“Dark Horse” by Gen Larry O Spencer, USAF Retd

Some books are truly inspirational. That’s because the characters in them touch your heart and move you to action. I would rate “Dark Horse” by General Larry O. Spencer, USAF (Retd), as one such book. He came from fairly humble circumstances, being born in 1954 to a African-American family in a tough inner-city area called The Horseshoe in Washington DC. He enlisted in the United States Air Force at the lowest level as an airman. After 44 years of distinguished service he retired as a four-star General and the Vice Chief of the United States Air Force. He was only the ninth African-American to get four -star rank. His is an extraordinary story of grit, commitment to his profession and an ability to aim high and achieve his goals. He became and remained a top achiever despite many challenges that came his way.

General Spencer’s story is all the more remarkable because as a student he was considered a failure. The circumstances in which they lived didn’t help. His father was a US Army veteran who had an arm amputated following war wounds in the Korean War. He had to wear a prosthetic arm and was derisively called Captain Hook by the kids in the neighborhood. His mother wasn’t well-educated either having studied till the 10th grade. Theirs was a family with 6 growing children. His parents naturally faced a lot of hardship in making both ends meet, with his father working at two jobs to bring home enough to feed his family.

Larry Spencer, like most African-Americans of his background, thought the way to break away from poverty was to succeed in professional sport. He wanted to become a star football player. In 1971, he enlisted as an airman in the US Air Force as there was no assurance that he would succeed with a career in football. In the Air Force there was an opportunity for him to study and better his life. He served a stint in Taiwan and after his first spell in the USAF, he decided to re-enlist so that he could work towards becoming a graduate.

An encouraging supervisor suggested he try for Officer Training School after his graduation. He was selected and became the first person in his extended family to become a commissioned officer in 1980. Many of his family and friends were in the US Military but none of them were officers. He had broken a huge barrier.

Over the years, Spencer felt the hardships that commonly came the way of African-Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, even when he wore the uniform of the United States Air Force.

He was a committed professional, held himself and others to very high standards and worked with great passion for his profession. Perhaps because he was not a trained pilot but served in the financial management area of the USAF, his rise to higher positions saw him break more barriers.

General Spencer writes with a lot of candor on how he coped with difficult and challenging situations in his career. Needless to say, many of them were because he was an African-American.

More than the high command positions he held or his professional achievements, laudable as they may be, the book’s value lies in our understanding of General Spencer as a person. We see how he succeeded against the odds. We marvel at the way he emerged to be the dark horse in horse racing parlance. And, last but not the least, General Spencer leaves us with a crisp summary of his life lessons, which are invaluable.

Overall, an inspirational book about an officer and a gentleman.

“Lights! Wedding!Ludhiana” by Jas Kohli

It was a delight to read, “Lights! Wedding!Ludhiana!” by Jas Kohli, published by Rupa recently. I came to know that Jas Kohli is actually a well-known cosmetic surgeon who has written two novels earlier in the same vein as this one. They are titled, ” Lights, Scalpel, Romance” and ” Anything To Look Hot!” Judging by the book I just read, I think I must add the others by Dr Jas Kohli to my library list!!

The plot of his book is fairly straight forward. Kushal, an industrialist in Ludhiana who would love to be an activist to protect the environment more than anything else, is caught in a jam. His hyper active young son, Lakshya has discovered from his phone that he is getting messages from an old flame from his college days. Kunal’s wife, Reeti, a good looking free spending beauty is aghast, as are his parents. Dr Kohli covers what happens next in an interesting and entertaining manner.

The earthy language and slang used in Ludhiana, the social norms prevalent there, the hunger for fame, food and booze, are brought out extremely well in this book. We also come to know of the high expectations from Ludhiana society whenever a Big Fat Punjabi Wedding is planned and taking place!

What I liked best of all was the accurate characterization of the people involved. Apart from those already mentioned, we come across Kunal’s parents, Kimti and Tripta ( with their own stories to be told); his daughter Vanya, a typical teenager of today, and assorted others. On reading the book, we feel we know these people ourselves.

A typical Punjabi wedding with all the grandeur and the noise provides the backdrop to much of the story. Here again, the author’s description of people and their behavior demonstrate his skills in wielding the pen ( figuratively if not literally) as well as he does his scalpel.

