“Biting The Bullet” : Ajai Raj Sharma IPS

A friend of ours who retired as Director General of Police in Karnataka was often asked why he didn’t write a book on his experiences in the police force. His stock reply was that there were many things he could not talk about. He said he could not write anything other than the truth. This he believed would stir many a hornet’s nest amongst his erstwhile superiors, colleagues, and of course politicians of different parties, though a large number of them were dead and gone by then.

I was reminded of this when I read “Biting The Bullet” Memoirs of a Police Officer by Ajai Raj Sharma, IPS recently. Mr Sharma is of the 1966 batch of the prestigious Indian Police Service (IPS) and served largely in the Uttar Pradesh cadre. This book covers his memories of some of the most exciting and important events that took place in his career. He retired after 38 years meritorious service in 2004 as the Director General of the Border Security Force ( BSF).

In the initial years of his service, Sharma drew some very challenging assignments in the interior areas of the vast State of Uttar Pradesh, where the law and order situation was dodgy, at the best of times. Lawlessness and dacoity were so common that crime was a career option for many. This state of affairs was aggravated by the factors of caste and grudge feuds which went on for decades. He cut his teeth in the notorious Chambal Valley, and he writes about his experiences in the shadowy world of poverty, greed, informers, and sadists.

Mr Sharma’s competence at work is reflected in his being awarded the much coveted Presidents Police Medal for Gallantry twice in his career. He was tasked by two Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh to get rid of specific notorious criminals. He later was selected to be the Commissioner of Police in Delhi, a rare posting in those days for one from another cadre. During his period of office in the national capital, he was at the helm of affairs when the Hanse Cronje match fixing scandal took place and later when terror modules became active in Delhi supported and managed by the ISI. It was also during his tenure that the attack on Parliament took place. His book gives details of these cases and his role and involvement in dealing with them.

After serving his full tenure as Commissioner of Police in Delhi, he took charge of the Border Security Force. He writes of the many challenges this large force faces in manning the thousands of miles of borders with hostile neighbors. A porous border makes their tasks immensely difficult.

Overall, one gets the picture of a highly committed and conscientious Police Officer who was humane and tough depending on the circumstances. These days we often talk of the deteriorating law and order situation. Mr Sharma’s book gives the reader insights into life in the police service, the hardships the common policeman and police officer face, and the challenges they come across on a daily basis as they battle terror, crime, and the like.

“Now It Can Be Told” by Prof A N Bali

Those of us who are fond of Indian history owe gratitude to Prabhat Prakashan for publishing, or should I say re-publishing in e- book form a book which virtually disappeared from India. This book is titled, “Now It Can Be Told”by Professor A N Bali and is about the Partition of Punjab in 1947. What makes the book more interesting is that it is based on the personal experience and observations of the author who was then a Professor in the Punjab University at Lahore in the undivided India. From reading the book, we gather it was first published a few years after the events of Partition and the Independence of India took place, hence the title of the book. I would guess it may have been published around 1949-50 or so.

It appears the book was controversial at the time of its publication as it was considered to be critical of the powers that be. These included the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and many of his colleagues in the Indian National Congress. I find from the website of Indian Kanoon that in September 1950 this book featured in a case that came up for hearing in the Punjab High Court. The Court overruled the order of the Chief Commissioner of Delhi that all copies of the book written by Prof Bali and published by Akaslivani Prakashan, Jullundar, should be “forfeited’.

So much has been written about the Partition and the horrors that followed it. I have read a fair number of books on the subject but I still found Prof Bali’s book of great interest as he writes from his personal experience. From Prof Bali’s book, it is clear that in many cases the departing British, or at least a fair number of them, supported the Muslims rather than the Hindus and the Sikhs. This happened in particular in Lahore and surrounding areas. Muslim refugees heading to Pakistan found it relatively easier than Hindus and Sikhs seeking refuge in india. Cases of blatant partiality are described. Refugees from India to Pakistan were given shorter amd more convenient routes while the refugees from Pakistan heading to Indian were given much longer and more dangerous routes.

I must say the book leaves you sad that the politicians of that time including Mahatma Gandhi ( described as being both a Mahatma and a politician in some senses) did not foresee the enormous hardship the Partition would cost the millions affected. The horrors of refugees being murdered, raped, and maimed are already well-documented. This books adds to the list of gory stories of how bad things were in those tumultuous times.

