Book Review: An Airman’s Saga

It’s been ages since I read a book, let alone write a Book Review.

Mainly because “Hell hath no fury like a wife doing housework when the hubby is chillaxing”

But now the house help is back and they have gifted me the luxury of time to read.

The Book ‘An Airman’s Saga’ is written by the Late Capt. V Sundaram

The Captain was one of the earliest pilots in India and the book describes his journey from a student at the Madras Flying Club in the 1920’s to one of India’s most experienced Instructors and Pilots

The Book brings to life the Madras (now Chennai) of the pre-Independence years and many facets of our history that I was unaware of.

For instance, I didn’t know that British had so feared the Japanese invasion of India that they had dynamited all of Madras’s bridges,railway stations etc

Another facet was that our Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was set up entirely with American assistance and Americans ran the plant till it got nationalised.

Capt. Sundaram’s life was super interesting.In his long career, he taught Indian Airforce pilots, worked with Tata Airlines,ran the plane of the Mysore Maharjah and then settled down with Indian Airlines.He loved animals and founded the Blue Cross of India.

Some anecdotes from the Book that left a lasting impression on me were:

  1. During Partition, Capt. Sundaram piloted planes from Multan to Jodhpur (a 2 hour flight).People begged to come on the plane else they would be massacred.To accomodate more passengers, people had to leave all their luggage behind.As such, people left all their life’s savings, gold, jewelry etc on the runway and entered India with just their clothes on their backs.
  2. Capt. Sundaram flew all of India’s political leaders .When Sardar Patel went about his mission to integrate India, Capt. Sundaram flew him in the Mysore Maharajah’s plane.What stuck me was the courtesy offered by Sardar Patel, Nehru etc to the pilot.Once Sardar Patel had dinner at the Captain’s home and Nehru invited the Sundarams for tea.I wonder if today’s Netas extend such courtesies
  3. When Sardar Patel came to Hyderabad after the Police Action, the Nizam himself came to greet him as he got off the plane.There is an iconic photo of this scene.What I didn’t know was the Nizam had never done this for anyone, not even the Viceroy of India !
  4. One trait which I find super annoying finds its mention in the Book.Indians have this tendency for the “White Man’s Approval”. Even Swami Vivekananda refers to this.Capt. Sundaram was in charge of the Mysore Maharajah’s plane but to his consternation, noone from the Maharaja’s Durbar was willing to travel in it.So he approached the British Resident of Mysore who agreed to travel in the plane.Only after the Britisher had travelled, the Indians started to travel in the plane !

Capt. Sundaram’s wife was the late Usha Sundaram who was the first woman commercial pilot of India.As such, both the husband-wife duo would have made a dashing couple in their time.

This book is a very light and breezy read…the kind you find neglected in a corner of a used bookstore and yet I am glad I read it.


Book Review: Deng Xiaoping & The Transformation of China

The Book ‘ Deng Xiapong & the Transformation of China’ is written by Ezra Vogel, who is a Professor at Havard University.

The Book traces the career of Deng Xiaoping as he started off as a young communist to the Paramount Leader of China.

The China we know now – rich, powerful, confident- is because of Deng Xiaoping-his guts, his vision and above all, his indomitable will.

The Book traces out the ups & downs of Deng’s career in the brutal politics of Mao’s China. The political skills required to survive and thrive in such a regime is just incredible.

When Deng took power, China was in a terrible shape.Millions had died due to famine etc and the country was desperately poor.

Deng set out and implemented the four modernizations comprising industry, agriculture, national defence and science & technology.

Deng was a true patriot and was focussed on reforms that will make China rich and powerful.He would brook no opposition in his way.Once the Party gave the order, all branches of the Govt including judiciary acted on it.

Deng was also extra-ordinarily wise. He knew that without technology China couldn’t prosper.So he repaired relations with Japan, Europe and the United States so that Chinese could learn from them.He invited them to invest in China and sent Chinese students there.

I was astounded to know that since 1980s, the Chinese Communist Govt had sent millions of students to study in the US.Unlike the Soviet Union which was afraid of people defecting, Deng didn’t care if people didn’t come back.He felt Chinese people would be an asset to China even outside China

Deng was intensely focussed on quadrupling China’s GDP. He used to remark that this was not a economic issue, but a political one. He knew that without economic growth, the people of China would throw the Communist Party out.

Deng is also known as the person who orchestrated the Tianneman massacre.The Book describes the events/incidents leading up to the massacre in great detail. The bottom line was that in the end it was the people of Beijing Vs Deng Xiaoping. Deng won.

India is mentioned in the Book only with reference to the 1962 war. Amongst Chinese policy makers, the 1962 war a textbook example of how a sucessful war should be fought by China-short, sharp and decisive.

Deng cited the example of the 1962 war when he invaded Vietnam in 1979.He wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson and the way he did it was by instigating border conflicts (sounds familiar?) .There were thousands of border conflicts on the China-Vietnam border which culminated in the invasion of Vietnam.

The Book also highlights the keen sensitivity of the Chinese Govt to Taiwan & Hong Kong.

Deng was fairly clear that UK would have to hand over Hong Kong to China. It was non-negotiable and the Chinese were prepared to go to war with UK if HK was not handed over peacefully to it.

Regarding Taiwan,it was an article of faith for Deng to reunify it with the mainland.It was one of his key goals but he was not able to do it owing to the determination of the Taiwanese people & US arms and support to Taiwan.

