How did this ever happen?

I’m currently reading Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is a book about bubbles and excesses, and it is only natural that the Tulip Mania found its way into the book.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Tulip mania, it was a bubble in Holland in the 1600s which involved Tulips! Yes, the flowers. Tulips speculation and craze reached insane levels during that time, and it’s incredible how much people were willing to pay for these bulbs.

Here is one excerpt from the book that shows just how far the craziness went:

It is related that, at one time, early in 1636, there were only two roots of this description to be had in all Holland, and those not of the best. One was in the possession of a dealer in Amsterdam, and the other in Harlaem. So anxious were the speculators to obtain them that one person offered the fee-simple of twelve acres of building ground for the Harlaem tulip. That of Amsterdam was bought for 4600 florins, a new carriage, two grey horses, and a complete suit of harness. Munting, an industrious author of that day, who wrote a folio volume of one thousand pages upon the tulipomania, has preserved the following list of the various articles, and their value, which were delivered for one single root of the rare species called the viceroy: –
                                                            florins.

Two lasts of wheat                          448

Four lasts of rye                              558

Four fat oxen                                   480

Eight fat swine                                240

Twelve fat sheep                             120

Two hogsheads of wine                 70

Four tuns of beer                            32    
Two tons of butter                          192
One thousand lbs. of cheese       120
A complete bed                              100
A suit of clothes                             80
A silver drinking cup                   60                              
                               – – –                2500        ——

It’s hard to believe today that people could pay so much for just a flower, and yet we know that we are not smarter than people who lived before us and are prone to the same follies that they committed.

In fact all the bubbles and busts during the past few decades have shown us that no one really learns anything from the last bubble. People keep making the same mistakes again and again but with different assets or commodities. Almost every one I’ve told this story has told me that it’s very unlikely that Tulip Mania type situation can ever emerge again but I feel that it’s not all that out of question given how crazy stock markets have behaved in the past. What do you think? Can you ever picture a Tulip Mania type craze happening in India?

Ted Talk: Joshua Foer Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do

I reviewed the Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory in July last year, and while I had no doubt that the techniques in the book work I never got in the habit of using them and had all but forgotten about the it until a few days ago.

Then I chanced upon this Ted Talk by Joshua Foer who talks about the same thing and I read parts of the book again.

After that, I decided to start applying the techniques again, and for some reason, the things that I found hard to do last time were easier this time, and I’ve been using the techniques again for about a couple of weeks now.

There were two things that I did differently this time – the first one was to start with easy things.

I felt that one of the hardest things taught in the book was memorizing long numbers like 4685678901234512 and that’s where I started last time. This approach didn’t work in my favor because it was a bit discouraging to fail at remembering 16 digit numbers, and turned me away from other things as well.

This time I just started with simple numbers that I thought I’d need to remember like the level where I parked, or how many species of penguins are there in the world and other such smaller numbers.

The second big change I did was to go by the book. Last time I improvised on a few techniques and made tweaks that I thought would be easier for me to follow. But that didn’t work so well because there were shortcomings in my tweaks that weren’t apparent to me when I made them. This time I decided to go by the book and follow the techniques exactly as they had described them, and that worked better than last time.

Finally, I think watching the Ted Talk helped immensely because it is a live demonstration of how to use the technique and the story is told in a wonderful manner. The talk is 20 minutes long and I’m sure you will find that your 20 minutes were well invested.

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” is written by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002 and what’s most amazing about this is that he hasn’t taken a single economics course in his life, and is chiefly a research psychologist.

This is one of the most amazing books that I’ve ever read and everyone should try to read this at least once.

It deals with the way the brain thinks and describes it as being two distinct systems: System 1, which takes instant decisions or intuitive decisions like what’s 2 + 2 and System 2, which takes more deliberate decisions which needs analysis like how likely is it that it will rain tomorrow?

The central idea is that System 1, which deals with intuitive and instant decisions is called to action by the brain first and only if that system is unable to furnish an answer to the problem is System 2 called into action.

The book tells us how the brain tries to substitute a difficult question with a simple question and tries to answer the simple question instead of the correct one and shows many other fallacies of snap judgments.

