Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BookMarks #23: A Clash of Kings

Title: A Clash of Kings
Author: George RR Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Setting: Fictional Continent of Westeros, in medieval times
Published: 1998

Summary

Post the events in "A Game of Thrones", the Stark family has been scattered far and wide. Meanwhile King Robert Baratheon's death has given rise to multiple claimants for the crown. Alliances are being forged and re-forged as the games continue. Treachery and dark magic are as fair in this game as bravery on the battle-field. All this while mysterious forces are awakening beyond the Wall.

Joffery Baratheon is the king in King's Landing. However, his brutality makes him unpopular with the populace. His rule is supported by his mother, Cersei, the Queen Regent,and his uncle Tyrion, the King's Hand, both of whom are frequently at odds with each other, carrying out their own plots.

The late king Robert's brothers Stannis and Renly have both staked their claims for King's Landing due to Joffery being Cersei's son from her relations with her brother Jaime Lannister, who is being held captive by Robb Stark's forces. Robb has been declared the King in the North. While we hardly see him in action, throughout the book comes stories of his victories against the Lannister forces. Renly is killed by a mysterious shadow, the product of the red woman Melisandre's dark magic for Stannis. Stannis proceeds to attack Winterfell. However his plans are thwarted by the use of wildfire by Tyrion and the timely arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister along with the forces of Lords Tyrell. Lord Tyrell's daughter Margery, who was previously married to Renly is offered as bride to Joffery. Joffery accepts the offer, ending his betrothal with Sansa Stark who is kept as hostage in King's Landing. Meanwhile, Tyrion is badly injured in the battle at the hands of his own forces.

Arya Stark continues her journey with towards Winterfell, in the company of Yoren, Gendry, Hot Pie and others headed towards the Wall. However their party is attacked by Lannister forces who are out in hunt for Gendry. Yoren is killed and Arya is taken captive to Harrenhal. However, she manages to free the mysterious Jaqen H'gar and his two companions. In return, Jaqen gives her three lifes. However Arya manages to convince Jaqen to help free Harrenhal. Before leaving Jaqen gives her a small iron coin. Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie plan to escape from their new ruler, Roose Bolton.

Balon Greyjoy declares himself the King of Iron Islands. His son, Theon, in an effort to prove his worth in his father's esteem captures Winterfell with a small force, where he had lived most of his life as Ned Stark's ward. He pretends to kill off the remaining Stark boys Bran and Rickon. His reign is short-lived as Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay brutally takes over Winterfell, killing Theon's forces.

Bran Stark alongwith his companions the Reed siblings Jojen and Meera leave Winterfell in search for answers to his mysterious dreams. While sending his younger brother Rickon off with Osha to the a safe location.

Across the Wall, the Night's Watch is hunting for Mance Rayder, a former member of the Watch and now the self-styled King-Beyond-the-Wall who has been gathering wildlings under his command. While they are captured, Jon Snow kills Qhorin Halfhand (at Qhorin's instructions) in a bid to join up with the Wildling forces and find out more about Mance's plans.

Catelyn Stark seeks out Renly for an alliance with Robb. But is witness to Renly's murder alongwith Brienne. Brienne swears herself to Catelyn's command as they both reach Riverrun. There they get the news of the fall of Winterfell and the false news of the deaths of her sons Bran and Rickon. Adding to her grief is her father Hoster Tully being on death-bed. Catelyn sets up a meeting with the captive Jaime.

Meanwhile across the seas, Daenerys and her group reaches the city of Qarth, where her dragons are a major source of attention. Daenerys keeps up her efforts to build an army to take on her rightful Iron Throne aided by Ser Jorah Mormont and her Dothraki followers.

BookMarks
The second book in the series " A Song of Ice and Fire". It carries forward the events of "A Game of Thrones". While it forms the basis for the second season of the TV series, many events have started showing divergence from the show.

The plots and sub-plots of treachery continue unabated as the battles for the Iron Throne hots up. Its a no-holds barred approach from all parties. Saner counsel is shrugged off and hotter heads prevails. Each player plays their own games carefully building alliances, buying loyalties but never sure when someone would turn their back onto them. It is an intriguing tale.