All in all, a light read, and fun too! I am prompted to read Dr Jas Kohli’s other books having sampled this one.

“Reminiscence” by S G Gopinath

Let me start by saying that Sathavalli Govindarajulu Gopinath, or just Gopi to his friends all over the world, counts as being one of my oldest friends. He and I have been friends for many, many years now. Over 60 years to be precise. This clarification is necessary because once when I introduced someone as being my oldest friend, the person whom he was being introduced to said, ‘ Oldest friend? But he doesn’t look that old. In fact, you look older than him.”

Gopi joined The Lawrence School, Lovedale a year before I did. When I started there in the 3rd Standard in 1959, Gopi had already been there for a year having joined in the 2nd. Since we are talking about his book on his family, the story of how his Dad left him at the Prep School is still fresh in my mind. We studied together till we left School in 1967. He did his engineering at the famous old College of Engineering, Guindy, in Madras, following the footsteps of his father who studied there from 1941 to 1945. Gopi was the University topper, in 1973. He then went to the US to complete his MS from the University of California, Berkeley.

‘Reminiscence: A Journey Through Three Generations” is the history of his family.

Often people mix up the history of the family with family history. The two are not, I believe, interchangeable. “Family history” is more from the domain of medicine. ” Did one or both of your parents have diabetes?” ” Did your grandparents die due to heart ailments? ” are questions we are frequently asked as the doctor pieces together our family history to help her make a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

In India, it is not so common but in the United States many undertake, as Gopi did, to chart the history of their families and write about the larger family in the form of a book. Gopi has written a comprehensive and interesting account of his family focussing on three generations, his father’s, his, and his son’s. Gopi’s book therefore is in three sections: the first about his parents; the second about his own journey and the third and last about his children.

This book is, I understand, for a restricted audience and hence is more like a coffee table book. It has been produced quite tastefully, printed in expensive glossy paper and is replete with photographs from family albums. How Gopi found the time and energy to put them together like this is quite amazing. I would imagine that writing the history of one’s family can be most demanding, and often rather risky. The writer throws himself or herself open to criticism from uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives, close and distant. They demand to know why you wrote something about them or why you did not write something else about them! I am sure Gopi has faced his challengers boldly with the School motto, ” Never Give In” being an inspiring force.

This history of his family starts with his grandparents and the first part is largely about his parents. His father, Mr S P Govindarajulu, worked for all his working life in the Military Engineering Service. He rose to become the Chief Engineer before he retired in 1981. This part of the book will bring back many memories for all of us, as the incidents described are evocative of one’s own childhood. In those days families were much bigger and tended to be more close knit than they are today. In any case, Gopi’s father had a larger than life personality and was universally popular. His mother was the ideal support for the family and was a big influence in Gopi’s life.

I naturally found the second part most interesting because it is about my friend and the School we went to. I feel honored that Gopi has a picture of me in his book. I think I made the cut because I edited, “Glimpses Of A Glorious Past: An Informal History of The Lawrence School, Lovedale”. The school stories brought back many memories. Gopi has been very candid and describes incidents which many would have quietly skirted away from, like how bunking from School lost him the definite probability of becoming a House Prefect in our final year. The book then covers his professional career and his growing family, and their lives in different parts of the world.

The last part is the most touching, and I think the reason why he wrote the book. It is about his son, Venkat (S G Venkatraj) whose promising career sadly came an end when he passed away while working in the United States. The book moves into a different plane in this section. One can feel the agony of Gopi and Beena, his wife, as they try to come to terms with a devastating blow to their lives. The years go past, as they will, but some memories stay forever. His daughters – Rohini and Rukmini- have contributed too by sharing events from their perspective.

I praise the book, not just because Gopi is an old friend, but because it has clearly been for him a labour of love. That is reflected in the writing, the design, and the overall get up of the book. Successive generations can read about the family legacy, and about the stalwarts who shaped their family culture and values. Indeed, it is a precious gift he has crafted for his daughters, and his grandchildren. Well done, Gopi! Take a bow!!