Let me excerpt an interesting example from the book:

Half of them saw the puzzles in a small font in washed-out gray print. The puzzles were legible, but the font induced cognitive strain. The results tell a clear story: 90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible. You read this correctly: performance was better with the bad font. Cognitive strain, whatever its source, mobilizes System 2, which is more likely to reject the intuitive answer suggested by System 1

So, while you would think that making a quiz hard to read will increase the number of mistakes, the exact opposite happened when they made the quiz hard to read!

Another example of this type:

Consider the following: “Will Mindik be a good leader? She is intelligent and strong…” An answer quickly came to your mind, and it was yes. You picked the best answer based on the very limited information available, but you jumped the gun. What if the next two adjectives were corrupt and cruel?

Snap judgments are just one part of the book, it deals with other issues about how the brain thinks and how it often leads us to wrong judgments and it has countless examples of biases and how people are fooled into making wrong decisions because of the way we are wired and notions and biases that we have. It talks about how small losses pain us much more than the pleasure given to us by small gains, how we frequently misunderstand probability, how we place overconfidence in our abilities and plenty of other things that lead to incorrect decisions in our daily life. It’s not possible to go into a lot of them in this post but you can read about quite a few of them in the Amazon review page of this book.

I’ve just finished reading this book and I’m going to read this book a second time again now, something I’ve never done before and I think this is a must read for everyone.

Book Review: Dare to Dream A Life of M.S. Oberoi by Bachi Karkaria

Bachi Karkaria’s biography of Rai Bahadur M.S. Oberoi is one of my favorite books and I have read it thrice now.

Rai Bahadur Oberoi’s life is a remarkable story of a man who built an international hotel chain from scratch, and his qualities of diligence, perseverance and patience are very inspiring.

It is a fascinating tale which truly starts when Rai Bahadur takes and fails the PWD (Power and Works Department) test, which was the first test he ever took.

He then applies for a job at a hotel in Simla where he is again told that there are no vacancies. This doesn’t deter him as he waits patiently for the manager to go home for lunch, and impresses him with his perfect tie knot and impeccable manners to score a job tracking coal supplies in the Cecil hotel, and thus starts the career of the man who will later go on to own many hotels much bigger than the one where he started off.

Bachi Karkaria has written the book beautifully and she draws lovely parallels that bring a smile to your face and make the biography read like a novel.

An example:

The effects of Spencer and Co’s neglect of AHI had to be reversed. Flashmans at Rawalpindi required a new wing. Maidens in Delhi needed funds to get back its former glory. Its predicament was not unlike that of three young women, who decades earlier, had come out East, stayed in the hotel and, caught up in Delhi’s blandishments, overshot their budget. They were forced to send a telegram to their parents: ‘Send money or can remain maidens no more.’

The story is very inspiring and the hard work and innovativeness of Rai Bahadur Oberoi is really impressive and makes a mark on you. One of the examples I like the most is of the troubles faced by Oberoi Sheraton in delivering tea and breakfast fast enough to the upper floors of the group’s first high rise hotel. Rai Bahadur, who was 72 at the time, woke up at 5 every morning, and stayed in the kitchen till he found a solution to the problem, first by moving the entire room service bay to the other end of the kitchen bringing it closer to the room service elevators and then by installing ‘pantry elevators’ that were stocked with soda, chips, tea and coffee. Room service relayed the orders to the waiter manning the lift and then he would make his way quickly by just pressing the button on the elevator and making tea while he made his way to the room.

This is just one of several such incidents mentioned in the book and while the book highlights the grit and charm of Rai Bahadur Oberoi throughout the story, it also does justice to the number of other people who contribute to his success, especially his mother and wife.

Bachi Karkaria also chronicles the part fate plays in the success of Rai Bahadur and it’s quite clear that he couldn’t have achieved his success without a little help from lady luck.

I really love this book, and I heartily recommend this inspiring and entertaining story to everyone.

Book Review: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has got to be one of the best story tellers when it comes to the world of high finance and economic crises. I recently read Boomerang which is another one of his great books; it’s a fairly short book and you can breeze through it in an afternoon or so.

The book has only 5 chapters, and each chapter looks at a country which found itself in the center of financial turmoil, and the 5 countries are Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and the US.

