Books on Afghanistan worth your time


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The war in Afghanistan has produced a barrage of books over the years. We pick five must-read books from a rich literature. 

The Taliban
Ahmed Rashid

Authored by the seasoned reporter and observer of Afghanistan, this gripping account was originally written in 2000 and updated in 2010. In a finely studied and mellifluous prose, Rashid explains the ideological and historical origins of the Taliban, their interpretation of Islam, and ‘the new great game’ between regional and western powers. The book walks its readers through a dense social, religious and military history of this beleaguered country.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842
William Dalrymple

Written by the master storyteller, this stunning narrative, with a wide range of recently discovered primary sources, is the most definitive account of the first battle for Afghanistan. It is a tale of violent rebellion, great military defeat and political stratagem. Dalrymple delves into the convoluted complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries, and how it is intertwined with politics in this country. It has striking parallels with what is going on in world today.

Poetry of the Taliban
Alex Strick Van Linschoten

An anthology of more than 250 poems written by the Taliban, this book shows the lyrical, poetic side of the members of this dreaded militia. The soul-stirring poems have been translated and edited by Linschoten and Kuehn, sourced mainly from media, most of them from Taliban’s official website. They portray a range of emotions such as unrequited love, thrill of war, sense of nationalism through powerful images of wine, women, songs and beauty.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

It is a riveting story of a courageous Afghan woman, a dressmaker, who faced extraordinary odds under the Taliban, but overcame all odds and challenges to become a role model for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Written by a Harvard Business School student, this inspiring account gives voice to the unsung heroines of our time, and reminds us that no progress is possible without the active participation of women in all walks of life, including business.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10
Marcus Luttrell

This is a heart wrenching story of war, sacrifice and survival. Authored by the lone survivor of Operation Redwing, it presents a vivid description of extraordinary firefight in the mountains of Kunar that led to the largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history. The author, who managed to survive with the help of locals, presents a rich chronicle of courage and sacrifice. It is a powerful narrative of war that shows how the soldiers battle it out in the field.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)


“You cannot bring about any reform unless the teachers want to change”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Anil K. Gupta is the Michael Dingman Chair in Global Strategy & Entrepreneurship at the Smith School of Business, The University of Maryland at College Park and a Visiting Professor of Strategy at INSEAD. Author of ‘Getting China and India Right’ and ‘Quest for Global Dominance’, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on strategy and globalization.

Q. Enrollment in government run schools has decreased in last decade. There is a trend in both urban and rural areas to opt for private education. How can this gap be bridged?
A: By and large, in a lot of countries, it is true generally of the US and UK, the quality of education in government schools tends on average to lag behind the quality of education in private schools. That’s on average and it’s also true of China and so on. Of course there is huge variance around the average. There are some fantastic government schools and not so good private schools. Looking at India, the reason why parents send their children to private schools is because the quality of teachers in government schools is not good and particularly if you talk about plural India then not just the quality of teachers but even the number of days teachers actually come to the school is a big problem.

In terms of what could be done about it, I would tend to think along two lines. Government pumping more money to build schools and hire teachers as government employees is not really going to be a viable solution. It is going to cost a lot and will take a long time and again it will have all kinds of implementation problems. But a solution around it which is actually beginning to do really well in US and UK is for government to give vouchers to parents, where the vouchers can be used by parents to send children to private schools. The parents are still particularly lower-income parents and you can always have an equal distribution of vouchers, so that education is subsidised and children from poor families are not deprived of education.

But the private schools then compete to attract the children and that obviously goes a long way towards improving the quality and efficiency of the schools. That will be one solution and particularly as all the universal ideas and bearing for the system get implemented in India, the distribution of these kinds of vouchers can be made fairly effective and efficient. Of course it requires a big policy-level re-thinking but it is an implementable approach and an approach which is working in a big way in US and UK.

Q. The government initiatives and schemes to improve the internal efficiency and quality of secondary education have not really clicked. What reasons do you attribute to it?
A. I haven’t followed that closely but basically to improve the internal efficiency and effectiveness of existing government schools is an extremely challenging task everywhere in the world. Basically because you cannot bring about any reform unless the teachers want to change and how do you get teachers to change. If you look at it from reward and penalty point of view, teachers have their own historically set ways of behaving and if they don’t change it doesn’t make much of a difference. In that case bringing about change is not impossible but it becomes challenging. But the structural change like giving parents the vouchers and letting private schools compete to get children has worked and it has a lot of promise.

