Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book Review: Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century
Over the past two years at least, ever since we had the American presidential elections, we have been continually hearing about the Russians' covert activities. How far it is true or false is still being investigated, and we may not know that for sure for some time.

In this context, when I was surfing Amazon for a book to read, I stumbled on this; and the title stopped me in my tracks. I read the blurb, and in no time I bought the book.

This book by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud is the English translation of their Adieu Farewell. It's been translated by Catherine Cauvin-Higgins.

The story truly justifies the title. A tale of a man's academic brilliance, excellence in undercover operations, alcohol, women and passionate love. His name: Vladimir Vetrov.

The book is about his life, how he joined the KGB, the then Soviet secret service, how he got frustrated and disillusioned with his country's ideology under Leonid Brezhnev, and how he betrayed his nation by leaking to France all the scientific and technical details his country had gathered about NATO.

His code name was Farewell, and all the information he leaked was called the Farewell Dossier. In 1981, when France elected a socialist Francois Mitterrand as President. It raised the hackles of the West, especially the US and its President Ronald Reagan. But all that vanished when Mitterrand passed on to Reagan the Farewell Dossier.

The dossier contained lots of information regarding who were spying for the USSR and where. Based on it many diplomats were expelled, leading to rising tensions between the NATO and the USSR.

It is said that Vetrov's actions and the steps that the NATO took against the USSR, effectively put an end to the scientific and technological research that the USSR was undertaking, and that in turn led to the weakening of Soviet political establishment giving Reagan the edge in bringing the Iron Curtain down.

The book is also about Vetrov as a person: his personality, his strengths and weaknesses. His personal life is a parallel plot in the book: alcoholism, marriage, son and love affairs. Though the Soviets lost the spy plot to Vetrov, he too lost out in the process.

The book is very well researched, contains lots of information about Vetrov's life, his work, the Soviet system etc. But it is not a very fast-paced book. There are too many details, and too much of analyses, that might put off readers who are looking for an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century by Sergei Kostin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Monday, September 10, 2018

US Open 2018: Naomi vs Serena - When emotion got the better of tennis

It was a US Open like never before: breathtaking display of tennis from 20-year-old Naomi Osaka to outclass 36-year-old Serena Williams. Naomi became the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam, by defeating someone who has won 23 of them! No mean achievement!

Here are the highlights of that great match:

THE MELTDOWN 

It is almost two days now since tennis history was made. But sadly, what is in focus still are matters other than tennis: the outburst of Serena.

ONE

A quick recap. It all began when Naomi was 40-15 up in the second game of the second set when chair umpire Carlos Ramos handed a code violation to Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou after the umpire noticed that Patrick was gesturing to the player in the form of coaching, which is not allowed.

Serena walked up to the umpire and said that she didn't see any gesturing from the coach, and that there is no need for her to cheat. "I would lose rather than cheat," she told the umpire.

(However, after the match, the coach admitted that he was coaching Serena during the match.) 

Serena went on, to go up 3-1 over Naomi in that 2nd set.

TWO

Then, in the next game, came a close call, and Serena lost a serve. In anger, she smashed the racket, which got twisted out of shape; and as another code violation against Serena, Naomi was then awarded a point.

Serena's anger boiled over. She called the umpire a liar and a thief (for taking points away from her.)

The match continued, but Serena's rant also continued. So too the boos and jeers from the crowd.

THREE

“I don’t cheat! You need to make an announcement. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter! You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology.”

And the shouting at the umpire got her the third penalty, a game penalty.

Serena got more furious, and accused the umpire of being sexist.

“Are you kidding me? ... Because I called you a thief? ... This is not fair. This is not fair. This has happened to me so many times. ... There are lot of men out here who have said a lot worse than that. I called him a thief because he stole a point from me. .... "

The boos and jeers reached a crescendo.

It couldn't have been worse for Serena. 23-time Grand Slam champion, looking towards equalling Margret Court's record of 24, on the 45th anniversary of Margaret's achievement.

Serena used all her energy and abilities. But the last game went Naom's way: 15-0, 15-15, 30-15, 40-15. Game, set and the Championship.

TEARS, BUT NOT OF JOY

Then, followed the most bizzare award presentation ceremony.

One, the umpire was told not to come on to the state.

Two, Naomi Osaka was not just crying, but so embarrassed that she was pulling the visor of the cap to cover her face. They were not tears of joy. She wasn't smiling at all. How sad! She actually apologised to the crowd for not letting their favourite player win.

Three, Serena too was crying. Then, she did something remarkable.  She asked the crowd to stop booing and jeering, and let the new champion savour her golden moment. Only Serena could have done that. And she did that. I am glad that she acted wisely, unlike the way she allowed herself to be carried away by emotion during the match.

