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Kafka: An icon of surrealism

Dr R Balashankar

$img_titleThe Man who Disappeared (America) by Franz Kafka, translated by Ritchie Robertson, Pp 215 (PB),  $13.95

A Hunger Artist and other Stories by Franz Kafka, translated by Joyce Crick, Pp 218 (PB), $13.95

Kafka—the name is legend. So much so that ‘Kafkaesque’ is part of the English dictionary. Writer and novelist, Kafka influenced several generations of readers and writers.  Born a German Jew, most of Kafka’s works, several of them unfinished, were published posthumously. Kafkaesque, incidentally means to have a surreal distortion, often of an impending danger. A senseless, disorienting and a menacing complexity.

That defined, one can now understand what to expect from his writings. The Oxford University Press in its Oxford World Classics series has recently published two of Kafka’s books The Man who Disappeared (America) and A Hunger Artist and other Stories. The former is a novel, set in America, a country Kafka never visited and the latter is a collection of stories and writings.

The Man who Disappeared has been translated by Ritchie Robertson, with a sumptuous introduction. Robertson is Taylor Professor of German at Oxford and a Fellow of the Queen’s College. This was Kafka’s first novel. “The Man who Disappeared belongs to the great creative phase that began with Kafka’s literary breakthrough of 22-23 September 1912, when he sat up all night writing the story entitled The Judgement, perhaps the only one of his works with which he was thoroughly satisfied.” Kafka knew about America from both oral and written sources, says Robertson. Several of Kafka’s friends and relatives immigrated to America and came back to tell stories. The novel tells the story of a young (seventeen-year-old) protagonist Karl Rossmann. It makes a dramatic beginning with Karl looking at the statue of Liberty, ‘Goddess of Liberty’ he calls her, holding a ‘sword’ in one hand.

He searches for many occupations and meets with several people until he finally lands in a drama company in Oklahoma. This novel is free of Kafka’s usual darkness and disorientation. 

The book of stories has been translated by Joyce Crick, who taught German at University College London for many years. There are three sections of stories – ‘A Country Doctor: Little Tales;’ ‘A Hunger Artist: Four Stories;’ and ‘Selected Short Pieces.’ There is a selection of Aphorisms of Kafka. Sample some: “The true way passes over a rope which is not stretched high up, but just above the ground. It seems to be intended more for stumbling than for crossing.” “From a certain point on there is no return. This is the point to reach.” “Disparity of views it is possible to have of, say, an apple: the view of the small boy, who has to crane his neck just to see the apple on the table-top, and the view of the master of the house, who takes the apple and freely offers it to his guest at table.”

Kafka lived a relatively short life, born in 1883 he died in 1924. “A concern with religious questions runs through Kafka’s life and work, but his thought does not correspond closely to any established faith. He had an extensive knowledge of both Judaism and Christianity and knew also the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Later in life, especially after the diagnosis of his illness he read eclectically and often critically in religious classics.”

Robertson says that Kafka’s fiction is “characteristic of modernism in demanding an active reading. The reader is not invited to consume the text passively, but to join actively in the task of puzzling it out, in resisting simple interpretation, and in working, not towards a solution, but towards a fuller experience of the text on each reading.”

Both the books have elaborate notes and introduction on the book and translation. There is also a list of bibliography. Both Robertson and Crick have translated Kafka before.

(Both published by Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP)

Understanding Corruption and the Lokpal Bill

Top on corruption list, low on resolve to fight it

Jayant Patel

$img_titleUnderstanding Corruption and the Lokpal Bill, MV  Kamath & Gayatri Pagdi, Indus Source Books, Pp 323, Rs 299.00

The Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizens Ombudsman Bill) is a draft anti-corruption Bill drawn up by prominent civil society activists seeking the appointment of a Jan Lokpal, an independent body that would investigate corruption cases, complete the investigation within a year and envisage trial in the case in the next one year.