What is shocking is how those who fled Lahore genuinely believed that they could return one day to their homes and property. We see how the Governments of india and Pakistan differed in their treatment of property left behind by those who fled. In Pakistan, it became a free for all. Thousands grabbed land and property they would never have dreamt of possessing in their lives. On the contrary in India, the property of those who fled the country were guarded carefully – in some cases for decades- while the refugees from Lahore lived in pitiable conditions in the hastily created dreadful refugee camps.

I think this book must be read by every student of Indian history. Don’t they say we should learn from mistakes made in the past? If we don’t know about the mistakes how will we ever avoid them?? Here lies the importance of books like this by Prof Amar Nath Bali.

“Spies, Lies, And Exile” by Simon Kuper

For those of my generation, the Cold War cast a huge shadow over every corner of the globe, all the way from 1945 till 1991. One one side you had the US, the UK and their allies and on the other you had the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics( USSR) and its Communist satellite countries. Spying and counter spying was the order of the day. As a result we grew up reading many spy thrillers by writers like John Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Joe Weisberg, Karen Cleveland amongst others.

Recently, I read the story of a man who didn’t write such books but was the cause of such books to be written. This book was, ” Spies, Lies, and Exile” by Simon Kuper . It is the fascinating story of a Soviet double agent who betrayed the British who he was working for.

The story of George Blake was not as well known as others of his ilk such as Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess. He was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, in 1922, the son of Albert Behar, a Jew and his Dutch wife, Catherine Beijderwellen. During his childhood he was known more by his Dutch pet name of Poek. His father who had fought for the British in the First World War had a British passport, so his son was born a British citizen though he saw himself as being more of a Dutch boy.

During the Second World War, Poek fought the invading Nazis by joining the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. He then undertook a long and complex route until he reached England, where his mother and sisters had taken shelter years ago. Here he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve but was soon selected by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) His British father having been a veteran of World War 1 , his own contributions fighting the Germans during World War II and his flair for languages made him a good choice for a career- as a spy! He joined the Dutch section of the SIS and after the War spent a few years in The Netherlands.

He was sent for a course in Cambridge which was to change his life. He met Professor Elizabeth Hill who proved to be a great influence on his politics. His next posting was in Korea where the War raged between the Communist North Korea and the US supported South Korea.He was taken prisoner here and it was when he was in captivity that he became a double agent for the Soviets.

The book spells out in great detail what he did as a double agent, and some of the coups he pulled off for his Russian employers while never being even remotely suspected of betraying the British. Things couldn’t go on like this for ever! He was arrested by the British in 1961 and after a famous trial was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment, the length of his sentence being considered most unusual because many other spies had been sentenced to far less sentences.

His dramatic escape, after 5 years of captivity, from the British prison at Wormwood Scrubs, how he reached Russia and stayed there for the rest of his long life make up the rest of the story.

In the course of the book, you get an understanding of how Blake’s mind worked; what drove him to do what he did; and why people sometimes make – what most would consider -unusual career and life choices.

George Blake, later known as Georgy Ivanovitch, died in Moscow in December 2020 aged 98.

Overall, an interesting book if you like spy thrillers and war stories.

“When The Wildflowers Bloom”: Rupa Bhullar

When The Wildflowers Bloom” by Rupa Bhullar was on my reading list and I completed it today. The book has been published by Rupa Publications recently in 2021.

The start of the book is quite dramatic. The main character, a 38 year old home maker, Tara Grewal is publicly humiliated at a party in front of her family and friends by her husband Tej. This sets the context for what is to follow. However, after that the story took fairly long to build up. Tara seeks refuge in her grandmother’s house in a village in Punjab. Not much happens other than a lot of reminiscing about the past and thoughts on what the future holds. To that extent I found the first part of the book rather sluggish after the dramatic start.

There were no surprises along the way and the plot was more predictable than I thought. I kept thinking there might be some action in the next chapter to stir the pot but it was not to be.

Now, about the positives. I must say the scenes are beautifully portrayed. I could easily and readily images the lush fields of Punjab, the drive up the mountain road to Kasauli, the serene atmosphere of the Gurudwara, to mention but a few scenes. The descriptive writing was of a high standard. I found the second part considerably more absorbing than the first.