But lots of damage had been done already.

Felt so sad for Naomi.

TOO MANY STRANDS OF ISSUES

One, as far as I know, from what I have read and heard, Carlos Ramos has a good reputation as an umpire. He is one of strictest in the circuit. He would have done the same thing, if it was another player, man or woman.

Two, on-court coaching does happen. Many coaches and players have been pulled up before. But they have all moved on, without creating a scene.

Three, Serena was spot on, on the issue of sexism. Everyone knows that. Many male players have barked even the F-word at umpires. Serena was right to bring up that issue. But not at that time, and not against this umpire. The biased rulings had been given by other umpires.

SERENA SHOULD HAVE CHECKED HERSELF

Only one reason why Serena behaved the way she did: Unbearable pressure. She has been putting all her best after that maternity break, to claw her way back to the top spot, where she rightly belongs. At New York, she was just about there, when this Japanese girl was powering her way through. This was also an occasion for her to equal Margret Court's record.

Naomi Osaka was definitely playing better than Serena. That's where it all began, for Serena, who then just let emotions get the better of the game. While I won't disagree with Serena's point about sexism, that was not the place to raise it, and take away in the process all the focus from Naomi's performance.

THREE CHEERS FOR NAOMI

Naomi Osaka deserves all the credit and accolades. She played superbly. She kept her cool, didn't allow herself to be distracted by not only Serena's rants but the continuous raucous jeers of the crowd. It is not easy when 23,000 are booing and you know you are not the favourite of the crowd.

The current focus might be on Serena. But Naomi will be remembered for years and years to come, for the spectacular display of tennis that outclassed Serena.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Positive power of social media networks in rain-ravaged Kerala

We Are The World Blogfest
Many of you, especially those who are living in India, would have known about the torrential rain that battered the south Indian state of Kerala most of August, resulting in flooding of vast areas of the state. Over 400 people died, and property worth millions have been damaged.

Read more about the devastation in The New York Times and BBC.

BEACON OF HOPE

Amongst the calamity, what stood out as a beacon of hope and cheer was the way everyone got together as one, and lent a helping hand to others. There have been innumerable such instances across the state, which the media have been highlighting.

Many people came forward to write notes
for students who had lost their
notebooks in the flood. - The Hindu
One of the them is how a non-profit in the north Kerala district of Kozhikode, Incubation, initiated a campaign to provide the notes for different subjects that children had painstakingly written down in their classes but were lost in the floods.

A message on social media calling for volunteers spread rapidly among networks. The notes were then shared in PDF format with the volunteers who had signed up. They then copied the notes on to new notebooks, and handed them over to the coordinating agency, who then distributed them to children who had lost their school notes.

It is amazing that in virtually no time, nearly 10,000 notebooks, with all the notes, were recreated and handed over to the children.

Read more about this wonderful initiative:

Kerala pens history by writing notebooks for flood-hit children

‘Write’ help at the right time

To an unknown child, a notebook of compassion

A TOY STORY

Another similar effort was one that was championed by Ramesh Babu, a former captain of the Indian Navy who is currently a managing director of Mazagon Docks, a government shipbuilding company in Mumbai. (Incidentally, he was my senior in school.) His focus was on the toys that the children had lost. He contacted various agencies across the country, and thousands of toys are now on their way, all free of cost, for the children.

Read more:

Kerala flood relief has a made-in Mumbai toy story

These anecdotes are also a testament to the massive power of the social media to catalyse the good intents of people to bring about positive changes in our society.

(This post has been shared in two blogfests - Midlife Share The Love Link Party and We Are The World Blogfest)



Sunday, September 2, 2018

John McCain, a hero in war and politics

An American hero, John McCain, who passed away on August 25, is being laid to rest today, next to his Naval Academy classmate and friend Adm. Charles R. Larson, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

He never made it to the White House, but in his passing he has been accorded all the respect and honour that befits a President of the United States.

McCain was just the 30th American to lie in State in the Rotunda. In the US, lying in state is a rare honour, wherein the mortal remains of a deceased person is placed in the rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington for public viewing; and the casket is guarded by the personnel of the US armed forces.

He was a naval pilot. During the Vietnam war, he led 23 combat missions, until he was shot down in the last one, was captured and tortured as a prisoner. In 1981, he retired from the Navy, joined politics in Arizona. He served two terms in the House of Representatives, and five terms in Senate, elected last in 2016.

Twice he threw his hat in the presidential poll ring. In 2000, he lost to George Bush in the primary, and in 2008 he lost to Barack Obama in the general election.