Q. India boasts of having third largest number of graduates after US and China, with over 350 universities and 17000 colleges. But we still lag behind on the education front. Why so?
A. Firstly I wouldn’t necessarily say that we are behind China because overall the quality of education in China is also not so impressive but clearly on an average India lags behind US and Europe for sure. What has happened in India is exactly what has happened in China. If you look at the last ten years, in terms of the colleges and universities, the number of students graduating has multiplied several folds. In India it has multiplied about four times and in China it has multiplied about six times in last ten years. You can easily build new buildings, increase admissions, increase the class size, but you cannot increase the availability of qualified faculty at the same rate. Therefore the class size shoots up and the quality of faculty goes down, so you have larger number of graduates coming out but the level of education would obviously fall. That’s what has happened in India and that’s also very much what has happened in China.

Q. As per the National Knowledge Commission report, India will need 1500 colleges to raise the GER (Gross enrollment rate) in higher education to 15% by 2020. Do you think government will be able to meet the challenge?
A. I think they might be able to come close to that because in India there is a massive amount of privatization happening. Private individuals and organisations are very active in opening new colleges of engineering and other disciplines so that goal could be achievable but what I would add is that the goal can never be just a quantity, it also has to be quality. On the quality front, I talked about how the voucher

 (First published in The Sunday Indian and The Human Factor)

“We embraced you in your death”



Dear Shahid!

Hope you are in fine fettle, wherever you are. It has been exactly 11 years now since we lost track of you, leaving a void and emptiness. Let me assure you, the void has not been filled yet, and the emptiness is still there. I never met you, but I can see you around me all the time. I don’t know if the night is cottage industry or the day is brisk emporium. But, you said the world is full of paper, write to me. So, I am writing, from far away, a city where you were born.

I was in school far away from my homeland when you took the long walk back to heaven far away from your homeland. You wanted to return to Kashmir to die in autumn, but changed your mind later, only to be buried in Northampton, not too far from the grave of your beloved poet Emily Dickinson. We, the people of Kashmir, still embraced you in your death, as we did in your life. Life and death are immaterial, because you will always live in our hearts and minds.

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Autumn in Kashmir
Autumn in Kashmir
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You left suddenly, shockingly, without posting us a farewell letter. But I know you had already announced your impending departure by dreaming, with soaring imagination and brutally beautiful imagery, at the ghat of the only world. The night of ghazals drew to an end. Quite rightly, love doesn’t let anyone survive, at least it did not let you. But, how did you muster courage to pen down the last verse on your own life? It is something only you the witness and martyr – could do.

We would have loved to hear more from you, but perhaps you were getting late for recitation sessions in heaven. You have not posted a letter from there yet. Your country had no post office then. It still has none. What happened to the solemn promise of meeting again in Srinagar by the gates of the villa of peace? Our beloved witness, you had to be there on that promised autumn afternoon, when soldiers return the keys and disappear. But, you left us, and left behind your lingering presence.

“Your country had no post office then. It still has none”

You struggled with your health and the pain was too excruciating and unbearable for you in your last days, but you fought valiantly, as you did all your life, with words and that characteristic smile. Your smile was unnerving and the sense of humour was classic. I still wonder how you always managed to break into peals of laughter in the middle of a serious conversation or a poetry recitation. I am sure you will agree, there was an inherent pain veiled in that grin, that mirth, that smile and that laughter. Sometimes a smile conveys more pain than tears, and tears express more joy than a smile. I envy the angels, for they must be having a gala time in your amazingly warm company.

“You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry”

You were fond of rogan josh and haakh, enamored with Begum Akhtar’s music, and inspired by Faiz’s poetry. You also loved to cook good and authentic food, as you did once for America’s celebrated poet James Merrill, who had tremendous influence on your poetry. Do you continue to cook for the angels now? I am told your undying passion for ghazal had partly to do with your beautiful relationship with Begum Akhtar. Do you still carry the cassette of ‘phir wohi farmaish’, or have you moved on to other singers? You loved Faiz, and in you, Faiz found a genius translator. You were closest to your mother, and her death literally devastated you. The long, painful journey from Amherst to Kashmir must have haunted you till death. But, as you consoled yourself, compared to your grief for her, what are those of Kashmir, and what are those of the universe. I want to ask, do you still move in your heart between sad countries? Do you continue to wake and feel the fell of dark, not day?