In typical Lewis style, the book is devoid of much financial jargon, is easy to read, consists of plenty of colorful characters, and is full of anecdotes that keep you hooked.

Lewis takes a look at every country, and writes how they dealt with the easy money that came to them during the boom years, where they invested, and then how they dealt with the situation after the crash.

In addition to that the stories that Lewis tells about these countries are really something else. Take this one for example:

What might Icelanders be especially suited to do? No one thought that Icelanders might have some natural gift for smelting aluminum, and, if anything, the opposite proved true. Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called hidden people—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free, but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.” The other, more serious problem was the Icelandic male: he took more safety risks than aluminum workers in other nations did. “In manufacturing,” says the Alcoa spokesman, “you want people who follow the rules and fall in line. You don’t want them to be heroes. You don’t want them to try to fix something it’s not their job to fix, because they might blow up the place.” The Icelandic male had a propensity to try to fix something it wasn’t his job to fix

The stories about Greece will sound uncomfortably familiar to Indians as there are several similarities, though you get a feeling that the Greek went way overboard with their issues.

Though it’s not all similar – take this for excerpt for example. Nobody in India joins the government sector for money, but the schooling system sure sounds familiar.

The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something.

There are several such specific examples from other countries as well, and they are all a lot of fun to read, though you get the feeling that the situation has been over simplified to present a simple theme built on human vices and how those vices affected people in different countries.

Boomerang is fast paced and talks about the human side of the financial crisis – of people getting overpowered by their vices and spending money that they didn’t have and blaming others when things go wrong.

I doubt that this will offer you any new insight on the current economic crisis if you have already been following this story for the past 3 years or so, but it does an absolutely great job of stringing together a series of stories to come up with a book that gives you a quick primer on what happened in each of these countries and how differently they reacted to the situation due to differences in their national character.

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I’ve recently finished reading the much talked about biography of Steve Jobs and absolutely loved it.

It is one of the most honest biographies I’ve ever read and the only biography I’ll place higher on the frankness scale is The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

Much of the book talks about the temperamental nature of Jobs and how harsh he was with people around him and often presents the counter view to what he thought by interviews with the other person.

The best thing about the book is the detailed view it gives on almost all situations that it deals with and because Walter Isaacson interviewed so many people it presents different angles to the same incident and makes it a lot different from what an autobiography might have looked like.

It also brings out the sharp contradictions in Jobs’s personality with many events big and small. One example is Jobs being given up for adoption by his parents, his biological father later on abandoning his mother and him doing the same thing with his daughter but never making amends with his biological father or making special allowances and trying to improve relations with his daughter.

His temper and volatile nature is also written about quite often with several incidents in the book when he yells at people who work with him and even the people who don’t like the elderly woman who worked at Whole Foods and didn’t make a smoothie upto his standards.

There are a few stories about how he trashed people’s ideas and then a week later came back to them and told them the same idea as if it were his own and there was nothing you could do about it.

There were many instances of the famous reality distortion field, which was a term coined by early Apple employees to convey that he could make you feel like you could do something which you yourself didn’t think possible. This extended to others as well as recounted by Wendell Weeks who was the CEO of Corning Glass, the company that supplied Apple with the Gorilla Glass that Apple used in the iPhone.

Apparently, Corning had developed this strong glass in the sixties that they called Gorilla Glass which was very strong but they never found a market for it and stopped making it. Jobs told Weeks that Apple would buy as much glass as Corning could make within six months and Weeks told him they had no capacity and none of their plants make the glass now.

Jobs turned on his reality distortion field and convinced him they could do it and eventually they ended up doing it within six months. There are several other amazing examples of the reality distortion field as well.

Among his other quirks were the fact that he felt that the rules that applied to regular people didn’t apply to him and that showed in the way he drove a Mercedes that didn’t have a number plate or parked in the spot reserved for handicapped people.

That is also a great example of the contradictions in his nature – on one hand he eschewed the idea of having a special parking place for the CEO and on the other hand he didn’t feel anything wrong about parking in the handicapped parking spot in his office.

His relationship with money was another such thing and probably the best example of that is when he worked for a $1 annual salary for two years upon his return to Apple, and initially refused an options grant by his board. Eventually, he asked them for a lot more than they had originally offered and stunned everyone. He later recounted that it was not about the money but about being recognized by his peers.