On the day, America elected its first African-American President, November 4, 2008, I was in San Francisco on an official assignment, and around dinner time, I, besides many others in the restaurant, heard with rapt attention, John McCain's concession speech. There was no rancour, no ill will. Only humility, respect, and admiration, for Senator Obama who pulled off a remarkable victory, and for the American people, who scripted a revolution.



McCain was a staunch conservative. But always willing to reach across the aisle. His inclusive approach to issues was so great that there was a section of Democrats who were willing to support McCain in 2008, which led to some turmoil. There was even talk of McCain having a Democrat as a running mate, but he abandoned the idea, considering the political complications that would ensue.

In his article, "John McCain and the Meaning of Courage" in Foreign Affairs, H. R. McMaster, former National Security Advisor, says,
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher of war, wrote in the early nineteenth century that “courage is of two kinds: first, physical courage, or courage in the presence of danger; and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility.” The late U.S. Senator John McCain demonstrated both types. .... During my many meetings with him and his dear friends Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Joseph Lieberman, McCain always tried to understand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the perspective of the Afghan and Iraqi people. Empathy lay at the root of his humaneness, including his opposition to any form of torture.
Especially in these times of radical polarisation, America will miss John McCain.

May his soul rest in peace.

Related articles



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Marcia Barrett - From stardom of Boney M to triumph over cancer

Photo courtesy: BBC
Remember the songs, Daddy Cool, Rasputin, Belast, Ma Baker, Bahama Mama .... ? Yes, who can forget Marcia Barrett, the world famous lead singer of the 1970s disco band Boney M?

The latest episode of Outlook Weekend on BBC World Service -- 'The Making of a Disco Star' -- was on the life of Marcia.

I grew up listening to Boney M during my school and college days (I am sure many of you have too); and last Saturday, it was so enjoyable listening to Marcia talk to the programme presenter, Emily Webb.



Marcia was born in Trinidad in 1948, and as a child, she moved along with her mother to London, as part of the "Windrush generation" (the people who migrated from the Caribbeans to the UK between 1948 and 1971).

Marcia speaks about the culture shocks during her formative years in England, how she discovered she was pregnant when she was in school, how her life changed as she entered the music scene, her life with Boney M, and then about her superlative world of stardom as the band became a household name across the world.

Photo courtesy: Independent.ie
The band was formed in Germany in 1975 by people who were looking for singers and dancers from the Caribbean. It was initially called Boney, and then an M was added to it. No one really knew what M stood for. Macia says, "It could be music, it could be magic, it could be Marcia! ... (she laughs)."

At the peak of her career, she had to often leave her son and mother back home in London, and those were hard days for all of them. "You can't be the breadwinner and be there at the same time," she says. 

After the group split, one would think, it would have been easy for Marcia to find a new career. But in spite of all she achieved, life as a singer wasn't easy.



Then her fight with multiple attacks of cancer which was first detected in 1994. Things got so bad at one point that she had to actually learn to walk again!

She says it was her optimism and faith in recovery that kept her going .... and her husband Marcus. She says there was no one for her, during those days, other than her husband.

Boney M, led by Marcia Barrett,
performing in Bangalore, India, on
March 8, 2008. Photo courtesy: The Hindu
Marcia will be 70 years on October 14. What a life she has had!

Emily asks Marcia: "What is your life like now?" She replies: "O, it's gorgeous."

Emily: "Looking back, is there anything you'll change?"

Marcia: "Not really, not really. I want to carry on... do this as a soloist. But not so hectic. No, no, no. One must not forget, I am not a teenager anymore, even though I look like a teenager (she laughs)."

Emily: The timeless spirit of Marcia Barrett.



You should listen to this 27-minute programme, if you get the time for it. Because she is full of passion, laughter and joy, radiating the indomitable spirit that she is full of, which has helped her sumount the hardships, and reach the pinnacle of musical glory.   

You can listen to the programme here on BBC.

You can listen to the greatest hits of Boney M here on Youtube.

Her autobiography, Forward: My Life With and Without Boney M., is just out, in English as well as in German.

Her official website is: http://marciabarrettsite.com/

Friday, August 17, 2018

Atal Bihari Vajpayee - poet, orator, politician, statesman, Prime Minister

Photo courtesy: The Hindu
India is in mourning. The nation lost one of its greatest leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, yesterday evening at 5.05, at the age of 93.

He straddled the Indian political scene for nearly 60 years. He was elected to parliament for the first time in 1957; he was the foreign minister from 1977 to 1979, and later the Prime Minister thrice between 1996 and 2004. In 2005, he retired from all public activities and politics.