India has been ranked 87th out of 178 nations in corruption cutting across all castes, creeds and communities, business, industry and administrative forces, not to mention the judiciary and the Army. What has been shocking was to learn that a Pune-based stud-farm owner, Hasan Ali Khan, had laundered money not only for politicians but for a large number of bureaucrats as well. Corruption-tainted money was sent abroad through Hasan Ali’s hawala network to safe havens. How much money could be stashed in foreign banks? According to one report Indians have over US dollars worth 1,456 billion in black money stored in Swiss banks.

Corruption has many faces. What about paid news? Surely it is cheating? What steps did the government take against the offending media? No one knows. One has only to look at the 2G scams and the Commonwealth Games scams that one starts feeling that corruption has become an everyday affair and is carried out right under our noses.

Mining is another area of corruption. On July 29,  2011, the Supreme Court had ordered a ban on mining and transportation of iron ore from Bellary but not long after, 49 lorries transported ore for OMC, a firm with which the Reddy brothers are closely associated.

Social activist Anna Hazare and his team did get into action, demanding the introduction of the Lok Pal Bill to keep a check and take action on illegal activities but for now, the Bill has been kept in abeyance. The Parliament witnessed a sordid drama with several parties walking out. On seeing such scenes, one is prompted to ask, is the government allowing the will of the people to be reflected in policy and law making or is it being held hostage by parties and their leaderships to be determined by their own whims and fancies and corrupt considerations?

The book provides a whole range of suggestions for the pubic to ponder upon. That is its USP, but all said and done, it remains to be said that we cannot allow democracy to be run down by a bunch of politicians who put their rights as elected representatives ahead of the rights of the people who have elected them.

(Indus Source Books, PO Box 6194, Malabar Hill, Mumbai - 400 006;

The Chrysler Takeover

The Chrysler Takeover – When the  mouse helped the trapped lion

Dr  Vaidehi Nathan

$img_titleMondo Agnelli - FIAT, CHRYSLER, and the Power of a Dynasty, Jennifer Clark,  John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Pp 360 (HB) , $ 29.95

The taking over of the all-American Chrysler by the seemingly weak Fiat took the world of business by a surprise and storm. Both were dynasty companies and both had a lot of socio-cultural significance to their countries. The gripping story of the entire operation is narrated by Jennifer Clark in her Mondo Agnelli - FIAT, CHRYSLER, and the Power of a Dynasty.  Mondo in Italian means the world.

Starting with the history of the founding of both the companies, Clark follows their growth, successes and travails. Fiat went through one of the worst crisis around 2003 when it was incurring a loss of one million euro a day. From there, by hiring the best of brains from outside the family in the form of Sergio Marchionne, the fate of Fiat turned around under the sterling leadership of John Elkaan, grandson of Gianni Agnelli. Elkaan was a mere 28 when he became chairman of the Fiat board. In 2008, it was ready to take over one of the auto giants of the world. 

Chrysler, on the other hand, founded in 1925 received enormous aid totaling $12.5 billion, other than $1.5 billion credit given by the company’s credit affiliate during the economic downtown. The company’s products were heavy, unattractive and selling little. The management was in bad shape. One round of rescue of the company had been done and failed by German auto giant Daimler-Benz and America’s investment company Cerberus. The Fiat attempt was daring. 

“What could have been a Greek tragedy concluded with a Hollywood ending. Fiat’s unlikely turnaround gave it the resources, vision, and management know-how to make its bold swoop on Chrysler in 2008, which together with loans from the US and Canadian governments, positioned the company as a global trailblazer.”

Fiat stepped into the scene when all had washed their hands off and “left it for dead.” Newly elected Barack Obama had said that GM (General Motors) could rise again, but the case of Chrysler was “more challenging.” “Chrysler needs a partner to remain viable”,  he added. It had a choice — to come to an agreement with Fiat or face bankruptcy. The companies were given 30 days to thrash out the deal. 

