Friday, May 28, 2010

The House of Blue Mangoes

Author:       David Davidar
Published:   2002
Publisher:    Penguin Books India
Paperback: 432 pages
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The saga of Dorai family spanning over 3 generations during the last 5 decades of British Raj (1899-1947),  set in a fictitious district in Madras Presidency (now the state of Tamil Nadu plus some regions now in Kerala, Karnataka & Andhra) . The scene of  India's struggle for freedom plays in the background, subtly touching  the lives of the main characters.
The book is in three parts. The first part is about Solomon Dorai, a strict but just and benevolent headman of the village Chevathar. The second part is about his son Daniel Dorai who becomes a renowned physician and establishes a new family settlement Doraipuram near their ancestral village Chevathar. Kannan, the son of Daniel Dorai , a successful manager of a Tea Estate owned by an Englishman in Pulimed, is the main protogonist in part three. He becomes a "pucca brown-sahib". But once he realizes that Englishmen will never consider him their equal, he resigns and returns back to his roots in Chevathar.
The plot is simple with no dramatic thrills or turn-arounds. Issues described in the story through excellently etched characters are very realistic  - caste wars, father-son disagreements, family politics, love marriage breakup etc.

There are several British characters - Father Ashworth, Chris Cooke, Harrison who  play a very significant roles in the the lives of Solomon Dorai, Daniel Dorai & Kannan respectively. However I cannot help feeling that they are mainly introduced with the global readership in view.

The narration is very vivid and holds your attention throughout the book.
A very good book  for light reading, though in my opinion the rave reviews from all over the world quoted in the back cover and first few pages of the book are somewhat exaggerated.

A few impressive extracts from the book:

1.  "At the moment of his triumph, he had escaped the world, the hundreds of little things we say and do to ourselves bind us down, make us helpless little worms, who on their deathbeds only remember and lament what they always wanted to do, but never had the courage for. Think about it, anna. What a waste of life, no matter how pitiful or earnest or triumphant it has been. Do you really want to die, and in your last moment go into the dark thinking only of what might have been".

2.  As Father Ashworth put the pages in order, he read what he had written -  At the heart of every religion in the world  is the divine mystery. 
The problem that the teachers who have contributed to the evolution of each faith have always been confronted with can be simply stated:
How to plumb the divine mystery, describe it, explain it to themselves and the followers of the faith ? It is a problem almost without solution, for how do you describe God ? There are no facts that can adequately explain the Supreme Reality; none but the greatest seers are granted the intuition to experience the Divine.
As a result, each religion has evolved a host of symbols and myths and conventions and dogma, to make its central mystery better understood. Over the centuries, these have obscured the central mystery to the impoverishment of faith. And the priestly class has only itself to blame for obscuring and misinterpreting the Truth, perverting religion for its own selfish ends, setting brother against brother, saint against saint, dogma against dogma. Is Krishna's memorable message to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra any less important than Christ's Sermon on the Mount or the Buddha's explication of the Eightfold Path? No, a thousand times no ! Men of vision of all faiths need to explain to their followers that the goal of every religion is same - to achieve the transcendent state, experience the one true Reality, understand fully the eternal Truth..."

3. As she prepared the meal that evening, a memory of Aaron insinuated itself into Charity's sense of well-being. Instantly her mood grew less buoyant. Where was her beautiful boy, she wondered. What was he doing now?  She shook off her gloomy foreboding. Aaron will be all right; God is watching over him, and one day he will return. As she bent to light the fire she gave thanks for her perfect day. Even the shadow cast by Aaron had its place in it: too much happiness wasn't good for you; it was bound to be followed by great sorrow, as the world tried to keep the balance.

4. "It's ironic, I kept running away from the place, but it grew to be most important thing in my life....." ........."Isn't it curious how we always realize the important things when it's too late? Perhaps that's His way of reminding us how useless and significant we really are".

5.  'Watch how you speak to me, you young whippersnapper. Do you mean to tell me that you haven't spent your working life fitting into a straitjacket devised by someone else? You look like a fellow who doesn't put up with nonsense, so it must have been even more of a trial. Look at you, enunciating your words carefully, polishing your English manners, playing right into the hands of those who seek to keep you down. Why the hell should you not say Les-ester or Wor-sester or Chol-mon-de-ley when not one Englishman of my acquaintance can pronounce an Indian name correctly? And why should you not spit in public when the honking of a white man into his handkerchief would drown out a tiger's roar? And do you really think the English oak is sturdier than the banyan and the thrush superior to bulbul? And that the lotus is inferior to the rose? Is Tamil less than English? Why don't these things make you angry?' [ This is Harrison a bitter Englishman berating Kannan for holding Englishmen with high regard. This could also serve as a reproach to the people who blindly ape the west and think anything American or European is better than Indian]

6. 'But is that what you really want to do? I know things have been rough around here but you are a good planter, Cannon. You could have an excellent career on the estates.'
'I thought so too, sir, but sometimes you keep putting off the inevitable, knowing all the while that the decision has already been taken a long time ago, often without any conscious thought. It's always been there, you've just taken a few twists and turns in the road before you arrive at it.'
'Now you've lost me, with all this talk of destiny. What do you chaps call it, karma?'
'Not bad at all, sir', Kannan said with a smile.
'You've never seemed more Indian to me than you did just now,' Michael said.
'But that's the whole point, sir. I am Indian, and I expect we just forgot that for a while.'