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“Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition?”

Kashmir, your beloved place of memory, has not moved an inch since you left. Nothing has changed on the ground. Death continues to turn every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala. Freedom’s terrible thirst is growing, as more boys are mowed down in cold blood. There are more grieving mothers now, and many more homes are set ablaze by midnight soldiers. I know you did not tell the father of 18 year-old Rizwan that he was no more, but how did you do that? It is so difficult to hide the news of cold-blooded murders of young boys from their fathers. There are many Rizwans now, resting in marked and unmarked graves across Kashmir, the half-inch Himalayas that shrunk in your mailbox.

Did you hear about 17 year-old Tufail, who was shot dead while returning from tuition? Well, his killers have just got a clean chit. Did anyone tell you about 9 year-old Asif who was literally bludgeoned to death? Do you know how 11 year-old Irshad breathed his last after being hit by pallets? Did anyone tell you about the brutal murders of 13 year-old Wamiq, 16 year-old Inayat, and 16 year-old Zahid? Did you hear about 24 year-old Neelofar and 17 year-old Asiya, who was gang-raped and murdered and dumped in a nearby lake? The list is too long. It gives me shudders to go on naming them.

However, as Rizwan had asked you: I am sure you still put Kashmir in your dreams every night.

“It rains as I write this; mad heart, be brave.”

New Delhi

Kebabs all the way!


Book review: ‘Just Kebabs’

Syed Zafar Mehdi

If you thought cooking was a rocket science that only top chefs knew, you probably got it wrong. Here comes a book, which demystifies the complexities surrounding the recipes of 365 lip-smacking, hot and delectable kebabs. “Just Kebabs”, a book by noted chef Davinder Kumar of Le Meridian is a perfect handbook for amateur and professional cooks alike. An introductory encyclopedia of scrumptious recipes of delectable kebabs.

The book, published by Shubhi Publications, was unveiled recently at Desire, Le Meridian by celebrated food critic and editorial director, Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi.

“Just Kebabs” is the repository of tempting kebabs, reminiscing about the bygone Mughal era, served on today’s platter. Treating the vegetarians with its 127 exotic recipes of veg kebabs, it punctures hole into the myth that only non-vegetarians can savor the taste of kebabs. The book, replete with useful cooking tips, even brings the kebabs from regions like Punjab and Hyderabad. Another important highlight is the detailed glossary providing descriptions of the ingredients.

“The right ingredient at the right time is the secret of great taste in cooking. I can’t choose between 365 recipes. They are all different to cook but equally fire your appetite,” says the author, a proud recipient of Best Chef of India award. This is his second book after “Kebabs, Chutneys, and Breads”, which went on to become best-seller in foodie circles.

“Writing in India is continuously going through a process of evolution”

Kapish G. Mehra, Publisher of Rupa and Co speaks to Syed Zafar Mehdi about never-ending travels, mass reach and the youth

Q1. Looking back at the 75 years journey, do you think the mission has been accomplished?

The very nature of a journey signifies that the travel is far from complete. Hence, as the journey still continues, we wish to use this milestone as a point from where we wish to step into the future.

However, we are glad to have had the opportunity to serve the readers and lovers of books all these years. Rupa has been at the forefront of mass market publishing in the Indian market and has gone on to publish the biggest bestsellers of all times. We have had the opportunity to present to the book reading public such great books which have changed the dynamics of publishing all together.

Q2. It all started with a dhoti-clad man, who could barely read and write English, meeting an Englishman at Great Eastern Hotel.  How much has that story of daring-to-dream-and-running-the-gauntlet inspired you at Rupa?

I am glad to be born in the business of books. It is truly inspiring to be able to publish books which have gone on to become cult names in the Indian market. It is always inspiring to reflect on the journey. However, the moral of the story of that dhoti clad gentleman is to be able to consistently perform to the very best of one’s potential while keeping in mind that there are greater challenges to be look forward to and to accomplish.