Fiat drove a hard bargain and insisted on several clauses. One of them was to introduce World Class Manufacturing or WCM. It adopted Japan-inspired “continual improvement” waste-elimination and quality-control systems. “It broke down the union’s rigid job classification system with its strict hierarchy and boundaries about who could do what.” Till then, if something went wrong in Chrysler plants, the work on the entire line would be stopped till the ‘appointed person’ came and rectified it. WCM did away with that. 

Says Clark, “The negative dynamics of the US  auto market — with the Big Three forced to rely on discounts to move their product — guaranteed that.”

Clark analyses the reasons for the Fiat success. “The Agnelli clan has stayed true to its Piedmont roots, shaped by centuries of rule by the militaristic House of Savoy: get on with things, do your duty, and don’t make a big fuss about it... Above all, be courageous and don’t run from battle.” The man, the energy behind the whole deal John Elkaan never appeared in public or took the podium. 

Clark conducted over 150 interviews of the Agnelli family members, Fiat executives past and present, members of Chrysler’s management team, Fiat and Chrysler advisers among others.  It is obvious the Fiat side was more forthcoming than the American company.

Jennifer Clark was the Italian bureau chief for Dow Jones & Company from 2000 to 2010. Previously she was bureau chief at Variety.

(John Wiley & Sons, Inc., CWT Commodity Hub, 24, Penjuru Road, # 08-01, Singapore 609 128)

Mantra and the Goddess

The power of Lalita Sahasranama in a life of inner peace

Nidhi Mathur

$img_titleMantra and the Goddess: A Poetic Inspiration of Sri Lalita Sahasranama, Swami Sri Lalitambika Devi, BPI India Pvt Ltd, Pp 245, Rs 350.00

Though the Goddess is given a thousand names by various cultures throughout history, she is worshipped for her capacity to provide a life of inner beauty. She is sometimes depicted as a fierce and powerful warrior, the demon-slayer, the destroyer of ego. At the same time, she is gentle, generous and unconditionally living. She is the ultimate sex symbol to some, yet many consider her to be chaste. According to the author, “The Goddess is one way to experience the presence that is both immanent and transcendent.” The presence is beyond name and form. The book is an offering – “I offer pranams to the guru for revealing our potential to be far greater than anything we could imagine.”

As a child, the author is told about the power of the mantra which resonates with divinity and awakens the presence of the Divine within. Assisting the word mantra, it has Sanskrit roots man and tra, where man refers to mind or thinking and tra is a verb root meaning, ‘to protect, to save, to rescue, to defend’. It also means ‘to support’. It is often understood to mean “that which protects the mind” against negative thinking. The author says, “Experientially, mantra allows us to reach a place of inner peace that is deeper than the mind.” The mind can be thought of as a bridge by which we cross the endless desires “of the ego to selfless inner fulfillment. We cross step by step. Breath by Breath. Syllable by syllable”. Mantra becomes the lifeboat in which we cross “the turbulent river of emotion”

When we have faith, even as the waves dash against the side of the boat, we dock safely in the inner sanctum of peace. By chanting the mantra, we learn to relax which takes us beyond wanderings into realms of memory, fantasy, emotion and projection. “We reach the resting place from which the mind is born.”

The author had an unhappy childhood as her father left them behind to start a new life for himself. So she tries to search the Goddess for solace. She talks of the Dhammapada in which Gautama Buddha’s teachings are given and one of which is “Our life is shaped by our mind.” The author says that while conventional understanding assumes things to happen the other way around, but Buddha’s teachings tell us that the causes and conditions that come together in a certain way at a certain time, shape our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

The author talks of karma which is the law of causality to explain why we go through particular difficulties and which teach us something. According to the natural forces of karma, our present experience is born of past action. By reciting the mantra, we become open, able to feel and remain calm. “Mantra awakens us to our inner radiance. When the mind is at rest, we experience the nourishing light of our own unconditional love” to help us face mental suffering. This love is self-sustaining.