Previously on BookMarks - My Brewing Romance with Cricket

Monday, March 27, 2017

पुष्प की अभिलाषा

आज सुबह की बात है। घर से निकले ऑफिस की तरफ। और जैसा की अक्सर होता है हमारी महानगरी मुम्बई में , आधे रास्ते में फँस गए ट्रैफिक में। वैसे तो यहां की बड़ी और  चौड़ी सडकों को एक्सप्रेस-वे और फ्री-वे बोला जाता है, पर ऑफिस के समय ज्यादातर गाड़ियां रेंगती हुयी ही नज़र आती हैं।  गाड़ी से बाहर झाँका तो नज़र पड़ी डिवाइडर पर। छोटे-छोटे पौधे लगे हुए थे। और फिर ध्यान गया उन पर खिले हुए फूलों पर। बस फिर कहीं दिमाग के कोने से निकल आयी वो कविता जो बचपन में पढ़ी थी - श्री माखनलाल चतुर्वेदी की रचना "पुष्प की अभिलाषा"

चाह नहीं मैं सुरबाला के गहनों में गुंथा जाऊं,
चाह नहीं प्रेमी-माला में बिंध प्यारी को ललचाऊँ।
चाह नहीं सम्राटों के शव पर, हे हरी ,डाला जाऊं,
चाह नहीं देवों  के शीष चढूं, भाग्य पर इठलाऊँ। 
मुझे तोड़ लेना वनमाली , उस पथ  पर देना तुम फ़ेंक,
मातृभूमि पर शीष चढ़ाने, जिस पथ जाएँ वीर अनेक। 

कई साल हो गए, इस कविता को पढ़े हुए। स्कूल के पाठ्यक्रम का हिस्सा था। मुझे याद है टीवी पर भी अक्सर आया करता था। और शायद इसी कारण दिमाग में अच्छे से बस गयी थी ये कविता।  और आज सुबह जैसे ही सड़क के डिवाइडर पर खिले हुए फूलों पर नज़र गयी, सारे शब्द खुद-ब-खुद याद आ गए। 

मनुष्य का जटिल दिमाग - कभी तो अभी पढ़ी हुयी चीज़ याद नहीं आती और कभी अकस्मात् सालों पुरानी भूली हुयी यादें प्रकट हो जाती हैं। 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MovieNotes: Logan

Title: Logan (2017) (IMDB)
*ing: Hgh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Director: James Mangold
Language: English
Genre: Superhero, ComicBooks

Basic Premise
In the year 2029, the mutants are on verge of extinction with only an ageing Wolverine (Logan) taking care of Professor X, whose powers are no longer under his control. Meanwhile, a new set of mutant children have been created to be taken for military operations. However, as they are difficult to control, they are being exterminated. Logan is assigned the task of taking a young mutant kid, Laura, to safety.

MovieNotes
The first X-Men movie is generally credited for being the pioneer for the current superhero universes. Logan seems to be the culmination of that journey. Yes, there will be spin-offs and other superheroes in the different cinematic universes, but Logan completes the journey of the very first ones, Professor Charles Xavier's X-Men and Wolverine. It is poignant that the one mutant who stays with Professor X till the very end is Wolverine, the one who refused to be recruited by him.

The X-Men may have created the superhero genre but Logan does not feel like it belongs. Although Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart reprise their roles, Logan is quite different. We do not see them as invincible superheroes but as two world-weary men who have weathered many storms and are now coming to the end of their journeys. Even superheroes need to hang up their boots.

There is no big saving-the-world theme. The opponents are just ordinary men. All they seek is to protect the child who has been unwillingly placed in their custody and take her to safety. Although Logan has his own doubts.

Meta-theme: The mutant kids reading X-Men comics! Comic-books shown in the movie showing the path ahead for a story which is based out of comic-book characters!

The all-round acting provides the real high of the movie. Add the poignant ending, and it seems like a perfect culmination to a 17-year journey.