Q4. Rupa books are everywhere today from book stalls, exhibitions, libraries to book fairs? It even bagged awards for the most attractive display for many consecutive years at World Book Fair. Is that part of your sales strategy?

At Rupa, we have always believed in serving the reader and have taken on all possible efforts to reach our end readers. Through our self-owned distribution system, we have been able to permeate all A, B, C and D level towns of India. Book fairs are wonderful opportunities to meet our readers and we are glad that our stalls have been loved by them during these exhibitions. All editorial, production and marketing processes at Rupa are geared to work towards ensuring a successful sale and satisfied customer.

Q5. Rupa set the trend of giving platform to raw talent like Anurag Mathur, Tara Patel, Upmanyu Chatterjee, Chetan Bhagat Tabish Khair and others. What is your take on the young writers in country today?

Writing in India is continuously going through a process of evolution. The style of writing has undergone a sea of change over the last couple of years. We at Rupa have always believed in promoting young and new talent. We publish the maximum number of first time writers in the country and continue to do so. Amongst the many successful authors published by us include Anurag Mathur, Sunil Gavaskar, Chetan Bhagat, Ravi Subramanian, Neeraj Chibba, Varsha Dixit, Rashmi Kumar, Tishaa, Sudhindra Mokhasi, etc. We strongly believe in the strength of the young writing developing in the country and hope that they would contribute to literary fabric of the nation in a major way.

Q6. After 26/11, Rupa published many personal accounts, sensitive and astonishing tales surrounding the event and its aftermath. And we also know how during the freedom movement, Rupa would supply books to Naini Jail, where the frontline soldiers were lodged. How much important is it for publisher to be a responsible part of the society?

A publishing house is an important and integral part of a nation’s society. Books that are published and brought to the mainstream offer a platform of discussion and debate. Such discussions help in developing an informed public opinion as well as set in motion a dialogue which sometimes results in new books. Such books due to their wide reach within the intelligentsia of the society open up avenues for reflection by the decision makers of a nation. Hence, it is the duty of a publisher to further the cause of strengthening the social fabric of the country through books published by the house.

Q7. Now at 75, what lies ahead for Rupa. Is there something readers should look forward to?

We are in the process of working on developing new categories/ sub categories of writing which could set in motion a new style of writing for the next decade. We are currently looking at a couple of books, some of them by first time writers whom we feel might find a prominent place in the bestseller lists of the country. We would like our readers to look forward to a host of new good quality books with attractive content and affordable pricing!

Feathers in Rupa’s cap

Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar,

A Princess Remembers by Late Maharani Gayatri Devi,

The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur,

2 States, Three mistakes of my life, One night at the call center, and five point someone by Chetan Bhagat,

If god was a banker by Ravi Subramanian,

Pink or black by Tishaa,

Right fit wrong shoe by Neeraj Chibba,

Right fit wrong shoe by Varsha Dixit,

You can sell by Shiv Khera,

Much ado about schooling?


Syed Zafar Mehdi

How significant is school in student’s life? Is it at all required in the first place? Can one prevail without it? Arguments and counter-arguments have been going on incessantly for centuries now, but pieces of the jigsaw remain missing. One of the most ludicrous defenses of school system is the notion that Noble Laureates and other such “crack-a-jacks” are manifestations of its effectiveness. Well, let’s check out what some of the great and legendary Noble laureates themselves to womit about this.

Rabindra Nath Tagore,  hailed as “greatest English poet of the contemporary India” by none else than Yeats, grabbed the coveted honor in Literature in year 1913. He was never a big aficionado of school system. In “Personality: Lectures delivered in America” (London, 1921), he is quoted as saying, ” School forcibly snatches away children away from a world full of mystery of God’s own handiwork, full of the suggestiveness of personality. It is a mere method of discipline which refuses to take into account the individual … my mind had to accept the tight-fitting encasement of the school which being like the shoes of a mandarin woman, pinched and bruised my nature on all sides and at every movement. I was fortunate enough in extricating myself before insensibility set in”. Tagore has the dubious distinction of failing to surmount the high school ( 10th ) “stumbling block” some 16 times on trot, so these harsh words should not come as a shocker.