I also enjoyed the characters like the old Beeja, the fiercely protective Premo, the ebullient Balwinder and of course the suave and charming Dev, not to forget his uncle and aunt both colorful characters very different from each other.

There are lessons to be learnt from the story. Lessons of the grit shown by a 38 year old lady with two growing children when she takes the crucial decision which would change her life forever. She has to decide whether to continue in an unhappy marriage with its share of domestic violence or walk out to an unknown world beyond. The book also throws light on the all too common theme of how women are exploited in our villages. It covers how the dreams of many girls seldom come true due to the harsh realities of their struggles growing up in villages.

If you are looking for an action-packed book, this is not for you. If, however, you want a leisurely but good read, without there being too much in the plot, you will enjoy this book.

“Always A Foreigner” by Ashwini Devare

The Indian Foreign Service has always been considered a highly prestigious organisation, especially when I was growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s. It was said that this branch of the All India Civil Services was the first choice for successful candidates. It was also believed that the children of IFS officers lived a most luxurious life, traveling all over the world.

Always A Foreigner: A Memoir ” by Ashwini Devare puts at rest the myth about children of IFS officers. She writes of how actually the frequent transfers came in the way of a steady education. While the exposure to different countries of the world brought many benefits in its wake, it could also result in children getting disoriented through having to unlearn and relearn all the time in a new environment. In her own case, she had lived in six different countries by the time she was fifteen so, as you can imagine, she is best qualified to write about these experiences.

Ms Devare’s memoirs are delightful! They capture how she and her family coped in different lands where her father represented India in various capacities, over the decades from the 1960s till the start of the 21st century. What makes the book more interesting is her interspersing her personal memories with major events that took place at that time. She describes, amongst other incidents, how the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in Tashkent when they were in Moscow; how the Chogyal and the Gyalmo- their Royal Highnesses The King and Queen of Sikkim – fled Gangtok when they were there; and when they were in New Delhi how horrible events traumatized the city following the assassination of Prime Minster Indira Gandhi.

In addition, we are treated to rich slices of her family life. She has captured her characters so well that we feel we have met them in person. Her father, deeply committed to his country and his responsibilities; her mother, who first went abroad as a young bride barely days after her marriage ; and her sister who grew up with her, and how they shared many experiences while they were quite different from each other by way of personalities.

In the course of the book, Ms Devare captures the highpoints of her career as a broadcast journalist, an on-air reporter and producer, and later as a writer. She studied and worked in different countries and experienced many challenges in each of them.

I enjoyed the elegant yet simple writing style which is a characteristic of this book. I also appreciated the high degree of candor and honesty displayed by the author. I would highly recommend this book to those interested in travel and history. Indeed, I would recommend this to anyone looking to enjoy some good writing !

“Netaji: Living Dangerously”: by Kingshuk Nag

On his birth anniversary on January 23, I had paid tribute to one of my biggest heroes in Indian history, Netaji Subha Chandra Bose. In that post, I had briefly mentioned the author, Kingshuk Nag. Today, I write my impressions about his book , “Netaji, Living Dangerously”.

I admired the way Nag has crafted this book. He has touched upon the key points of Netaji’s interesting and illustrious career in a 208 page book without sacrificing the essence of his deeds. Since the book was published as recently as 2016, he has been made use of the latest information available on the subject. Earlier authors on Netaji could not do so as all the archives about Netaji were classified. They were not made available to the public by successive Governments in India.

One may wonder why Governments took this approach given Netaji’s reputation and name all over India. His fame, ironically, was the reason why Congress Governments- starting with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s first cabinet- made it their mission to downplay Netaji. They supported the story that he had died in an air crash in modern day Taiwan in 1945.

Nehru did not want Netaji to emerge in India post Independence as by then he was the tallest leader in the country. He knew that Netaji could pose a threat to his popularity and political fortunes, hence the deliberate downplaying of anything abut Netaji. Indeed, we know now from archives made public, that Netaji’s family was under surveillance for decades after Independence. Nehru and his successors wanted to know if Netaji was planning to return to India. This started the surveillance activity.