Not to be missed - The Deadpool trailer at the beginning. That's another superhero movie trying to redefine the genre.

Rating - 9/10. The Superb acting and for being a different superhero film!

Previously on MovieNotes - Schindler's List

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

BookMarks #22: My Brewing Romance With Cricket

Title: My Brewing Romance with Cricket - Better Than Any Love Story
Author: Shashank Kumar
Genre: Non-Fiction, Sports, Cricket
Published: 2017

BookMarks

"My Brewing Romance with Cricket - Better Than Any Love Story" is a young writer's narration of the goings-on in his favorite sport as he grows up. In his own words "For some cricket is just an ordinary sport. For me, it has been one of those factors which has provided me outright energy to tackle the world head on. The love I have nurtured over the years has been described aptly in an unstructured and a raw manner. My only intention is to make people feel the aura of this game."

The book narrates how he fell in love with the game (with the Hrishikesh Kanitkar match), his heroes (especially the one from his home state) and his favorite memories of the game. Reading through, brings back memories of the last 20 years of Indian cricket. Many happy ones and a few not so happy ones.

It has been oft said that in India, cricket is not just a sport, its a religion. And this book is an offering from one of its more passionate devotees.

Available on Amazon:  Kindle  (Link); Paperback (Link)

Previously on BookMarks - One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, February 26, 2017

BookMarks #21: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Setting: A fictional town of Macondo in 19th century Colombia
Published: 1967 
Language: Originally in Spanish 

Plot Outline
The novel tells the story of Jose Arcadio Buendia and multiple generations of his descendants and the town of Macondo. We learn the history of Macondo, from being initially settled by Jose Arcadio Buendia and how its rise and eventual fall matches that of the Buendia family. 

BookMarks
The novel belongs to the genre of "magic realism". A phrase which I first encountered in the TV series Narcos. Not surprising given that Narcos is based in Colombia and Macondo has been interpreted as a metaphor for Colombia. So we see sudden unexplained actions during everyday activities which can only be interpreted as divine or magical. So sudden appearances which defy logic are interspersed in the tale of a normal (or rather not so normal) everyday life.

Hundred years is a long time. And as the narrative unfolds, newer and newer elements get added into the scenery. Where we began with only transport means as walking and horses, we end up with stories about aeroplanes and big ships. All the new elements add to the mysticism of the story as it is quite difficult to keep pace with the changes happening at times.

The number of Aurelianos and Jose Arcadios across the family tree cutting across the generations of the Beundia family , and almost all of them growing up under the watchful eyes of the matriarch Ursula, makes it even more difficult to keep track of the events at different times. Their shared characteristics and at times similar actions add to the confusion of the reader, while at times giving an illusion of the circular nature of existence. 

Overall, the book is not an easy read, with characters with similar names and incidents popping across generations making it difficult to keep track. And the story moves in jumps, sometimes covering years in the space of pages. There is hardly any conversation. There is a lot of action happening but the reader does not see it unfold directly. All the action is told through second hand information. The city lives through multiple civil wars and political changes, attacks of plagues and diseases, founding of a new train route, arrival of gringos who setup banana business, all the action happens offline. We hardly witness these upfront. 

An overarching theme is that of circle of life. Macondo rises from the dust and that is where it vanishes with a duststorm. At the very beginning we have the story of a child with a tail and that is where the story ends with another child born with a tail. 

Melquiades is another intriguing character who appears from the beginning of the story. He is shown as a wandering gypsy, who has a heavy influence on Jose Arcadio Buendia. He leaves behind his workshop and a series of parchments in a mysterious script. After over a hundred years, the last of the Buendias  is able to decipher the script. And comes to the realization that the parchments have the story of the entire Buendia family and Macondo. And the story ends as he reaches the end, with Macondo vanishing again. Interestingly the parchments are written in Sanskrit!

Overall, a difficult read but an intriguing work of literature. One can do best not to be sucked into this magic realism!

Previously on BookMarks: Predictions 2017

Saturday, February 18, 2017

LearnNBlog #11: 14th February & Bhagat Singh

One of the perils of social media is the speed at which misinformation spreads with Whatsapp and Facebook being the prime messengers. 