The books also talks about the amazing things he did and recounts how he changed the computer industry, the music industry, and the phone industry. It is not lopsided in any way and does talk about the amazing attention to detail he paid like noticing that an advertisement missed two frames, and it also talks about how even competitors like Bill Gates showed their admiration for him from time to time.

I didn’t touch upon those things so much in my review because they are already quite talked about and I wanted to recount the things that are not so well known.

Despite all the shortcomings in his nature I felt that what Jobs did, only Jobs could have done. It’s an amazing story of a remarkable man and I would heartily recommend this book to anyone.

Excerpts from Future Babble

I’m currently reading a very good book on how future predictions are wrong most of the times, and the author is not only talking about stock predictions, but predictions of all kinds from food shortages to oil prices to how long a war will last.

Future Babble is written by Dan Gardner and deals with how expert predictions are wrong most of the times, and how you can do better yourself.

I’m not yet done reading the book and haven’t reached the how you can do better yourself section yet, but I did want to share some particularly entertaining snippets from the book, and highlight one point that came to my mind again and again.

First, let’s look at an economic collapse prediction thankfully gone wrong:

A small library could be filled with books predicting stock market crashes and economic disasters that never happened, but the giant of the genre was published in 1987. The hardcover edition of economist Ravi Batra’s The Great Depression of 1990 hit the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list and spent a total of ten months on the chart; the paperback stayed on the list for an astonishing nineteen months. When the American economy slipped into recession in 1990, Batra looked prophetic. When the recession proved to be mild and brief, he seemed less so. When the 1990s roared, he looked foolish, particularly when he spent the entire decade writing books predicting a depression was imminent.

Next a Nobel winning economist getting it wrong:

Even economists who win Nobel Prizes have been known to blow big calls. In 1997, as Asian economies struggled with a major currency crisis, Paul Krugman—New York Times columnist and winner of the Nobel Prize in 2008—worried that Asia must act quickly. If not, he wrote in Fortune magazine, “we could be looking at a true Depression scenario—the kind of slump that sixty years ago devastated societies, destabilized governments, and eventually led to war.” Krugman’s prescription? Currency controls. It had to be done or else. But mostly, it wasn’t done. And Asia was booming again within two years.

Finally, a funny one about the stock market prediction.

Another bull market, this one in the late 1990s, produced a bookshelf full of predictions so giddy they made Irving Fisher sound like Eeyore. The most famous was the 1999 book Dow 36,000 by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett. “If you are worried about missing the market’s big move upward, you will discover that it’s not too late,” Glassman and Hassett wrote. Actually, it was too late. Shortly after Dow 36,000 was published, the Dow peaked at less than 12,000 and started a long, painful descent.

The point I’d like to make about this is how some people get all worked up and excited after they read an article on a particular subject, and form an opinion on something just by listening to one person, or reading one or two articles on a topic.

I come across a lot of arguments in the nature of it must be right because an authority on the subject said so.

I think people fail to see that for almost every topic, you will have many smart people take one side, and as many smart people take another.

At the very least you need to dig a little deeper and see if the argument that the person is making appeals to you, and then acknowledge that there is room for error. I once jokingly told a friend who used to idolize George Soros that you are buying gold while Soros is selling it, and he said “but he is just one man”.

I really liked that line – he is just one man and you are looking at just one of his ideas – he is not god and can be wrong.

If my argument is just that one man is betting against your idea then I don’t have an argument at all.

This ties in to coat tail investing as well where investors see what big players are buying and then go ahead and buy that same stock.

I think looking at what big investors are buying is a great source of screening stocks, but that doesn’t make it infallible. The stock can still go down, and if you buy too much of it you are still taking a risk. You must still be cognizant of that risk, and not go all in with your purchase.

The next time you get all worked up reading an article – take a deep breath and say to yourself – but it’s just one person!

Also read Who should you listen to?

Disclaimer: Amazon link is affiliate.

Book Review: In the Plex by Steven Levy

I have recently finished reading In The Plex, a book written by Steven Levy which traces the history of Google right from its early days to today.

It was an incredible read, especially the first half or so that talks about the early days of Google when it was still a small and relatively unknown company, and talks a lot about the founders in those days, and how they took decisions and what things they valued and steps they took to grow the company.