UNUSUAL GENTLE POLITICIAN

One reason why the sense of loss is extremely heavy is because Vajpayee was the type of politician, we all miss today, not just in India but in many other nations. He belonged to a political party, the BJP, which has always been perceived as radically nationalist, sectarian and divisive.

But, he transformed the image of that party, and made it acceptable to a huge majority of people. As a result, not only the BJP came to power, but Vajpayee, leading a coalition of over 20 parties, completed his tenure of five years - the only non-Congress party prime minister ever to do so.

POET, DIPLOMAT, ORATOR

There are multiple reasons he endeared himself to a vast section of people.

He used his deft diplomacy, poetic way with words and arresting oratorical skills to powerful effect turning adversities into strengths, and setback into success.

He was a great consensus builder. And he was a politician last.

He was willing to give respect and space even to his arch political rivals. The way he fought elections without indulging in personal, below-the-belt-level attacks on his competitors is well known. He proved that politics can also be practised by adhering to certain basic human values. There is no need to make it crass and ugly.

RARE MAGNANIMITY

There are many anecdotes that illustrate the person Vajpayee was:

When India got its first non-Congress government in 1977 (after 30 years of rule by Congress party), Vajpayee was appointed as the foreign minister. When he entered his office, he found that a photo of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (of Congress party) had been removed. Evidently, someone thought that it was only appropriate the photo should be removed as the Congress had lost power. But, Vajpayee got the photo back in place.

Here is another one. India embarked on its historic economic liberalisation during Congress rule in 1991. Economist Manmohan Singh was the finance minister. In a parliament debate, Singh faced harsh criticism of his liberalisation policy from the opposition, especially Vajpayee. Soon after, a hurt Singh went up to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and submitted his resignation. When Vajpayee got to hear about this, he called Singh; and advised that in politics such debates and criticisms should not be taken personally, and urged him to stay in office.

How many politicians today would have such magnanimity.

TUMULTUOUS PREMIERSHIP

The five years he was the Prime Minister from 1999 to 2004 was momentous. Some of the significant events during those years were:

  • The rise of India as an Information Technology super power; 
  • The nuclear tests, and how India survived the international sanctions without a scratch
  • Strengthening of India's relations with the US and many other countries
  • Vajpayee's outreach to Pakistan by extending a hand of friendship even though it was fomenting trouble in Kashmir.
  • Kargil war, and Pakistan's defeat
  • Hijack of an Indian Airlines plane, planned in and directed from Pakistan
  • Overthrow of the civilian government by Pak army
  • Pak-sponsored terror attack on India's parliament. 
  • Vajpayee's continued efforts at friendship with Pakistan, by agreeing to a summit with Pak President Gen Musharraf, who had engineered the Kargil war.
  • A host of development schemes for different sections of the people across the country.

In spite of Vajpayee's popularity and good performance, his party BJP lost the 2004 election to the Congress, and Manmohan Singh became the PM.

In 2005, beset with multiple old-age related ailments, he retired from politics and public life.

Vajpayee was, more than anything, a good human being. He had his fair share of successes and setbacks; but there was never any doubt about the spirit and objectives of his actions. He played straight from his heart. A glorious life, of multiple hues, has come to an end.

Rest in Peace.

REFERENCES AND VIDEO CLIPS

The news in BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian

"Never Thought I Would Be A Politician, Always Wanted To Be A Poet"


Atal Bihari Vajpayee Wasn’t Jealous, Or Insecure, Says Arun Shourie


Vajpayee's Best Speeches & Poetry


Vajpayee's "Here Comes My Resignation, Mr. Speaker" speech in Parliament


Pokhran II- Atal Bihari Vajpayee's major nuclear initiative


Vajpayee's speech in Parliament after Pokaran Test

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Reduce pollution with seed flags on Independence Day

Photo courtesy: The Times of India
Today is Independence Day in India. It's 71 years since the British left the subcontinent in 1947. Like in any other country, here too the air is awash with patriotic fervor, with parades, speeches, songs, cultural programmes, etc.

During this time, it is common for many people to buy small and medium-sized national flags. After a couple of days, they just end up in garbage bins. And since they are usually made of plastic, all of that add to the pollution.

Now, a biotechnology engineer in New Delhi, Krithika Saxena, has come up with the idea of flags made of paper which have seeds embedded in them. The obvious intent is that instead of just throwing the flags, you can plant them.

Ever since she spread the word on social media, there has been a huge demand from schools and corporates. She says she has so far sold 14,000 such flags to people in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Lucknow.

A good, positive step towards reducing the growing pollution around us.