Nag also writes about the mysterious Gumnami Baba who first came to Uttar Pradesh in the mid-1950s. He was also called Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba as he had no name! Many believed that based on anecdotal and other evidence found over the decades that he was indeed Netaji. He died in 1985 with his secrets intact. What was the true story of Gumnami Baba remains in the realm of speculation.

The reader is explained the political developments that took place towards the end of the Second World War. You will remember that Netaji had allied himself strongly with the Japanese who surrendered in 1945 bringing the Second World War to an end. The British Empire, weary after the long war was on it’s last legs. Netaji had influenced an armed struggle for the first time in British India. The mutiny by Indians in the Royal Indian Navy was a major event which made the British decide to leave India once and for all. On the other hand, the United States and Soviet Russia had become the most powerful countries in the world.

Nag suggests that post 1945, Netaji was a prisoner in the Russian labour camps. The Russians under Stalin had no interest in him, Japan was seeking a new beginning, Nazi Germany had been vanquished, and India had become an independent nation under Nehru and the Congress. Where would Netaji fit in – in this new world? Perhaps his experiences in Russia convinced him to live incognito in the future? Did he therefore emerge as Gumnami Baba to live out the rest of his dues in relative anonymity?

I have said enough about the book. You should read it to come to your own conclusions. I can assure you it makes for highly interesting reading, especially if, like me, you are fan of Netaji and a student of Indian history and politics.

“The Girl Who Lived” by Christopher Greyson

I was reading a thriller after quite some time. This one was, ” The Girl Who Lived ” by Christopher Greyson. I found it quite interesting though at times there was a lot of repetition. The author hammered home points building the the character of Faith Winters in the story of four murders that took place years ago in a small town in America. She was the survivor- and of course- “the girl who lived”.

Faith’s traumatic experiences are chronicled in great detail. As one reads more of the story, the reader develops a soft corner for her as she is very much the underdog. She has spent time in a mental asylum, has problems of drugs and alcohol. As a consequence her mind is pretty messed up. Yet one part of her mind ceaselessly tries to assemble the bits of the puzzle that is driving her crazy: a huge need to find out what actually happened that day years ago when her sister, her father and two others were killed in mysterious circumstances in a cottage in the woods.

She returns to that town when she is discharged from the mental asylum, determined to find a closure on what has been bugging her for years. She has no one she can trust. Her dead sister’s boyfriend is in the local Police force. He tries to help Faith but she is not sure how much she can confide in him. Her relationship with her mother continue to be strained. Her mother has written a best selling book about the murders. This angers Faith who believes the has cashed in on a family tragedy.

In the course of the story, Faith is driven to desperation, enough to make her contemplate ending her life. However, she stumbles on from one clue to another. It then dawns on her that while she is looking for the killers, someone is hunting her down! She must find the killers before they kill her to silence her forever.

The book leaves you with an interesting climax! Greyson’s thriller is well worth the time and money you spend reading it.

“Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw” by Hanadi Falki

I have always been a huge admirer of the late Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw (1914-2008) so jumped at the chance to read one more book about him. This ebook titled, “ Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw” is written by Ms Hanadi Falki. Frankly there wasn’t much in the book that one hadn’t already read about. It looked like a re-hash of arcticles, book extracts, interviews and the like. The personality of the Field Marshal is so strong, and his story so interesting however, that we feel like reading about him all over again – which is exactly what I did.

As a military commander and a leader in war and peace, Sam Manekshaw has few parallels in Indian military history. He was the 7th Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army- from 1969 to 1973- and his greatest contribution was winning the 1971 War against Pakistan. This led to the bifurcation of the Pakistani State and the birth of the new country of Bangla Desh.

The book traces his life and career in the Indian Amy from the time he joined the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun in 1932 in the very first batch of cadets. He served the Indian Army for four decades and fought in five wars till he retired in 1973. A grateful nation then bestowed upon him the rank of Field Marshal. He was the first General and COAS in the Indian Army to be so honored.

Apart from his exploits as a military leader, (he won the coveted Military Cross for bravery as a young officer in the British Indian Army during Second World War in Burma), Manekshaw’s character as a person of the highest integrity and professionalism stand out in the many anecdotes in the book. He had the courage to stand up to those in authority including the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and the political leadership of the country.