So its Valentine's Day with the usual lovey-dovey mesaages floating in the ether. However, this is also the time for "patriotic activists" to start taking potshots at the westernization and the degradation of the Indian morals. So they feel the need to counter it. Even these zealots are of different kinds.
  1. The conspiracy theorists - They blame the big western corporations who have invaded the Indian market and are making big profits of the gullible Indian masses. Also in the process causing the moral degradation of the Indians.
  2. The lunatics - Who resort to violence to stop the celebrations. 
  3. And then the worst lot. Who try to appeal to emotions with misinformation. The kind which circulates fake messages e.g. Bhagat Singh was martyred on 14th February for his country and today's generation celebrates the day as Valentine's Day!!! etc, etc.
Bhagat Singh was a young man who captivated an entire nation with his ideas and acts for liberating our nation. A man who sought freedom and equal rights for all. A man whose martyrdom is celebrated till date. And he was just 23 when he was hanged.  

Therefore it makes one filled with anger, when I see lunatics tarnish his martyrdom by spreading misinformation. And these lunatics keep evolving. Till last year they said that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged on 14th February. When this was found out, a new message was being spread that they were sentenced on 14th February. And the gullible masses lap it up in a rush of patriotism and become the agreeable messengers of misinformation, without once bothering to do a fact check. And this when everyone has access to the internet.

So here is the timeline to Bhagat Singh's martyrdom (historically verified)
  • 30.10.1928 - Lala Lajpat Rai is injured in a lathi charge by the police, personally led by the police superintendent James Scott, during a protest march against the Simon Commission.
  • 17.11.1928 - Lala Lajpat Rai dies due to a heart attack aggravated by the injuries suffered in the lathi charge.
  • 17.12.1928 - Bhagat Singh and his associates kill the assistant superintendent of police John Saunders mistaking his for Scott. The act which made Bhagat Singh a popular figure.
  • 8.4.1929 - Bhagat Singh & Batukeshwar Dutt threw bombs in the Assembly chamber in Lahore. They were then arrested while spreading leaflets and chanting Inquilab zindabad.
  • 15.4.1929 - Lahore bomb factory discovered and the entire group charged with killing Saunders
  • 12.6.1929 -  Bhagat Singh & Batukeshwar Dutt are sentenced to life imprisonment for throing bombs in the Assembly.
  • 10.7.1929 - The Saunders murder trial begins.
  • 20.9.1930 - Trial ends
  • 7.10.1930 - Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru are sentenced to death.
  • 14.2.1931 - Madan Mohan Malviya files a mercy petition with the Viceroy. [The only 14th February connect]
  • 19.3.1931 - The mercy petition is rejected.
  • 23.3.1931 - Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru achieve martyrdom.
So these are the key dates, with only one reference to the 14th February date and that had nothing to with the trial or the actual execution. So that begs the questions. 
  1. Why spread falsehoods which can be found out with a simple internet search? 
  2. And why are people so gullible to believe everything that's posted on the interwebs?
  3. And why are people in such a hurry to spread interesting "alternative facts" without any verification?
I rest my case. 

P.S. Did learn some more things about this great person while doing my "research" for this post. Whether you agree to his methods, you have to admire the spirit of the young man.

Further Readings
  1. Bhagat Singh (Wikipedia)
  2. Bhagat Singh (Cultural India)
  3. Shaheed Bhagat Singh - Letters & Writings (Link)
  4. Brief Note on Simon Commission (Important India)
  5. Lala Lajpat Rai (Wikipedia)
  6. Alternative Facts (Wikipedia)
Previously on LearnNBlog: Ringa rings roses

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

MovieNotes: Schindler's List

Title: Schindler's List (1993) (IMDB)
*ing: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Language: English
Genre: History

Basic Premise
It is the story of a German industrialist during World War II, who employed thousands of Jews in his factories in Krakow, thus preventing their deportation to concentration camps and saving their lives.