“Glimpses….” Grows As A Blog & Separate Show

As many of my readers know, I spent the most part of 2015-16 and the first part of 2017 working on a writing project involving my Alma Mater, The Lawrence School, Lovedale (estd. 1858). Elsewhere in this blog, you will find several blog posts about the “Glimpses” writing project.

A team of Old Lawrencians contributed towards “Glimpses Of A Glorious Past: An Informal History of The Lawrence School, Lovedale” in May 2017. The ebook was launched by the President of the Old Lawrencians Association (OLA) Rukhmini Krishnan Reddy during the annual Founder’s celebrations.

‘Glimpses….” then made an appearance for the first time in the OL Assembly- 7 on November 14, 2020. The OL Assembly is a virtual show aired on the second Saturday of every month. It has elements of entertainment, history (by way of a segment on “Glimpses…”) and a popular quiz, called QuizDale. In the November 2020 episode of the OL Assembly, we covered the origins of the “Glimpses….’ Project and how it took shape, culminating in the release of the ebook, which was, over time, published in 3 volumes: Book 1 covering the period from 1858 to 1908; Book 2 from 1908 to 1958, and Book 3 from 1958 to 2008.

Recently, it was decided to delink “Glimpses…” and some other segments from the OL Assembly and launch them as separate shows on their own. I am delighted to say that the first show of “Glimpses….”, as a show on its own, was broadcast on October 16, 2021 on the YouTube and Facebook channels of the Old Lawrencians Association.

It was also decided to set up a blog to complement ‘Glimpses…” and this was done in October 2021, simultaneously with the new show. This blog will have blog posts about important and interesting events and people featured in the book.

We expect these two new avenues of communication will increase the engagement with the Old Lawrencian community. We also expect these will enhance their love for their old School and its heritage of over 160 years.

Your Website Reflects You

The Covid 19 pandemic has brought about sweeping changes in our lives, many of which we wouldn’t have thought possible even five years ago. The use of the internet both for work and for leisure has increased so dramatically over the last few years that people are now talking of “digital wellness.”! Some popular social media sites, like Facebook for example, and makers of devices, like Apple, for example are providing you with the means to bring an abrupt end to your browsing if you exceed laid down limits of time!

In December 1995, only 16 million people or 0.4 % of the world’s population used the internet. In March 2021, this figure had shot up to 5,168 million or 65.6 % of the world’s population, says an article in The Global Village Online.

With such huge growth, one can imagine the competition you, as a business or indeed any organization with a digital presence, face to attract and hold the attention of internet users. The amount of work they do online – and the staggering work hours- is now forcing people in many countries to cut down on their discretionary time online.

So, your website has to be capable of grabbing and holding that attention, which is fleeting, at best . The experience at your website will determine whether or not the person will come back! He/she has so much choice these days, that they would simply go elsewhere for their needs.

Some of the main factors that users value in a website are :_

  1. Ease of use. Can they navigate easily? Is the site too cluttered with so much information and so many options that it is confusing and complex? Many cite the example of Amazon being a site that is considered easy to use, despite the plethora of choices.
  2. It Should Work! Very basic, but frequently we see websites that have links that don’t work, information that is woefully outdated, and an overall feel of being sloppy. Such websites are probably doing more harm than good to the interests of that organization.
  3. Both Attractive and Functional: yes, it has to look good and at the same time work like, to use an old world phrase, a “well- oiled machine”. After all, it represents your business. It is often the first interface with the customer/potential customer. At times, designers in their attempt to dazzle the visitor to the site load so many widgets and jazz on to the page that it becomes sluggish and takes ages to load. No one has that kind of time to wait, these days!
  4. Mobile Friendly: this wasn’t a big consideration when we entered the internet age, but now it has become one of the most important features. The reason is that more people use mobile phones to access the internet than ever before.
  5. The Four Second Test: read this article in Forbes which is indeed an eye-opener. With rapidly decreasing attention spans – an average of 8 seconds for millennials and 2.8 seconds for a younger Gen Z, the content on your page becomes that much more crucial. If it can’t convey what you want in four seconds, it fails the test!!

These are some of the factors that will determine the success of your website in today’s world. Let’s remember that good, bad, or ugly, your website reflects you!