The author also discusses the value of chanting  Sri Lalita Sahasranama, as its teachings heal the mind while revealing the power and brilliance of who we are. She weaves her message into contemporary experience by drawing upon myriad of spiritual traditions as well as her own childhood to explain how the mantra can liberate us. Through the Goddess, the Divine Mother, we can discover ourselves by quoting from Sri Lalita Sahasranama. The book explains the virtue, culture and triumph of the Goddess in each of us while helping us to find our true self.

(BPI India Pvt Ltd, F-213/A, Ground Floor, Old Mehrauli Badarpur Road, Lado Sarai, New Delhi-110 020;


Jo. Biography of an inimitable pacifist nuclear  scientist

Manju Gupta

$img_titleKeeper of the Nuclear Conscience, Andrew Brown, Oxford University Press, Pp 348, $ 29.95 

This is a very interesting biography of Jozef Rotblat, known as Jo, who was born in November 1908 at Warsaw, the capital of a Russian province then. His father Zelman Totblat was a successful businessman and prominent figure at the local synagogue. Jo had an idyllic childhood with frequent trips made to the countryside taken by horse and buggy in the boisterous company of his siblings, who called him ‘Jozio’. His two sisters were taught Polish and Jozio would eavesdrop on their lessons, picking up the language and correcting their mental arithmetic. Jo was nearly 12 years old when the armistice with the Soviets was signed in October and he had spent half his childhood in a war-torn city. “He saw his family become destitute, he was bullied in food queues, felt the crump of artillery fire in his eardrums and gut, and witnessed deaths through violence or illness.”

As his father’s crowning ambition was to make Jo a rabbi, the latter had his early education as a heder taught by a local rabbi. The suitability of that religious education with memorising of the Torah stuck Jo as pointless waste of time and by the age of 10, he doubted the existence of God. This led to a rift with his father and for some years the two barely spoke.

Jo chose to study electrical engineering where he demonstrated a precocious ability to memorise long tables of meaningless figures and was thus put in charge of cataloguing the school library instead. There he was able to read science textbooks and feed his imagination with science fiction written by Jules Verne and HG Wells. He felt physics was the fundamental science of Nature and joined the Free University of Poland in Warsaw. He was taken under his wings by Ludwik Wertenstein under whom Jo began research into slow and fast neutron bombardment for about five years and published 15 papers. Meanwhile Jo heard about heavy bombing of Warsaw on the radio. At this time, he had been conducting research on the cyclotron and was concerned with finding the degree to which the inelastic scattering of fast neutrons took place in uranium. Fellow scientist Chadwick told Jo to take on British citizenship and go to USA on their bomb project but Jo was more interested in returning to Poland after the war to help in restoration of the country’s institutions.

He heard the news of his wife Tola’s sudden and shocking death in Germany’s attack on Warsaw and he went into long depression. He ultimately agreed to go to USA. Though he worked as a nuclear physicist, the idea of developing destructive weapons appalled him. So he took to study of radiobiological processes as he was interested in use of radiation in cancer treatment. With long hours of research and hard work he achieved his objective. His contribution to use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes can never be ignored.

This is a very beautifully written biography of an inimitable nuclear scientist.

(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP)

Krishna as Management Guru

Manju Gupta

$img_titleManagement Guru Lord Krishna, OP Jha, Diamond Books, Pp 184, Rs 150.00

In the last quarter of the 20th century, management emerged as an important discipline. It is important because in every field of life, management becomes important, be it management of the day, or of life, or of one’s shop or of people in an office.

Lord Krishna after a span of thousands of years still manages to stimulate the imagination of the common man, showing him the way to manage adversities and all kinds of perils in his life. On going through his life story, we discover certain aspects of his management skill, though not in pure definitive terms. He is seen in his best form just before the war of Mahabharata, which was going to be fought on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Armies of the Karuavas and the Pandavas were assembled on the field, but all of a sudden Arjuna, on seeing that his own kith and kin would have to be killed in the war, was all set to surrender. It is in such instances that the need for a guru arises to remind the warrior the importance of duty over sentiments and emotions. For Arjuna the war of Mahabharata was to be fought for the sake of the throne, but for Krishna, this was not a battle for succession. He intended to uproot the very cause of war. For Arjuna, Duryodhana was his opponent but for Krishna, Duryodhana was the symbol of wicked force. He wanted to eliminate the cause of all evils and establish the victory of righteousness.