Steven Levy describes the brilliance of Larry Page and Sergey Brin at several points, and they sound like mad geniuses who have a vision, intelligence and understanding about the internet and things around them that isn’t matched by anyone around them.

These are both big picture things like Larry Page thinking about the Google Books project while he was in Stanford itself, and also minute details like him being able to discern delays of 600 milliseconds!

Here is a small excerpt that illustrated this:

Buchheit remembers one time when he was doing an early Gmail demo in Larry’s office. Page made a face and told him it was way too slow. Buchheit objected, but Page reiterated his complaint, charging that the reload took at least 600 milliseconds. (That’s six-tenths of a second.) Buchheit thought, You can’t know that, but when he got back to his own office he checked the server logs. Six hundred milliseconds. “He nailed it,” says Buchheit. “So I started testing myself, and without too much effort, I could estimate times to a hundred milliseconds precision—I could tell if it was 300 milliseconds or 700….

What would have been super fast for most people was called slow for Larry Page. It’s quite amazing to think how high his standards are when it comes to user experience.

But, the book is not a story about how brilliant the founders are. It makes you feel that though the founders had a great role to play in the development of Google, there were many other brilliant people working with them who allowed the company to do the wonderful things it did.

These are not just stories about Eric Schmidt or VCs, but also about lesser known engineers who developed great products while in Google, but hadn’t got much press or publicity and are largely unknown outside Google.

These stories give a good glimpse on the attitude and culture at the company (at least in its initial days) and I’m excerpting one such story that I really liked about the engineer who developed the Google Toolbar.

Chan realized that users were ignoring the Toolbar because it provided no value to them. His idea was to implement a feature that would allow people to block annoying pop-up windows, which at the time were a plague on the net. But when he presented the idea at a meeting, Brin and Page, who had tied water bottles to the venetian blind cords and were playing a game of water-bottle tetherball, nixed the idea. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” said Page. “Where did we find you?” Chan built the pop-up blocker anyway, and surreptitiously installed it on Page’s computer. (“He’d leave the computer on in his office,” says Chan.) Not long afterward, Page remarked that his browser was running faster. Chan told him that he’d installed the pop-up blocker. “Didn’t I tell you not to do that?” asked Page. “Oh, it was a 20 percent project,” said Chan. Page dropped his suspicions and okayed the feature, which helped spur millions of Toolbar downloads.

This was a great example of some really clever thinking by a Google engineer, and a good example of the brilliance that flows through Google.

Steven Levy has by and large nice things to say about Google but the book is not a mindless glorification of the company. He talks about several things that Google did which were inconsistent with their philosophy, and instances that show Google bent its views to suit its commercial position.

The best example of this is Google’s stand on Microsoft’s proposed takeover of Yahoo!

Here is the relevant excerpt.

Microsoft’s $48 billion offer included an aggressive 62 percent premium over the struggling target’s share price, and so observers assumed that the merger was sealed. But Yahoo’s chairman, Jerry Yang, resisted, and his efforts to thwart the takeover were aided by Google. Within days of the offer, Eric Schmidt called Yang and began talking about a partnership that would help the weaker company. Google also began contacting legislators and regulators about the antitrust implications of the Microsoft deal, a rather odd stance considering Google’s previous insistence that the search marketplace had no lock-in and thus wasn’t a valid candidate for antitrust action.

This is a great book, and I really loved reading it. My only criticism is that the pace slows down quite a bit from the first half to the second. The part about the young Google is a lot more exciting to read than the latter half of the book, and I found I couldn’t quite breeze through the last half of the book the way I did the first half.

That said, everything else about In The Plex is great, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate

Book Review: The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory

During the weekend, I read The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play. As the name suggests, the book has techniques to improve your memory, and as someone who is really absent minded, and has a poor memory, I found it quite useful.

I was familiar with some of the techniques mentioned in the book, and while I read the first 100 pages or so I thought this was good material, but was more apt for a 4,000 word essay than a book.

