My Life With Books: Srinivas Krishnan

A legend in his own lifetime, Mumbai-based Srinivas has been an automotive person in the communications business or a communications person in the automotive business all along – advertising, journalism, corporate and public relations. He is currently senior vice president of the Mobility Practice at a leading PR agency, while also a writer and columnist veering towards road safety, classic cars and Tintin. Deeply passionate about books, Srini reads extensively. Here, he talks to us about his favourite books and authors, and his undying ‘love’ for television.

What are you currently reading?

Easy question, tough to answer. That’s because, at any given time, I read two books of different genres at home, a separate book for taking along during my business travels and another one as a palate cleanser – so four books typically. First, the palate cleanser – which is usually fiction, an easy read that I can breeze through rapidly. This time around, it was Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The main books that I am reading now at home are Jinnah vs Gandhi by Roderick Matthews and Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal. The former is an immaculate hardbound I came across at an itinerant pavement bookseller’s display close to my house in Chembur. I have been lucky to get some terrific books from Maurya, who goes by this one name and refuses to share his phone number with me for some reason. I have no idea when Maurya sets up his little display, but whenever I am lucky to spot him, he usually has something for me. 

Jinnah vs Gandhi is a book that chronicles the differences between a man who was considered ‘an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ and the Mahatma. What are the chances that these two lawyers with origins in the Kathiawar region would end up on opposite sides of a divided nation? This is a book that begged to be written.

Indica too is a book that deserved to be written – for anyone who enjoys travelling around our own country, it is an invaluable companion. It has been passionately written by Lal in a way that we can all understand more about the subcontinent that is home to nearly two billion souls. Indica is the story of our geography, bringing out the significance of the nature of our land, stones, rocks, soil, hills and mountains, water bodies and more that we are usually oblivious to. It is a lavishly produced, gorgeous hardbound book; even the paper feels exquisite between your fingers. Lal has made geography and science come alive in Indica – I am already looking at my country with new eyes, and I have barely finished one-third of the book.

And finally, my travel books are those which are easy to carry around and read at airports or during flights. Currently, I am reading 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War by Major General Ian Cardozo. This book was timed to be released on the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s creation. It is a fascinating collection of little-known stories of the 1971 war written by a highly decorated soldier who is as good with a pen as he is with the deadly khukri (well, he amputated his own leg using one). Maj Gen Cardozo is a fighter in more ways than one – he would fight for the right to command a battalion (later a brigade), becoming the first war-disabled officer of the Indian Army to do so. I am looking forward to reading his latest book, Cartoos Saab – an autographed copy of which is on its way.

Do you make time for reading every day, despite your super-hectic workdays? How do you manage to find the time?

It’s quite difficult. I read an enormous lot every single day, but not enough books, unfortunately. As part of my work as well as for general interest, I take about an hour-plus for three newspapers and manage to snatch several long-form articles or opinion pieces during the day on the laptop. If I manage to finish all the essential daily reading early, I get about half an hour in the night before Sandman comes. Social media, especially Twitter, however, sucks more of my time than it should.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading? What’s your favourite genre of books, if any? 

Phew. My reading is enormously eclectic. My bookshelves are wildly diverse. However, if I attempt to see some patterns, there are:

Books by Salman Rushdie, Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple, Ramachandra Guha, Manu S Pillai, Pico Iyer, Orhan Pamuk       

Books by Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Bill Bryson, Shashi Tharoor, Robert Harris, PG Wodehouse, Tom Clancy

Books on my hero, Mahatma Gandhi

On Jawaharlal Nehru and the founding fathers of India as well as the Indian freedom movement and many on India’s modern history, culture and the arts, and Tibet too

Books on Mao Tse-tung and his era including those by Frank Dikotter and several on modern-day China

Books on Adolf Hitler and the Second World War

Plenty of books on classic and vintage cars as well as automobilia in general

Coffee table as well as hefty tomes on western art, especially Renaissance and Impressionist

And many more that beat classification…

What are some of the most remarkable books you’ve read in the last three years? Why do these stand out among all others? 

Again, it’s a tough choice. But let me make an attempt. Before we start, a caveat. I buy books and, sometimes, read them after decades. Or I don’t buy a book simply because it’s fashionable to buy it right away – I take my own sweet time to acquire them. So the following list may not be books of the last three years, but simply those which I remember having read recently. Here goes:

Return Of A King by William Dalrymple: A staggering account of the deceits of the Empire in an attempt to control Afghanistan to create a buffer state between its crown jewel and an imagined threat of Imperial Russia. Simply, it’s an account of the first Anglo-Afghan War, but when you look deeply it’s a highly textured book with multiple story threads passing through it. Our region is still facing the effects of something that happened in the mid-19th century, and what’s incredible is that history is repeating itself even now! It is a huge tome, and it is unputdownable – I wanted to restart it the moment I finished reading it.

The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War In East Pakistan by Gary J Bass: The Blood in the title refers to Archer Blood, the US Consul General in Dhaka who kept sending missives to his country about the atrocities the West Pakistanis subjected their own people in the East, but without any avail. The perfidies of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to side with the West Pakistanis are unbelievable – cannot believe both these men were not hung for their war crimes. Of course, India and Indira Gandhi play their part in creating a new, proud country called Bangladesh. The stories behind history come alive.

The Berlin Bunker by James P O’Donnell: I acquired this book on August 5, 1996, and didn’t bother reading it till recently. The author served in the US Army and in a few days, without a change in uniform, was appointed Newsweek’s correspondent in Germany. For his story, he stepped into Hitler’s bunker on July 4, 1945 – the first non-Soviet person to do so. The book, written in 1975, starts at that point. He interviews many survivors and eyewitnesses and reconstructs the last days of the Bunker skilfully. So much so that there is a startling immediacy to the book, as if the foul air of the Bunker and the fumes of Hitler and Eva Braun’s burnt bodies have barely dissipated.