MovieNotes
Schindler's List is one of those rare movies which can shake you up to the core. It is an intense tale of survival in some of the most harrowing circumstances in human history. A story of how one man tried to fight the system in order to save other human beings, whose only crime was being born a different religion. It is also a reminder of the atrocities inflicted on one community by another under the banner of some cause.

The movie brings out the darkest horrors of holocaust. There is a sense of constant fear throughout this film. One can feel the fear of being caught, deported and even killed for just being of a different community. One scene depicts a whole group of women being put together inside a room. One can feel their fear as they look at the showers with  rising apprehension. Their sense of relief when water comes out of the showers and not gas is quite disturbing. And yet, you keep watching.

The horrors of war bring out varied reactions in different men. Some become beasts enjoying the unlimited power they have, some are plain greedy, making a profit out of war, some are just trying to survive, and then there were men like Oskar Schindler who saved others fully aware of the dangers they were putting themselves in.

The movie is almost entirely in black and white. A little girl's red coat is the only bit of colour which stands out as she makes an unsuccessful attempt to survive the massacre. The black and white frames add to the grim picture making one focus on the story with no distractions.

"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral during the times of moral crisis". Dante in the Divine Comedy.
The movie hits hard. Released over 20 years ago, its message is even more relevant in today's times. There are quite a few signs that the modern world could be heading towards a similar catastrophe again. Xenophobia and the rise of extremists across the world is happening again. And if we (yes all of us) do not act and resist, we could be soon heading for another round of mass atrocities across the world. And then the only ones to be blamed would be us the people who chose not to take a stand!

Schindler's List was released over twenty years ago. And it is only now that I finally to watch it. It was a grim and depressing watch. And I had quite a disturbed sleep after watching the movie.

Rating - 10/10. A movie whose message is loud and clear.

Previously on MovieNotes - Jolly LLB 2

Sunday, February 12, 2017

MovieNotes: Jolly LLB 2

Title: The State vs Jolly LLB 2 (IMDB)
*ing: Akshay Kumar, Annu Kapoor, Huma Qureishi, Saurabh Shukla
Language: Hindi
Director: Subhash Kapoor
Genre: Satire

Preamble
Over the past few years, Bollywood has begun producing sequels which have nothing to do with the original except for the name. So is the case with Jolly LLB 2, except for one scene which references the lawyer Jolly from the original and a couple of characters which continue.

Basic Premise
A good-for-nothing lawyer takes on a big case after being tormented by the death of a person he had duped. And in the process encounters the quirks of the judicial system and police, while also referencing terrorism and fake encounters.

MovieNotes
The Highs
Like the original Jolly LLB, this one works because of its collection of memorable characters who gel well together. Stand-out being the Judge (once again portrayed brilliantly by Saurabh Shukla), one of the two characters who continues from the first movie. The other being Sanjay Mishra's havaldar who has now retired but still very much in the know of things. 

Like Jolly LLB, this one portrays the harsher realities of the legal system than the usual courtroom drama that had become the norm. Nothing is more meta-humour than a movie about lawyers talking about how lawyers are portrayed in movies (Reference Sunny Deol and his tareekh pe tareek portrayal).

The subtle humor e.g. the judge speaking on the mobile right in front of a a sign saying no mobiles phones allowed in his court.

The Not-Highs
There is one song in the movie and that too should have been dropped. Its time to move out of the song-and-dance routine fast.

The story is unconvincing in the second half. That's what happens when you replace Arshad Warsi with Akshay Kumar as the lead lawyer. Have to throw in a few action scenes.

Rating - 8/10. Overall a fun watch.

Previously on MovieNotes - Raees

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Return of the Kings

The Date - 29th January, 2017
The Venue - Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
The Occasion - The 2017 Australian Open Men's Singles Final
The Protagonists - Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal


To quote Rocky Balboa, "every great fighter has one last great fight left in him". 

It was the finale no one had anticipated, a fortnight ago. But it was a scenario which every tennis fan had dreamed about. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal battling it out in a Grand Slam final, one more time. Both men returning from extended injury lay-offs, both past their prime and yet both hanging in there though their glory days are behind them. 