“Let Me Say It Now” by Rakesh Maria IPS

These days many senior officers of the Indian Police Service (IPS) are writing their memoirs. We, the public at large, get to hear from them their perspective of what happened and what did not, why they did something, and why they did not! In the old days, we had only newspaper reports to find out details about the case. We naturally were biased based on what we read.

Now things have changed so much. We are no longer ignorant of what is going on, thanks to 24x 7 high volume, ‘breaking news’ media coverage of the more sensational cases on national television. Channels vie with each other to spill the beans, often trying to solve the cases before the cops do so!

In such a context, it’s fascinating to read the story of one senior IPS officer who was involved in some of the most notorious cases in recent decades. Rakesh Maria wrote, “Let Me Say It Know” – published by Westland in 2020- to give his versions of these cases.

They included the infamous 1993 Bomb Blasts that rocked Mumbai and changed the dynamics of religion of that city (and probably the country itself ) for ever ; the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai again in 2008, this time by Pakistan trained terrorists sent to create mayhem and kill themselves while doing so; and more recently, the Sheena Bora murder case in which a highly placed socialite, Indrani Mukherjea was accused of a foul murder of a young lady, her own daughter!

Rakesh Maria IPS, served the Indian Police Service for 36 years in the Maharashtra cadre before he retired in 2017. He was awarded the Police Medal for Meritorious Service in 1994 and later the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 2007.

We read about how a young boy born and bred in suburban Bandra of Punjabi origin knew early in life that he wanted more than anything else to become a police officer. His father was a well- known figure in the Hindi film industry. In those days, Bollywood was less ” associated ” with crime and the underworld as it has been for the past few decades.

In his book, Maria comes across as a forthright, honest officer who had inherent skills to investigate crime. He could get the best out of his overworked, underpaid investigators who did the drudgery or the donkey work in finding clues and piercing the case together. He also steered clear from politics the involvement in which has proved to be the undoing of many a police officer. We know that politicians have long memories. They come back to power just as often as they are eased out of power. For a police officer to remain largely neutral and not take sides calls for a certain amount of moral courage.

The cases described in the book are too well-known to be detailed here. You must read the book to understand the nuances of each case, how difficult it was to get that vital break through, and how the pieces of the puzzle were put together by painstaking investigation.

Maria was not new to controversy. In the 26/11 case, Vinita Kamte widow of Ashok Kamte IPS made grave accusations against Maria . Later in the Sheena Bora case, again certain accusations were made about him. In this book, Maria defends his actions spiritedly and explains things from his perspective.

If you like books on crime, here’s one that you shouldn’t miss. Maria happened to be the man on the spot in some of the most publicized cases in recent memory. Read for yourself, how he conducted himself in highly trying circumstances.

My Podcasting Journey: The Next Steps

In my blog post of August 12 titled, ” Learn About Podcasting” I wrote about my first steps in the world of podcasting. Now that I have published 26 episodes in my podcast show: “Prem Rao- Stories From A Story Teller”, it’s as good a time as any to do some stock taking!

To re-cap, I began with two podcasts in March 2021 then there was a break till mid-June 2021. I then started again in right earnest. I am happy that the number of “plays” till date has crossed 550. Anchor FM where my podcast show is hosted informs me that “Plays” are the number of times your podcast episodes have been streamed or downloaded across all listening platforms. I am extremely happy with Anchor and would recommend it as a good platform for any newbie/budding podcaster.

As is obvious, the approach of a podcaster depends on the type of podcast show he/she has. Alexander Santo has this informative post on “8 Types of Podcasts”. Going by this, as of now, my podcast show falls in the category of ” Repurposed Content” as it has its origins in the blog posts I wrote.