Friday, May 21, 2010

Becoming Agile in an Imperfect World

Authors: Greg Smith, Ahmed Sidky
Published: 2009
Publisher: Manning Publications Co.
Paperback: 408 pages
The authors of  Manifesto for Agile Software Development  unambiguously acknowledge  the value of processes and tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation and following a plan, even though they place more importance on individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration and responding to change.
However many agile zealots are totally closed to the idea that there may be something good in traditional software process development and demean anything related to it. So it was a real pleasant surprise to come across this book written by two agilists - Greg Smith and Ahmed Sidky, who do not believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water in their enthusiasm to introduce agile methods in an organization.

There are many good books on agile principles and techniques. But this is the first book I have come across which lays out a detailed and systematic roadmap from the culture of  traditional software development to that of an agile culture. The need for such a book has been well recognized by Mary Poppendieck, an authority on lean software development, who has written the foreword for this book.

The book consists of 23 chapters, spread across eight parts.
Part 1: Provides  a foundation for understanding what agile is and introduces a case study  that is hypothetical yet based on authors' hands-on development and consulting experience. It is a story of a fictitious yet close to real-life company Acme Media, which runs throughout the book to illustrate the transition from a  traditional to an agile environment.
Part 2: Helps to put a process in place which support adding agility to the organization's existing methodology. It proposes an assessment methodology which can help to  understand the potential for improving  the existing development lifecycle. The importance of getting buy-in across the company - the executives and the team-members - is stressed and a blue print  to achieve it has been described. Tips on how to evaluate and select a pilot project for agile development are also provided.
Part 3: Talks about the project feasibility study , envisioning the product to be delivered, selecting and  aligning the  team-members to the project goals.
Part 4:  This part is about prioritizing the features, and creating a product backlog with user stories and estimating the user stories at the right level with the right people.
Part 5: Discusses discuss how to create an overall release plan and how to enriched it  before each iteration begins. It also has a discussion about obtaining team commitment for the iteration by involving the team members in the detailed iteration planning process.
Part 6: This part recommends having an iteration zero first before starting the development iterations. This can be utilized for setting up the development environment, finalizing vendor contracts, and preparing  the team for the project. The next chapter in this part deals with the development phase iterations and demonstrates the agile principles in the case study project . This part concludes with a chapter on testing in an agile environment,  which going beyond customer validation, discusses  unit, integration, and exploratory testing.
Part 7:  Agile projects operate in a very dynamic environment. This part first deals positively adapting  to the  project situations,  like features being larger like expected, changing business requirements, discovery of technical constraints, team member unavailability etc.. This is then followed by discussion on final testing, release, deployment and conducting retrospectives.
Part 8: In this final part the authors discuss how an organization can move from project level agile adoption to enterprise level agility.

A very well written book containing lots of useful techniques  and templates which can be easily adapted to the organization's need.
However the case study described in this book though it illustrates the agile concepts well, seems rather smooth sailing. It could be enhanced with examples of more critical  and problematic situations, normally encountered in real life projects.
Nevertheless I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to transition from the traditional way of software engineering to a more agile way.

Download the Table of contents and  two sample chapters of this book  from

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Profiles of the Future - An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible

Author:      Arthur C. Clarke
Published:  1965
Publisher:   Bantam
Paperback: 240 pages
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Readers in India

The author Arthur C. Clarke a renowned science fiction author who was also a distinguished scientist and inventor wrote the first edition of this book  way back in 1962 . Subsequently he updated it a few times to sync up with the latest developments in science and technology. The 1965 edition which I just finished reading, was purchased by my dad in mid-sixties. And having  just glanced at the cover of this book off and on over the last 40 years, it is only recently I chose to read it.
It was a cumbersome read in the sense that the book being almost as old as me , the binding had become weak and  its pages were falling apart every time I  turned them ! But what a  fascinating forecast of  what future has in store for us !
The predictions made by the author of the future are very imaginative and yet have a firm grounding on the laws of science and technology. He talks about - the fourth dimension, conquering  the laws of gravity, the exploration and colonization of  outer spaces,  mining the seas for energy and minerals, pulling asteroids to Earth to supply needed materials, breeding smaller size and more efficient men who consume
less food etc.
 When you read  this book , you will be astounded by author's vision. Some of his predictions have already come true, some are closer to becoming true and some are still  in the realm of fantasy.
 Here I would just quote a few extracts from Chapter 16 of this book - The Voices from the Sky. Just bear in mind that he wrote this in early 1960s

1. "In a few years every large nation will be able to establish  (or rent) its own space-borne radio and TV transmitters, able to broadcast really high-quality programs to the entire planet."
2. "The advent of global TV and radio coverage will end, for better or worse, the cultural or political isolation which still exists over the whole world, outside the great cities."
3. "... the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth, merely by dialing a number. He will be located automatically, whether he is in mid-ocean, in the heart of a great city, or crossing the Sahara."
4. "The business of the future may be run by executives who are scarcely ever in each other's physical presence. It will not even have an address or a central office - only the equivalent of a telephone number. For its files and records will be space rented in the memory units of computers that could be located anywhere on Earth:"
5."And so the captains of industry of the twenty-first century may live where they please, running their affairs through computer keyboards and information handling machines in their homes"
6. "The time will certainly come when surgeons will be able to operate a world away from their patients,..."
7. "Modern facsimile systems can automatically transmit and reproduce an equivalent of an entire book in less than a minute."

Wow ! Clarke  had  predicted - sattelite TVs, globalization, mobile phones, internet, telecommuting, telesurgery, e-books at least 20 years before they became a world-wide reality.
And I am glad that he lived to see these predictions come true in his lifetime. He passed away just two years back in 2008 at the ripe old age of 90.
However I could not say the same for my dad . He passed away in 1981. He was just 53.  I am sure he would have enjoyed the realization of the predictions he read in this book which he bought in mid-1960s.
I highly recommend this book to all the science and technology enthusiasts  and lay readers who have a flair for imagination.