforms (12 or 13 as per their site), it seems to be full of disclaimers. When I tried to download the iPad version of the app, it mentioned that the app requires iOS7. I’m running iOS6.3 on my iPad 2 and that puts me out of luck. Will see if there is a workaround to download an older version of the app. (Edit: I downloaded an older version of the iPad app. It seems that this is just a mobile web version. So yet another no-go)

3) No persistent notifications – With each and every app on Android providing push notifications, you need a way to be able to clear notifications except for some important ones – like those tasks which are due. Todoist does not support persistent notifications. So even if I open and read the notification, it disappears from the notification bar. Why is this so? I should have to complete a task or snooze it before the notification goes away. Else it defeats the purpose of depending on an app to remind me until the task is done. Astrid was one of the best in this aspect. It had persistent and nagging reminders which kept me at it until I finished the task.

Looking at this initial review, I do not see Todoist yet becoming the weapon of choice in my GTD workflow. Though will continue to review Todoist for the rest of the time the premium period is on. Currently, I use the DGT GTD app which (even though is only Android based) is a very decent app and does a robust implementation of the GTD method.

I just finished reading the book “In spite of the Gods – The strange rise of modern India” by Edward Luce. I had eyed this book since a long time and had delayed buying it for some reason. Luckily, I found a second-hand copy of the book in Pondicherry. I had started reading the book on my way back to Pondicherry, and to my utter surprise (and shock), the first paragraph itself had a mention of Pondicherry and the community set up near it, Auroville. The introduction talks about the author’s meetings with people living in Auroville and how India is known mainly for its spirituality. The author seemed none too amused by this impression of India and that is what he sets out to change in the book.

The author, Edward Luce, covers all the major areas of concern for India, which include social, political, religious and economic. The structure of the book itself is such that each chapter focuses on one burning issue from these field. Luce covers India pre-independence, the timeline of the major political parties and the rise of the newer parties. Religion ocupies a central position in Indian households and he focuses on the largest two religions in the country and the problems which have arisen between them as well. He goes on to analyze India’s past relation with the US and the Soviets, and the current equation between India-China and India-Pakistan.

The book ends with the issues India faces and the opportunities the country has to become a major power in the 21st century. According to the author, India would do well not to become complacent of its newfound growth. Only if it deals with the issues in a proactive  manner will it manage to reach the level which is being expected of it. And one of the important ways is by the electorate to vote in such a way which brings the political party most capable of bringing about the change which is required. This endnote becomes all the more relevant in light of the up coming elections.

What I really liked about the book was its comprehensiveness in all the issues it tackles. Luce does not refrain from calling a spade a spade. The interplays between rival political parties especially SP vs BSP is wittitly depicted with Amar Singh again making a fool out of himself. Luce has described the rise of caste politics quite vividly. The book goes beyond slums and spirituality which is all what India is made out to be. I totally agree with the author’s belief that India is much more than a few squalid slums and some old-age Vedic literature. Luce makes the book more interesting by its witty jokes and humourous anecdotes he has come across while living in India.

The cons of this books are minor, yet I’ll list them down all the same. More space could have been devoted to the rise of IT in India. I know this industry has been written to death but in a book about the rise of modern India, IT should deserve a considerable share. Luce could also have researched more about the rise of manufacturing in India which is all set to accelerate in growth once the global economy gets back on track. Also I noticed that the author seemed to have a very critical view on Bollywood where he describes the typical Indian movie as “a blend of brilliantly choreographed titillation.” Agreed that song, dance and rain play a major role in Indian movies, but lately the film industry has also produced very good movies. If anything else, the author would have had good words for alternate Indian cinema. Luce also had a negative view of the nationalist political parties in India, which for all pratical purposes, means the BJP. The author himself admits to this bias.

All in all, I found In spite of the Gods to be a quite comprehensive read about modern India. The book goes beyond a superficial introduction to the country and dives well into some of the major issues affecting the country in recent times. It explains patiently the contradictions which India faces at each and every step of its journey. Luce has painted a masterpiece about one of the fastest developing nations in the world. Which brings me to my next question – Why do foreign nationals, be it Edward Luce, Gregory David Roberts or William Dalrymple make for better writers about India than us Indians?