Based on what I have observed, here are some action steps that I plan to do next:-

  1. Firstly, I need to increase the duration of my podcasts. Now that I have got the hang of things and have learnt the basic steps so to speak, the time has come to strengthen the content. I find that the longest podcast I have made so far is only about 9 minutes. In my podcast show, there is (as of now) a single speaker, that is me, and I haven’t graduated to doing interviews yet. My podcasts have largely been reviews of books that I have enjoyed reading, with a few other non-book related podcasts thrown in for good measure. I should aim to increase each episode to a minimum of 15 minutes -over time. I am told 15 to 30 minutes is a good time for podcasts on news and trending items by a single host without any guest or other voice in the show. My show falls in this space.
  2. I may even consider going back to my first few podcasts to check whether their content can be strengthened . I know, of course, that in the end it is the strength of the content more than the duration of the podcast that will make it succeed. While I have spoken about the books in my reviews, I have not spoken much, if at all, about the authors. A few interesting things about each author may make that episode more interesting to the listener.
  3. It is certain that I should , again over time, graduate to having guests on my show and interact with them. Shows with such ” interviews” often last from 30 to 60 minutes, for each episode. This type of podcasting calls for a higher level of skills which I hope to acquire over time.
  4. Having made a start with a frequency of two podcasts per week- on Sundays and Wednesdays- I should not give up this momentum. It is tempting to fall back to just one episode a week! I should build on the initial enthusiasm and continue to meet the demands placed on me to deliver two episodes every week.
  5. Now that more than 25 episodes have been published, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the Introduction and the end- which is currently played at the start and end of each episode. That may need some tweaking too!

So that was a quick update on where things stand in my podcasting journey, and my plans to take it forward.

Edward Ralph Dexter

In the ongoing Third Test match between India and England at Headingley. Leeds, I noticed that the English cricketers wore black arm bands. This is usually done as a mark of respect for someone who is no more. I soon came to know that the person in question was someone whose cricket career I followed with great interest in my younger days: Edward Ralph Dexter. He passed away on August 25, aged 86.

Born in 1935, he played for Cambridge, Sussex and England. He was called “Lord Ted” for his elegance and languid grace. Dexter was a dashing batsman with a very attacking bent of mind, especially when it came to fast bowlers. He was one of the most powerful hitters of the cricket ball of his times.

In those days, Test cricket wasn’t played as frequently as it is now. From the time he made his debut in 1958, Dexter played 62 Tests for England being captain in 30 of them. He scored 9 Test centuries and finished with an impressive average of 47.89. He last played for England in 1968.

We in India saw him for the first time, when he captained the visiting MCC team in 1961-62 after the more established players like Peter May and Colin Cowdrey opted to skip this tour.

As cricket crazy youngsters, we followed the Tests only though the cricket commentary on the radio, as we didn’t have television in India those days. We of course read every word of the reports of the Test matches in the daily newspapers. Some of the innings that Dexter played still remain fresh in my mind, although decades have gone by since he dazzled the crowds with his batting.

In the Lord’s Test in 1963, facing the menacing fast bowlers Hall and Griffith of the West Indies, Dexter hammered 70 in just 75 balls out of a total of 102. Another innings was his 180 against the Aussies in 1961, the year he was “Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year..”

Dexter in later years served as the Chairman of the Selection Commitee in England, and President of the MCC. He was instrumental in fashioning what we now know as the ICC rankings for players.

In this video, tributes are paid to Dexter on his being inducted in to the ICC’s Hall of Fame in 2021. Ian Chappell recalls that Dexter was the hardest hitter of the cricket ball he had ever seen.

Fans of Dexter would love this delightful piece written about him by Arunabha Sengupta in 2016 . Clearly he was , as that article said, “one of the most colorful characters to grace English cricket.”

Farewell, my childhood hero. May Edward Ralph Dexter, dashing and debonair, rest in peace.

“The Case That Shook An Empire” by Raghu & Pushpa Palat

I have often felt that writers of our Indian history have tended to give grossly disproportionate prominence to some figures and totally ignore some others. Here’s a case in point.

Until this book came along, I must confess rather sheepishly that I as a reasonably well-educated person hadn’t even heard of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair. So for me, his accomplishments described in “The Case That Shook The Empire” by Raghu and Pushpa Palat were really quite astonishing. and most revealing. “One Man’s Fight for the Truth about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre” is the perfect summary of the book.

The book was published by Bloomsbury India in August 2019. It was well received by appreciative readers. It made major headlines recently when it was announced that Karan Johar and his film production house have bought the rights to make a movie based on the book.