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg: This book makes for scary reading. The Australian authors have detailed how the Chinese Communist Party – with enormous resources at its disposal – has penetrated deep enough to manipulate all the key levers of other countries and societies, and boasts remarkable influence in the host countries. However, the book is for a Western audience – it does not have much of India in it, which is a miss. India, which has the overbearing Chinese bully in its backyard, is more vulnerable than most of the other countries, so it’s all the more important to understand all the tricks that the wily Chinese are playing. I would make it essential reading for all the arms of the Indian Government that deal with China – especially our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister downwards. While at it, I also enjoyed reading India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise and What It Means for India by China-based journalist Ananth Krishnan, for it gives the critical Indian perspective of a new, assertive China. 

The Tragedy Of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 by Frank Dikotter: This is one of a series of three books on Mao’s China by the Hong Kong-based academic who gained access to China’s real history – the one which you won’t find in its record books. Following Mao’s Great Famine, I was struck by the incredible devastation this one man had caused in his country. Keeping the same theme, The Tragedy Of Liberation is equally gripping – it is an account of how the Communists ‘liberated’ China only to make the Chinese go through unbelievable suffering. Dikotter’s speciality is along with the sweep of the larger narrative, he embellishes it with the stories of individuals – humanising the grand course of China’s tragic history that the Chinese people are kept ignorant about. The next one I’ll start with is about the Cultural Revolution.

A Strange Kind Of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes by Sam Miller: Well, what do you know, another gora – this time a BBC correspondent – comes to India and falls in love with the country. Nothing new, right? But Sam Miller decided to write a book about it. Miller writes about all the famous visitors to India right from Alexander onwards to, well, Miller himself, as his own story runs parallel to these, as he goes about revisiting the sites the visitors across ages had written about. Miller’s numerous explanatory notes on each page are a fun read and make the book that much more enjoyable. He is uproariously funny, has an observant eye, is passionate about the history of the subcontinent, and I suspect he’s slightly kooky too. I have bought and kept Miller’s Delhi: Adventure In A Megacity simply because of his writing and not because I am too fond of Delhi.

Despite The State: Why India Lets Its People Down And How They Cope by M Rajshekhar: A disclosure: Rajshekhar is a friend and he has written this depressing book. He takes six Indian states and studies the way they deliver, rather doesn’t deliver to their people. Mizoram, Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Gujarat are the six states that Rajshekhar pries open and exposes the innards of how they work – not for the people, not by the people, not of the people. As a reporter, Rajshekhar lived extensively in these states and met a wide cross-section of people to put together this account of how democracy has failed the people. And I can tell you, it does not make for pleasant reading. 

You’ve been an automotive journalist in the past. So, who are some of your favourite authors for motoring-related writing, and which are your most favourite car-related books?

Though Jeremy Clarkson is the one everyone likes, I prefer P J O’Rourke for automotive writing. Though it is purely American humour, the late O’Rourke is funny without losing out on sharp insights as well as searing commentary on other things in life. That apart, DK Books on cars are terrific to read – packed with information in an easy-to-consume format.  

What’s your stand on books-vs-TV?

I don’t have a working television set. Or maybe it works, but hasn’t had electricity coursing through its veins for, what, maybe 20 years. It is an ancient, bulky Sony cathode ray tube set that occupies pride of place in my hall. Its main purpose, according to my wife, is to occupy precious space that would otherwise be occupied by books. So now you know the answer to the TV-vs-books question. But that apart, while the audio-visual medium has a role to play in virtually everyone’s lives, somehow I don’t resonate with it. I don’t know why. Watching even a short three-minute video is tedious. Maybe I am just a weird sort of guy.

Why do you think kids these days spend most of their time on smartphone apps and why is it that they don’t want to read books? What do you think can be done to remedy this situation?

Kids? What about adults? Kids don’t do as they are told by adults, they do by seeing what adults do. So if you want to get your child to read, ensure that you do. Also, smartphones are good to make kids learn – more than any textbook can. But to fire their imagination, they need to read books.  

At some time in the future, do you see yourself moving from actual, physical books to something like a Kindle?

Absolutely not! It has an electronic screen.

Anything else that you’d like to say about your relationship with books and reading?

My relationship with books is eternal. 

Reading books and listening to music are as essential as breathing or eating. 

I am addicted to books. 

I pleasurably suffer from Tsundoku

I keep a pen handy and underline key sections in the hope that I can revisit them in the future. 

I don’t read self-help books.

I seek bargains, so you would find me scouring pavement book stalls and book sales quite often. 

One of the pavement booksellers I frequent in Mumbai is called Hitler. His full name is Hitler Nadar.

I love visiting bookshops and it takes tremendous effort on my part to come out empty-handed. Self-control builds character, I suppose.

I will buy books from Amazon only if they are rare and difficult to get. I endeavour to give business to bookshops, discount booksellers who hold sales and pavement booksellers.

I overturn the bookshelves of people’s homes I visit with the aim of ‘permanently borrowing’ a few books from them. So be warned.

At the same time, I am reluctant to let people borrow my books. But if they do, it’s written down or there is photographic evidence of them borrowing my books. And I chase them after giving them reasonable time to read.

Finally, I believe I have a huge collection of books because they represent the empty slots in my brain that I need to fill.

Did I say I am addicted to books?

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