Becoming

Title: Becoming
Writers : Michelle Obama
Published: 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

I am wary of books written by or about celebrities just after they assume an important role or give up one. Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Narendra Modi – the list goes on. As soon as someone takes up CEO role or becomes the PM, either the person himself/herself or someone else comes out with a (auto)biography. I try and stay away from such books but I made an exception with Becoming – for two reasons. I have been in awe of Michelle Obama ever since she came into the limelight. Her grace and dignity are impressive and I wanted to hear what she has to say about her life. And I thought she would have something substantial and meaningful to say, considering she was the first Black First Lady of US. And I am glad I made this exception.

Becoming is neatly segregated into three sections: Michelle’s childhood, her meeting Obama and their marriage, and the tumultuous journey to the White House and their stay there. Michelle had the privilege of growing up in a non-traditional Black family, in the sense that she had a safe and loving environment, father with a steady job and parents who emphasized on providing good education. One stark example would be Michelle’s parents’ insistence that Michelle and her brother speak proper English with the right grammar and pronunciation. While this helped both the siblings to assimilate in the bigger world, it set them apart from the most of the Black families as they were seen as “different”. Michelle’s struggle in settling down on going to Princeton and her natural choice of hanging out with peer Black students is a very emotional read.

Compared to the first section, the second one is slightly boring. Her first meeting with Obama, their initial interaction leading to a date, courting and eventual marriage – this borders on cheesy (for me) in some places. What this section achieves though, is show the contrast between the two personalities. While Michelle was always the do-gooder, approval seeking person, Barrack was hyper-focused on civil rights, and didn’t want to spread his roots and settle down. Heck, he did not even believe in the institution of marriage. This section also shows the dedication Mr. Obama always had on his humanitarian work, his contribution to non-profit work and his sincere empathy.

The concluding section is the most interesting. This is where Obama decides to plunge into politics, by dipping his beak as Senator and eventually aiming for the White House. The amount of hard work, strategy, planning and money that gets poured into Presidential politics is mind boggling. I could relate to Michelle so well when she was on the fence about this. She wanted her husband to achieve his dreams, but also wanted a safe, protective environment for her kids, away from the media glare. She knew that once they enter the political world, there is no shying away from the public. Every word said or unsaid, every dress worn, every hair of strand that is out of its place would get judged and not just for herself but for her daughters as well. How she struggles to keep them grounded and give them as normal as a childhood she could provide is commendable.

As one of the most influential Presidents of the US, Barrack Obama definitely will go down in history with golden laurels, but as the First Lady, Michelle did not fade under his shadow, but made a mark for herself and found her own voice.

Now that I have read the book, I wonder why Michelle named it “Becoming”. There is a theme, of course, on how she climbed the stepping stones of life, but considering her constant struggle of “Am I good enough?”, “Do I belong here?”, “Is this for us?”, a better book title would have been “Belonging”.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Title: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Writers: Ashlee Vance
Published: 2015
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
My Rating: 3 on 5

Elon Musk needs no introduction. He is almost always in the news for both right and wrong reasons, and the latter, more often than not. I am a fan of his vision, his larger-than-life ambitions and his fearlessness. I decided to read this book for two reasons – to know what kind of a life Musk led before he came into the spotlight and also to understand what makes him, him. While the book did give a glimpse of his life and answered my first question, it barely answered the second one.

Ashlee Vance gives a brief account of Musk’s life – his carefree parents, troublesome childhood due to getting bullied, strong bonding with his siblings, his strong urge to move to the US, and the trigger for his entrepreneurship and the eventual founding of companies. He intersperses this with the current happenings in Musk’s life, so this does not follow the chronological order. Vance also tries to explain the troubled relationships Musk has had with his spouses. In short, this book gives us a pretty good idea on how Musk’s life has been.

Vance also touches upon some of the behaviors which is scrutinized by the world. Musk’s recklessness in taking risks, in pushing people to an extent that they reach a breaking point and in being a total control freak. Musk dreams big and so do many visionaries. What makes Musk stand apart is proclaiming to the world on when he is going to achieve that dream even before having a first cut plan on how to achieve it. On multiple instances, Musk has announced release dates and his team had to run amok to meet that date. Setting up aggressive schedules is one thing, but what Musk does is suicidal. He is constantly pushing the team to the brink of breaking with his cold behavior which borders on being abusive.

Vance almost hero worships Musk and such a person cannot do justice to a biography. Even when Vance is discussing Musk’s questionable behavior with his first wife, it is as if Vance is defending Musk’s behavior. Musk is sometimes horrible to his employees and Vance has to say something justifying that. Vance does say he refused to let Musk read this book before publishing, but it certainly looks likes someone edited this book heavily before it hit the press. This book reads like a big list of justification defending Musk’s objectionable behavior.

Vance’s commentary and the numerous interviews barely give a glimpse of why Musk does what he does. And this is my main issue with this book. Musk’s voice is completely missing. I understand this is a biography and not an autobiography, but there is always a way to bring out the inner voice of the person in question. This book is like shadowing Musk and going around watching what he is doing, but what I wanted was to get into his mind to see what was going on. Why does he care so much for the human race that he goes to the extent of setting up a colony in Mars as an alternative world, but is abusive to his wife and demeans his employees who work for him? What kind of an empathy is this that you care for the overall race, but treat the individuals like slaves? What kind of a human  celebrates life but chides his employee for missing work to witness the birth of his child?