As I have said before, I have been and remain a huge admirer of Field Marshal Manekshaw. I am therefore terribly puzzled how under his watch India released 93,000 Pakistani Prisoners of war but did not do enough to get back 54 of our Defense Personnel, They simply did not make it back to their homeland . I was hoping that this book would cover this unsavory part of Indian military history but I continue to remain disappointed on this score.

I wish the book had been better arranged for ease of reading. It does not follow a prescribed pattern. For example, it has his childhood and early years suddenly appearing from out of the blue, much after the start of the book. However this slim volume, despite its shortcomings, remains interesting because of the man the book describes and his exploits- in war and peace.

“Tongue-In -Cheek: The Funny Side Of Life” by Khyrunnisa A.

If you are looking for delightful light reading, a book to pass time and, and improve your mood in the bargain- here’s one for you. As the title suggest, “Tongue-In-Cheek: The Funny Side Of Life” is a collection of short stories or should I say “middles” by Khyrunnisa which indeed capture the funny side of life.

Not everyone has the talent to see and describe a situation with humor. On reading this book, I can vouch that Khyrunnisa most certainly has this gift in abundant measure. She writes of situations which you and I have come across in our daily lives: finding a snake in the garden; the rush for the wedding feast; the mandatory jewelry worn in weddings; booking a seat in a bus the Indian way; the perils of maintaining an aquarium (more commonly known as a fish tank in most Indian homes), amongst many others.

In most of these anecdotes, the author brings in her husband thereby allowing us readers to take a peek into moments of married life that most readers would relate to quite easily! She jokes easily about the way many people pronounce -or rather mispronounce -her name. The best part of this book is that you can dip into it at your convenience. Reading story No: 10 long before Story No: 1 doesn’t matter in the least. Not being connected with each other, they can be read in any random order.

I understand that the author is an Asst Professor of English and has written many books for children. After reading this book, I, for one, would love to read more of these tongue in cheek stories from Khyrunnisa. I liked her wit and writing style . Here’s hoping someday she will write and publish another book -as entertaining as this one!

“The Trillion Dollar Coach”: Schmidt, Rosenberg & Eagle

Google has become a household name across the world. Like in the old days one frequently said, ” Take a Xerox” for making a photocopy, Google has become synonymous with searching the internet. Looking for some information? ” Just Google it”, we are told! Of course, this search business is only one part of this huge tech giant which was incorporated in 1998 and had revenues of $182 billion in 2020. With this as context, let’s talk about this book.

When a former Executive Chairman of Alphabet (the holding company of Google), and a Senior VP who headed the Products team in Google, along with Google’s Director of Executive Communication write a book together – it does create a buzz. That book is “The Trillion Dollar Coach” by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. It is described as the Leadership Playbook of Silcon Valley’s Bill Campbell.

Who might Campbell be? Many may wonder. Simply stated, the authors of the book (like many other Silicon Valley leaders, some legends even, amongst them) , were all coached by Campbell. He, by the way, started life as the coach of a relatively small University football team.

Bill Campbell helped create over a trillion dollars in market value, hence the title of the book. He was associated with companies like Google, Apple and Intuit. It was under his guidance that a large number of corporate tech honchos made their mark in the demanding world of business. The names of the executives he coached reads like a roster of The Who’s Who in Silicon Valley and the world of big tech.

He was so much a part of Valley lore that many did not know that Campbell was not from here. He was born in western Pennsylvania and attended Columbia University in Manhattan. Needing a job, he became assistant football coach in Boston College. He was reasonably successful as a football coach without having a spectacular record. When he was 39, he switched careers by joining the advertising firm J Walter Thompson. He then worked for Kodak till 1983 when John Sculley offered him a job in Apple. Here he was the VP of Sales and Marketing then became the CEO of Apple’s software company Claris.

His next assignemt was CEO of a start up called GO Corporation but that closed down in 1994. He was then offered the position of CEO of Intuit which he led till 2000. He became a full time coach when he was invited to Kleiner Perkins to become a coach for its portfolio companies. The rest, as the say, is history. Till he passed away in 2016, he was a major influence in the many businesses he was associated with as an executive coach.

The book has many lessons in leadership for today’s executive. The format used highlights the key take aways by means of chapter summaries. The book makes for easy reading without the jargon usually associated with books on management and leadership.

So, if you want to become an effective leader in today’s business world, make it a point to read this book. Campbell’s lessons will surely help you become more successful.