Deng’s following comment regarding Taiwan shows clearly the long term, ruthless and impacable nature of the Chinese Govt : ” If the problem cannot be solved peacefully, then it will be solved by force.This would do neither side any good.Reunification of the country is the aspiration of the whole nation.If it cannot be reunified in one hundred years, then it will be reunified in one thousand years.”

The Book is a very scholarly book , painstakingly researched and plainly written.As such, it can be a difficult read at times.

I would recommend this book only to serious history buffs interested in China.


Book Review: The Ride of a Lifetime

The Book ‘The Ride of a Lifetime’ is written by Robert Iger, the Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company.

The Book is about the remarkable career of Bob Iger and the various defining moves he did to transform Disney into the behemoth it is now.

Bob wrote the book to share his learnings with the audience and possibly with an eye on a political career.

The Book begins with his 10 principles which served him well such as optimism, courage, focus, decisiveness, curiosity, fairness, thoughtfulness, authenticity, relentless pursuit of perfection and integrity

His lines on Integrity stuck a chord with me : “Nothing is more important than the quality and integrity of an organization’s people and its product.They way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

The Book then goes on to descibe the various steps of Bob Iger’s career.He hailed from a middle class Jewish family in New York and had a deep desire to be a success.I loved his words : “I was determined not to live a life of disappointment”

Bob started his career in 1974 as a studio supervisor for ABC Television. He then rose steadily and surely to the top of the ranks.Subsequently, when Disney acquired ABC, he became #2 in the combined entity

Many biographies downplay the vicious politics , back biting, board room battles etc that happens in offices.Bob is unusually honest about it and makes for gripping reading.

When Eisner is ousted from Disney, the Board did not want to consider Bob for the # 1 position. Bob campaigned for the post just like a politician campaigns for office.One great insight was a company’s culture is shaped by what priorities is set by the leadership.And you can’t have too many priorities-just 3 of them.

Bob presented his 3 priorties to the Board and clinched the job:

  1. Creating high quality branded content
  2. Embracing Technology
  3. Becoming a truly global co

Bob spent the next 15 years just focussing on these 3 priorities and ending up creating one of the most valuable companies on the planet.

Priority 1 saw some of the greatest deals in the entertainment world- Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel etc

Priority 2 was about Disney + etc

Priority 3 saw the opening of Shanghai Disneyland etc

The anecdotes involved are very interesting and make for great reading.

There are some anecdotes of my hero Steve Jobs which just underscores what a remarkable man Steve was.

I would strongly recommend this Book to everyone interested in business.


Book Review: The CEO Factory

The Book ‘The CEO Factory-Management Lessons from Hindustan Unilever’ is written by Sudhir Sitapati who is the Executive Director, Foods & Refreshment at Hindustan Unilever.

The title is a bit of a misnomer as I thought the Book will be about the illustrious alumni of HUL, the folks who became CEOs at different cos such as Neville Noronha (Dmart), Gopal Vittal (Bharti Airtel) etc. It is estimated that a record 400 HUL alumni are CEOs/CXOs across corporate India.

Instead, the Book is about a bit of history of the co and then a deep dive into the various business functions which make HUL so iconic.The Book covers functions like marketing, advertising, sales,product, cost management, R&D, HR etc

Sudhir is considered to be one of the best FMCG brains in the country and is the amongst the youngest persons ever to become the ED of HUL.

The Book makes it clear why it is so. Its an absolute master class in a how a FMCG business operates. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you don’t need a MBA in Marketing if you read this book.

The book contains terrific insights and some amusing anecdotes. I loved the author’s definition of an insight – “An insight is a contradiction that is obvious in hindsight’

The Book also contains the rationale of HUL buying Glaxo Health Care’s brands in India which I found interesting.

Another aspect of the Book is that the author helpfully summarises the Chapter in a few points after each Chapter.

I would strongly recommend this Book to all businessmen and investors.


Book Review: The Moonshot Game

The Book ‘The Moonshot Game-Adventures of an Indian Venture Capitalist’ is written by Rahul Chandra.

Rahul Chandra was amongst the first VCs in India as the first employee of Walden International way back in 1997. He went on to be the founder of Helion Ventures and the Book is about his experiences in the two decades in the Indian VC industry.

As an investor in the public markets, I always found the VC world to be strange and exotic….if not outright bewildering. Never could understand how did they did the deals they did at the valuations which will make a public markets investor gag.

The author does a marvelous job in explaining the world of Venture Capital in the Indian context. He walks thru the various fund raises, the investments they did, the rationale of those investments, how the invesments panned out etc.

Venture Capital was an alien animal in the Indian jungle 20 years back and as one reads the Book, one gets a good sense of how the Indian eco system has evolved. Earlier the founders were all interested in copying the successful US startups and creating the desi version of the same. Next came the mobility way.Next came the founders who were native digital citizens and wanted to create solutions for Indian-specific problems.

The Book also offered insights into the world of angel investing. I was astounded to know that in 2015 the foodtech space saw more than 400 startups ! Only two survive now.

One takeaway I found useful was the question the author asks while doing a periodic assessment of his portfolio cos – “Would I put all the capital at my disposal into this company if I could?Why Not? Or Why?”

The other interesting takeaway was “Our investments that were focused on the greater mass of consumers who were NOT in the top income bracket were the ones that scaled best”

The author also narrates on the rift between the partners which caused Helion to shut down. His sense of fair play comes across in that chapter.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Book and would recommend it to folks interested in Venture Capital & India’s startup scene.