Tagore however has got the unlikely supporter in Albert Einstein, 1921 Physics Noble prize co-winner. There is a special aura surrounding this genius even today. Einstein sans mincing words sticks a knife into school system, saying ” Its in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry, for this delicate little plane, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom, without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail”. “Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist” Albert Schilpp (1951).

Another person in this anti-school brigade is 1928 Noble laureate Gigrid Undset, who candidly admits, “I hated school so intensely. It interfered with my freedom. I avoided the discipline by an elaborate technique of being absent-minded during classes”. ” Twelfth century authors” Kunitz and Haycraft (1942). Shakespeare in his masterpiece “Hamlet” says, ” to be honest is to be one man picked out of ten thousand”, and Gigrid surely cuts the list.

George Bernard Shaw a 1925 Noble Prize winner in literature was yet another vocal critic of school system. Equating school with prison, GBS in “Bernard Shaw: Collected plays with their prefaces” Vol IV (1972), bluntly puts across his views, ” There is on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it’s a prison, but in some respects crueler than a prison. In a prison, you are not forced to read the books written by warders … and beaten or otherwise tormented if you cannot remember their utterly unmemorable contents. In prison, you are not forced to sit listening to the turnkeys discouraging without charm or interest in subjects that they don’t understand and don’t care about … In a school you have none of these advantages”.


Now, it’s for you to be convinced or confused, choice is yours. “Truth” remarked Henry Haskins, ” would become more popular if it were not stating ugly facts”, but sadly we cant help it either.

Students might be over-animated by this, while parents and educationists in all likelihood would quiver with rage, but rest assured, the views espressed by these great Noble Laureates are about “sick” school system, not the ideal one. You may either indulge in considering your school ideal, or hope for the better in days to come.

Book review: ‘Jaldi Fit’ by Namita Jain


Syed Zafar Mehdi

With ever more nerve-racking, stressful urban lifestyle, the mind-body equation has suffered severely, often resulting in chronic health conditions. So the need for exercise regimen to scamper back to full physical and mental fitness has never been more pressing. Here is Namita Jain’s fitness book “Jaldi Fit”, a handy guide to attain fitter, healthy lifestyle.  

Author, a renowned authority in the wellness industry, calls it a ‘one-stop-solution’ for all fitness predicaments. The book, printed in glossy paper with vibrant pictures and graphics is the product of Jain’s tried and tested regimen that she has evolved through her workshops, personal fitness classes and audience feedback over the years. Filled with fascinating details on exercise regimen, nutrition and health, informed lifestyle choices, Jaldi Fit is a fitness freak’s best manual.

The book looks at cardio, strength training and stretching as three “musts” to attain envious fitness levels. “Good health is all about balancing the three exercise components”.

Cardio strengthens the heart muscles and leads to healthy heart. “To maintain healthy heart, you need at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity for a minimum of 5 days a week.” Cardio routine minimizes conditions like high B.P, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol levels. Strength training is another cog in Jain’s fitness wheel.  It’s about improving muscle quality and efficiency. “With regular training, muscles stay dense and increase in strength.” Next is stretching. A perfect way to tune up the body.

Author makes it look so simple and unfussy by targeting different body parts on different weekdays. Mondays are for lower body workout. Tuesdays for abs and back workout. Wednesdays for upper workout and Thursdays are for stretching and relaxing “to reach out for stress-free mind and body.” Fridays are for total body workout – top to toe rejuvenation for your entire system. Then, you can let your hair down on weekends.

There is also a jaldi fit progression guide. Author believes that to increase workout challenge is important. For that, one needs to increase duration of workout, increase resistance and add variations to workout routine.

A duly practiced exercise regimen can cure Osteoporosis – a bone-weakening condition. Author shatters many a myths about this disease. The book tells us how to get rid of obesity by “creating a calorie deficit”. It shows how to beat ageing and master metabolism and goes on explaining as to what constitutes balanced diet ad nutrition. Few myths about food and fitness are also busted.

Overall, Jain has done marvelous job of simplifying the tricky subject of fitness and healthy lifestyle. Go; grab a copy of book and enjoy being “jaldi fit”.