To think that in the 1920’s when the British Empire was at its peak, an Indian fought a famous British Administrator in a British Court of Law about an appalling event that took place in India was indeed news to me. I am sure millions of others wouldn’t have heard of this case. To that extent the authors have done Indian history valuable service by researching, writing and publishing this book. Thanks to them, I am sure, many more people will come to know of – and admire- their illustrious forefather. Raghu Palat, is the great grandson of Sir Sankaran Nair.

Sir Sankaran Nair’s character, with all its idiosyncrasies, has been well sketched by the authors. We visualize a man of strong character, who was autocratic in all that he did, at work as much as at home. He could be extremely blunt. Many a hapless colleague, including Britishers, felt the heat of his scorn and anger when debating issues or when they said something he did not approve of.

In the course of a long and illustrious career, Sir Sankaran Nair held many important positions including that of Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He was also a former Judge of the Madras High Court. I had no idea that at one time he was the President of the Indian National Congress! Indeed, many reckon he was one of the stalwarts in the early days of the INC but his open disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi ensured he was pushed back into the shadows of the party’s history. When his famous legal case was decided in England, there were no messages of any kind from the Indian National Congress, the party of which he had once been the President!

Sir Sankaran resigned from the highly prestigious position as the Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council ( the only Indian to hold that post) following events at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. The two Britishers involved in that infamous event, as most Indians know, were Sir Micheal O’Dwyer, Lt Governor of the Punjab, and Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. I learnt from this book that Dyer was later reverted to his rank of Colonel.

The book describes all that followed the tumultuous events in Jallianwalla Bagh, a turning point in the history of modern India.

Taking umbrage at Sir Sankaran’s remarks about him in his book, “Gandhi And Anarchy” published in 1922, Sir Micheal filed libel charges against him. This paved the way for the “Case That Shook The Empire.” The admirable manner in which Sir Sankaran defended himself and his honour is excellently documented in the Palats book.

I wish the editors had been more meticulous. Ever so often Sir Sankaran is wrongly referred to as ” Sir Nair”. In the foreward, O’Dwyer is written as O’Dywer. These mistakes could have been avoided.

My congratulations to Raghu and Pushpa for their book which I found quite absorbing. A strong bibliography lends credence to the meticulous research done by the authors.

Based on my experience of biopics from Bollywood, I am not exactly looking forward to the movie. The book should have been left a book. I hope I am proved wrong ! I must grant, of course, that what a movie would do- especially one from Karan Johar’s production house- to publicize Sir Sankaran’s achievements, could never get done by the book alone.

The Palats’ book is highly recommended for any student of modern Indian history and politics. I would urge the youth of India in particular to read the book.

Learn About Podcasting

The never ending process of learning continues on a daily basis. No, I am not talking of life’s lessons in general but about my new found passion for podcasting. My podcast show: ” Prem Rao: Stories From A Story Teller”continues to grab my time and attention. I am happy to say I have published 16 episodes so far, most of them being on books that I have read.

My podcasts are available on some of the biggest platforms in the podcasting world such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, and more recently on Amazon Music, as well.

There is an old saying that has remained firmly in my mind, ” A fool is one who doesn’t learn from his own mistakes. The wise guy is one who learns from his mistakes, but the wisest of all s the one who learns from others’ mistakes.” That’s so true, isn’t it?

I decided to see what other’s had experienced and learn from them. Michael Leonard , has shared his experiences of one year of podcasting, which I found interesting. Besides, I liked the title too. ” 12 Lessons From 12 Months of Podcasting.”!

Another informative blog post came from W. Mark Whitlock on ” 4 Lessons Learned From the First 4 Months of Podcasting & Studio CMO” . This post is a year old but the numbers mentioned are staggering. There were over 1.4 million podcasts and more than 34 million episodes out there, so you know the competition as it were. The good news is that more and more people, and not just in the United States are listening to podcasts. I guess one of the beneficiaries of the new life created by the Covid19 pandemic all over the world have been podcasters, since many- across different age bands- have taken to listening to podcasts in the last year or so.

I am pushing 70 but in a sense, we are all students aren’t we? NPR – and they don’t need an introduction- has a detailed guide: “Starting Your Podcasts- A Guide For Students” which has many strong points for the beginner in podcasting.

The excitement is high. I am conscious of the fact that I have a long way to go, but hey, I have made a start! So, happy listening, folks!