COFFEE WITH KALAM – 1


V Pattabhi Ram

The first part of my talk at the FDP at the ITC Grand Chola on May 3.

I am back here this afternoon! I guess you must be feeling like those school kids who suddenly find that an unscheduled teacher has walked in to handle a class. The kids either feel joyous or are plain sad. I hope in your case it’s the former.

This afternoon I shall talk to you about what I call “Coffee with Dr. Kalam”. Let me explain the context so as to set the expectations right. Imagine a situation where you have an evening cup of coffee with the former president. I am sure he will not discuss with you about IPL or about Katrina Kaif. Instead, he will talk to you about things that are close to his heart and which would provide a lot of insight to you. It would offer you the kind of insight no other conversation would. I am sure that would also be the case if you were to have a 20-minute chat with either Bill Gates or with N R Narayana Murthy. These turn out to be learning for a lifetime.

Alas, not all of us are blessed to meet up iconic personalities on a frequent basis. Not all of us can, therefore, have the 20-odd minute chat. But there is an alternative. You can read their books. This will provide you with the exact equivalent of a chat. You can now pick their minds. And these insightful books would provide you with life long learning. No adult, more so someone who is into teaching is complete without constant reading. I intend to talk to you about 12 books that I have read. The first 10 are in no particular order. But the last two represent two of the best books that I have read.

This book I read when I was in Class XI. Mine was a generation that grew up on Enid Blyton, Erle Stanley Gardner, Hadley Chase, and the like. And then it all changed. In the summer of Class XI, our English professor told our class that we would have to read six books and write executive summaries or reviews of them as per our choice. I asked around to know what I should read. Someone introduced me to Godfather by Mario Puzo. OMG. What a book it was. What a revelation. For a 16-year-old it opened me to the dynamics of the world. It told me about how men can have an another side. Like who would have thought that Don Vito Corleone a tough nut to crack would actually have a heart of gold. That sissy Mike Corleone would actually be a tough nut to crack. What worldly experiences can do to us and how we have multiple faces is what this book taught me. I know there has been a movie after the novel. But the movie does not capture all the characters and I don’t think that it captures the atmosphere as totally as the book does. You must read it.

Around the same time, I read A J Cronin’s Citadel. It was a remarkable story of a young doctor who comes out of the medical school thinking that the profession of medicine is the profession of God. And then he realizes with a great shock that it is not actually so. The protagonist too gets sucked into the vortex of corruption and literally sells his soul, forgetting the promises that he made in medical. How he returns to the good ways and what price he pays forms the rest of the story. Now much of what Dr. Cronin talks about in a book written in the 1920s namely medical ethics is remarkably correct even today. Now we who belong to the accounting or the teaching profession don’t have to pat ourselves on our back. What is true of the medical profession is also right of the law profession is true of the accounting profession as well.

I have never been able to read a book that has won the Booker Prize. I have four books and I haven’t been able to cross the 20th page in three of them. The fourth I haven’t been able to open it. I was very guilty about it. Until I read Satya Nadella, say in an interview that if you have more books than what you can read you don’t have to worry about it. Thank you Nadella. But I am digressing. This book The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga is a Booker prize-winning book that’s written in a racy style. It talks about the other side of the market economy. We in India have generally been excited by what has happened post-1991: about how the miracle of capitalism has opened the floodgates for India. We forget and are reminded by Adiga that there is another India that has not seen the benefits of the market economy. Told through the prism of a cabbie this book walks you through the dark underbelly of India. A definitive read.

To Sir with Love by E R Braithwaite is a book that every teacher should read. A young teacher walks into a South London school to be greeted by unruly, uncouth kids who have no respect for the teacher, who have no desire to learn, coming as they do from the marginalized strata of society. The teacher cuts a deal with them. He promises to make learning exciting in exchange for which they need to respect their teacher. How he junks textbook learning with experiential learning, how one teacher after the other and soon the entire school comes around to his way of teaching is remarkably told. The icing is of course of how the kids undergo a transformation in just a year. Every teacher must read this.

Robin Meredith’s The Elephant and the Dragon is an extraordinary case study of two countries, India and China, which threaten to become the superpower of the 21st century. There is a lot of difference between the two countries. While India is arguably one of the most successful working democracies, China is by no stretch of the imagination that. While India is a profoundly English speaking nation, which gives the world the comfort to do business with India, you will have to speak Chinese and only Chinese in China. Notwithstanding what we say about our legal system, the world has a high opinion about the Independence of our judiciary. China opened up its economy in 1978 and India in 1991. The book features various aspects such as Infrastructure, Roads etc. and contrast how the transformation has taken place in the two Asian countries. Those who want to know about the two distinct economy’s path to glory must read this book.

Sometime in the third year at College I read this unbelievably wonderful book called the Fountainhead. Written by Ayn Rand and running to over 700 plus pages it talked about the clash between culture and individuality. It’s about a young architect who refuses to submerge his creativity and conform to larger corporate norms. This is a story, which is very relevant even today in corporate India where many are expected to subsume their individual freedom in the perceived larger corporate goal. The book about how ego is the fountainhead of all progress. It’s unputdownable. Okay, even if you can get to read 50 pages a day you will crack it in a fortnight.

Six books down, six more to go.

…Continued

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About Pattabhi Ram

A chartered accountant by profession, a writer by passion and a teacher by accidental choice.
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One Response to COFFEE WITH KALAM – 1

  1. Ranjan says:

    A very different kind of talk covering 12 books (eagerly waiting for next 6), which will vibe many wonderful thoughts, miles after the talk day.

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