I still am a fan of Musk’s vision and his larger-than-life ideas. But a fan of this book, I am not. I will wait for the day when Musk decides to write his autobiography.

 

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Open by Andre Agassi

Title: Open
Writer : Andre Agassi
Published: 2009
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

Andre Agassi was the first tennis player who I came to admire from the time I learnt what tennis is. I remember watching the first tennis match of Agassi with his bandanna (so fitting that I don’t recall who his opponent was) and rooting for this guy without even knowing his name. There was something about Agassi – his passion, his resilience to not quit and more than anything his vulnerability (he lost that match) was so attractive. I went on to become his fan.

Agassi is honest and transparent in his autobiography. His life is like an open book (heh), so I don’t need to delve into what part of life he covers and what he leaves out. Starting with his early childhood days of growing up under a strict father who put Agassi into a very rigorous training – so rigorous that Agassi starts hating tennis. His teenage years of fighting with himself and the world, getting wild haircuts and attires just to be invisible, which the world thought was to gain attention – this journey is so heart wrenching. Agassi recalls every critical match in his life and dissects it with a retrospective view and comes up with reasons on why he lost matches and why he won some. It is so difficult to digest that Agassi lost some really pivotal matches in his life. And it all comes down to the player’s state of mind. A player can predict how the match will go based on just one’s own state of mind. To see the happenings in the player’s mind, up close, coming straight from the horse’s mouth is incredible.

Agassi explains a tennis match in such a beautiful way, by comparing it to life.

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.

Despite the rich and stardom status, Agassi was always grounded. There are so many instances in the book where he came across as an average human being and reached out and helped others and not throw his weight around. His own struggle when his coach’s child is fighting with a life threatening disease shows how close he is to his “team” and treats them as family more than anything.

For someone who breathes, eat, sleeps and lives tennis and whose life was made by that very sport, Agassi’s hatred towards tennis is hard to believe. He really means it when he says he hates tennis – reiterated multiple times all through the book.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

I play and keep playing because I choose to play. Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.

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Journey with a hundred strings: My life in music – Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma with Ina Puri

I hesitate to pick up a memoir or an autobiography. I really don’t know what to expect. Will it be a series of incidents plainly stated in chronological order? Will it be like sitting with that person and having an informal chat and sharing his or her life over a cup of coffee? Since I don’t know what to expect, I stay away from this genre. But, I picked up Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma’s memoir for two reasons. One, it was small, so even if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on that. Second, and the stronger reason, was the connection it has with Indian classical music. I told myself that I will learn a thing or two about Hindustani music and santoor.

The book limits itself to Panditji’s life in music and incidents connected to it. The author was clear when he started with this book. Everything about music and nothing else. This decision is clearly visible when the author just fleetingly mentions his first son Rohit (who is not into music) whereas discusses his other son, Rahul (a renowned santoor player himself) at length.

The book starts with Shivji’s birth and childhood but does not really list the incidents chronologically. The language is simple and the attitude unassuming.  There is no hint of pretension, no stating of incident just for the sake of stating. Panditji’s struggle in establishing the santoor as an independent and complete musical instrument in the Hindustani music world is commendable. While reading those pages, one feels the author’s pain and symapthizes with him.

Some critics were very harsh, saying the santoor would never be accepted as a classical instrument. Others, mostly senior musicians who knew my father, were sympathetic, and framed their comments in a different way: ‘Beta, you have chosen the wrong instrument. There is still time: give up this instrument, take up the sitar or sarod and you will be very successful’.

This book made me realize Panditji’s contribution to Hindi film music. I knew he was the Shiv in Shiv-Hari, who have composed music for films like Silsila and Chandni. What I did not know was that Shivji played the tabla for the song Piya tose naina lage re from the movie Guide on Panchamda’s request. Neither did I know that Shivji was in close association with artists like S D Burman, R D Burman, Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. It is surprising to see that an artist who was so strongly present in the Hindi film music circle managed to stay away from the media glare.

There is a lot to learn from this great man. His simplicity, dedication, virtues are qualities that are rarely seen these days. His respect for other musicians is clearly visible. In this world of hollow musicians who play for money, fame and awards, gems like Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma are hardly noticed.

The author discusses various things like India-Pakistan partition, the present disturbance in J&K, the technicalities of santoor, his interactions with other artists, his concerts etc. In the whole book, what touched me the most is Panditji’s take on music.

To me the most important process in music is to go inward. Playing the santoor is not just entertainment for me; it takes me inward. This is the spiritual quality of music.

There is an entire chapter dedicated to this, aptly titled ‘Music and spirituality’, and according to me, it is the best part of the book.

After reading this book, I feel I have known Panditji closely from years. I feel I have lived his life, along with him, as a passive audience. Is this what a memoir should do to the reader? I still don’t know what to expect from an autobiography, but this has to be the best I have read and will ever read.