Krishna takes Arjuna into confidence and preaches to him to observe his duty and puts forth his philosophy forcefully and logically so as to convince Arjuna. His sermons are acclaimed even today and the entire body of his preaching is known as the Gita, which is literally a collection of verses. In fact, it’s a manifesto on understanding of life.

The author then goes on to explain the principles of management on the basis of Lord Krishna’s actions at various stages of life.

In today’s world too, when managing an organisation, the chief appoints a person on the basis of his talent, qualification and experience. Without going into the past, one cannot judge a person’s experience. So for finding all about a person’s experience, he has to go into the past. Thus skilful employment of the past is an art for betterment of the present. But to live in the present, you have to get rid of all negativities and prejudices. Once this is done, the organisation can start looking at the present, at ‘what is’ and thus understand what to expect. We can understand the expectations of our boss, feelings of our subordinates, intentions of our colleagues and what are the rumours floating around because they too give a glimpse of things happening around. In a similar fashion, Krishna knew he was born in a prison, his parents were put behind bars, his maternal uncle wanted to kill him, so since his childhood phase, he started killing demons sent by Kansa, his maternal uncle; he killed Kansa even because he knew the latter was evil. Krishna was aware of his own strengths and knew that the Kauravas were very powerful, so he applied his understanding and knowledge through a clear and sharply focused mind.

The book suggests some of the inherent messages conveyed through Krishna’s method of tackling the situations in his life and which brought him success in managing them:

Use past experiences for the betterment of the present
Breed no hang-ups     
Look at any object, animate or inanimate, without prejudice
After looking, try to grasp the gist of the object
Compare the object with other things
After comparison, feel other’s point of view regarding the object
Judge, but don’t be judgmental
Find that the image you have built of the object in your mind is useful or not
Watch what is going on and decide if it is correct
Find out if any change is expected from you

Try to think if you are in a position to change anything or not

Before understanding any object/organisation, you need to understand yourself

You need to understand the depth of a pond only to swim without any hurdle. Gauging the depth is not your goal.

(Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd, X-30, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase II, New Delhi-110 020;

Creation as the essence of entrepreneurship  

$img_titleThe Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, Reid Hoffman & Ben Casmocha, Random House Business Books, Pp 260,  £12.99 

The authors begin on the premise that all humans are entrepreneurs, not because they should start companies but because the will to create is encoded in the human DNA – “Creation is the essence of entrepreneurship.”

To adapt to the challenges of professional life today, we need to rediscover an entrepreneurial instincts and use them to forge new careers. Whether we are a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer or even a business owner, we must think of ourself as an entrepreneur at the helm of our career. This book provides the start-up mindsets and skill needed to adapt to the future. The strategies suggested help us expand the reach of our network, gain a competitive edge and land better professional opportunities.

The authors talk of the traditional careers paths over the last 60 years or so, when “the job market for educated workers worked like an escalator because after graduating from college, you could find an entry level job at the bottom of the escalator at an IBM or a GE or Goldman Sachs,” (the authors are talking of America and not India) but it is no longer so now. Today this keeps middle-aged workers stuck in promotion-less limbo; at worst, it squeezes them out in order to make room for more senior talent. The authors add, “Today it is hard for the young to get on the escalator; it’s hard for the middle-aged to ascend, and it’s hard for anyone over sixty to get off.”

With the death of traditional career paths, the kind of traditional professional development previous generations enjoyed is not there. You can no longer count on employer-sponsored training to enhance your communication skills or expand your technical know-how. Companies no longer want to invest in you because you are not likely to stick on to one job.

(Random House Business Books, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA;                —MG

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