The first few chapters discuss the basics of memory techniques which involve things like creating a story out of the things you want to remember, form a link between them, and I’m quite familiar with those techniques, and have used them in the past with some success. However, the authors improvised on the technique I already knew by their advise of forming truly ridiculous stories and images in your mind, and in the brief time that I’ve used this method – I can say that it works far better than just making plain vanilla stories.

I enjoyed the chapter about absentmindedness quite a bit because I could relate to that quite a bit, and there are several times when I open the fridge, and stare at it not remembering what I wanted to take out. Their advise of being “originally aware” and visualizing what you’re planning to do is quite effective, but the hard part is to remember that you have to visualize everything!

Up until this point, I thought that the book was good, but all this material could be easily condensed into a longish article, and was probably not enough material for a whole book.

The next few chapters changed my opinion as they introduced me to something I wasn’t aware of, and what I feel is a very powerful memory technique if you learn to apply it.

These are to do with remembering long string of numbers like say 432780370182733. The technique is assigning a phonetic sound to each number, and then learning to build words and phrases using these phonetic sounds, and then transposing the words back to numbers to recall the original number.

This is quite an involved method, and will probably take months of constant practice to master, and I think it will take at least a month or so to become so proficient so as to make this practical.

Whether all this work is worth it to learn a technique to remember numbers that can be easily stored in your smart phone?

I don’t know the answer to that for you.

But for me, I’ll try the technique for a month, and if I can master it in that time, I’ll continue using it, else I will probably move on to something else.

I’m happy to say that I have already memorized some of my credit card numbers using this technique; something I wanted to do for years, but found very hard.

Other chapters that I liked were the technique of remembering names and faces, and if I can master that then that will definitely be a very useful thing to have learned.

Overall, I quite recommend The Memory Book, and it is a useful read for everyone who wants some techniques to improve their memory and willing to put some work in it.

Book Review: The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

I’m currently mid way through the The Idea of Indiaby Sunil Khilnani, and I thought I’d do a review before finishing the book because I don’t think I will find anything that will change my mind later on, and it’s taking longer than usual for me to finish this book, and sometimes if I wait too long I just end up not writing about the topic.

I picked up this book mainly because of its title. I love the ring of the phrase “Idea of India”, and have often heard other people refer to it as well.

My expectation from the book was that it will weave a narrative that describes and defines what India stands for, and the things which people identify with, and stories about how a country can have the richest men in the world and at the same time have no electricity for a large part of its population.

Halfway through; that expectation has not been met.

I have not come across any such narrative so far, but rather the book has focused on the history of modern India, and spoken about things from Nehru’s economic leanings, Indira Gandhi’s emergency, economic liberalization, and other such things.

I find these things fascinating, and there are several sections that throw new light on things that you’ve heard or studied before. Let’s look at a passage from the book to see what I mean.

The bright arc of the West’s history illuminated for Nehru a silhouette of India’s future economic possibilities. It encouraged him to believe that an independent India could follow three ends simultaneously: industrialization directed by the state, constitutional democracy, and economic and social redistribution. This project was rather distant from Soviet practice, and much closer to post-war European social democracy.

While I’m sure a lot of people have read and heard about our mixed economy, usually there isn’t much digging into why things came to be that way, and what other alternatives were explored, what was the rationale, the goals etc.

Further ahead, the book states that America gave India quite a lot of aid after independence and they wanted India to develop consumer based industries that yielded returns fairly quickly. India, on the other hand was more interested in developing heavy industries and becoming self reliant, but of course these type of industries had high gestation periods. The USSR was willing to extend this know – how to India, and extend its sphere of influence, and that’s how the closer ties between the two came to be.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never heard or a read such a comparison elsewhere, so these were good things for me to learn, and understand the context of our current situation a little better.

Of course, I recognize that some of the things stated here are inferences drawn by Mr. Khilnani, and will not be accepted by other people in the know.

When you’re discussing history, you will get to see it through the lens of the writer; I don’t think there is any factual history at all. Everything is laced with the writer’s view of the world.

If you’re interested in Indian history post Independence, and are comfortable in the knowledge that this is one of many possible perspectives then I recommend this book.

However, I don’t think this book will satisfy readers who are really looking for an idea of India.

It’s not a heavy book, but it’s not light reading either, so I wouldn’t expect most people to coast through it, but if you’re interested in the topic, then the The Idea of India makes for good reading.