Two weeks back, neither was anywhere close to being the title favorite. Realistically anything beyond quarter-finals would have been considered a tremendous achievement. Yet, as the draw unfolded, the dream scenario began to become clearer and clearer. First went out the champions Djokovic and Murray, soon followed by the old guard Tsonga, Ferrer, Berdych, Cilic, and then it was the turn of the upstarts Raonic, Nishikori, Thiem. Until all that remained in the way of the dream final were Wawrinka (a man with a habit of sneaking in Grand Slam titles) and Dmitrov (finally living upto his early potential). Both fought hard, but the old warriors survived 5-set battles to set-up the ultimate finale.

And did the match live up to the hype and anticipation. It wasn't tennis at its most sublime, the old warhorses had seen better days. At times, the bodies weren't willing, but their spirits certainly were. Federer took the opening set. Nadal hit back immediately in the second. Federer hit back harder in the third. In a see-saw battle, Nadal took the fourth. Punches and counter-punches were exchanged. Unforced errors were followed by some magical winners. In the fifth set Nadal raced ahead, Federer caught up with him and then found an extra gear right at the very end to win the match and the championship. Together these two gladiators had won the hearts of all those watching.

These weren't just two tennis players facing off for one of the prestigious titles. These are men who transcend sports. For those four magical hours everything else was forgotten, Trump and his ban on immigrants, upcoming assembly elections in India or the latest acts of "intolerance", or political scandal. Because the world was watching two men rolling back the clock to produce one hell of a fight.  After all the Kings had returned!!!

Personally, have been a Federer fan more than a Nadal fan. But during this match, there was no favorite. I wanted both to win (like this fan in the picture). And Federer summed up the general mood during the presentation "There are no draws in tennis, but tonight, I would have been happy to share this trophy with Rafa". 

As Mr. Cho summed it up, "Congratulations for such a great display of tennis tonight .... Unfortunately, only one winner can be crowned tonight. But I believe both of you should be proud of the sportsmanship and passion you have shown throughout this year's tournament."

Agree with Mr. Cho. This match was a treat for every sports fan in the world. Thank You Roger! Thank You Rafa!

"Every great fighter has one last great fight left in him". I hope this wasn't the last one for them.

P.S. I took a nap after the opening break in the 2nd set with the confidence that this was going to 5 sets. And thankfully they did not disappoint!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

BookMarks #20: Predictions 2017

Title: Predictions 2017 Seismic Shifts
Published By: Thomson Reuters
Genre: Current Affairs
Published: 2017

BookMarks
After the surreal year that 2016 was, we enter 2017 a little apprehensive of what the future has in store for us. "Predictions 2017" is a compilation of some of the predictions made by the Thomosn Reuters for the coming 12 months.

The predictions are catehorised under three major heads -  geopolitics, economics and technology. And over all of these looms the shadow of one major unknown - Donald Trump. We do not know what Trump has in store for us. Yes, he has proved to be a maverick, he says things which are not politically correct and his actions defy conventional political wisdom and yet he won the elction. Many of predictions hinge on what this maverick force of nature will do and how much of his campaign "promises" he acts upon.  And more importantly how the rest of the world - Putin, May, Merkel, Abe et al react to him.

The prevailing geopolitical uncertainties add to the risks in economics. Declining crude prices have already shaken up the oil-dependent economies. This could lead to consolidations and alliances of a different kind. Advances in technology may also act as major disruptor. Trump's climate change denials might come to nought for the auto-makers, if Tesla's electric cars come up with a viable recharging infrastructure. The self-driven cars might have a role in changing the insurance industry as well. 

So what will 2017 hold for us. Trump, Putin, Syria, Self-driven cars, Climate change, improvements in gene therapy, consolidation in banking industry, major M&A activity? It covers a wide gamut of subjects. Yet the article which I liked best is the very last one. Every model needs imaginations, a la Harry Potter. Remember the dozen publishers who thought "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was not publishing!  Well every one needs a little bit of magic.

Previously on BookMarks - Inferno