Shoe Dog: Phil Knight

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This book was on every best-of list last year – even Bill Gates recommended it. I picked this up at a friend’s wedding (where she gave books as return gifts – super awesome idea!) and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Shoe Dog is Phil Knight’s memoir, chronicling Nike’s rise from an idea he had for his MBA thesis to its going public in 1980. Knight writes about his early years as founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, selling Onitsuka’s Tiger shoes from his car while holding down a job, the medley of colorful characters who join him as he builds his shoe business, the feud with Onitsuka that leads to Nike’s birth, and the various obstacles thereon.

Nike’s origins story isn’t as well-publicized as Apple or Facebook (at least in my corner of the world), so it was with some surprise that I read that Nike had been embroiled in multiple lawsuits and investigations in its formative years. But what caught my attention was Phil’s team. Phil is a reticent, no-praise type boss, the one who just grunts when you get 2x your targets, and while his ambition for growth is what drives Nike, the others, like prolific letter-writing Employee Number One Jeff Johnson, or wheelchair-bound wizard Bob Woodell, are what build it. Knight’s style of writing is warm and funny, and he manages to make even the biggest crises come off, not as earth-shattering dramas, but as big difficulties that can be surpassed.

What permeates the book is a genuine love for running. In many business memoirs, the person becomes bigger than the thing he/she is building, but for Phil, it’s sports first. He is heartfelt about his admiration for Bill Bowerman, the coach who was his business partner and designed many of his hit shoes, and he dedicates almost an entire chapter to runner Steve Prefontaine and his life. This passion is what draws you into the book, and it is what lingers on long after you finish it.

#Girlboss: Sophia Amoruso

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What do you do when you are stuck in a boring meeting where you have no part to play? Well, if you are me, you pick up an e-book you casually downloaded but never wanted to devote your sparse reading time to. If you’re my boss and reading this, I’ll leave you to digest one of Amoruso’s quotable quotes – entrepreneurialism is an eighteen letter word. Go figure what it means.

The Netflix show based on the book made me pick it up, despite the distinctive unlikeability of the TV character. Sophia Amoruso is the founder of Nasty Gal, a fashion brand that started off selling vintage clothing on eBay and grew into a trendsetter for young women. Amoruso talks openly about different facets of her life, from petty thievery in her college years to selling $10 thrift clothing for $1000 to becoming a fashion empire.

I believe that there is a silver lining in everything, and once you begin to see it, you’ll need sunglasses to combat the glare.

Amoruso writes like a millennial talks – cool and sassy with liberal doses of cuss and pop culture references. She tries to dole out business knowledge as she describes her story of going from a dumpster-diving teen to owner of a fashion empire, but the business fundae are as flimsy as JLo’s see-through Versace dress, and her writing is filled with cheesy quotes (as above). Like in the show, I admired her ability to hustle, and her knack for spotting a trend before it became so (hello, social media influencer monetization), but she writes with a particular disdain for those who prefer more conventional ways of getting to the top. For a book titled Girlboss (with a hashtag, no less), there is no commentary on how to become a female leader and deal with all the tribulations associated with it. Her own trumpet is something she loves to blow, and it occasionally becomes ironic, such as when she crows about Nasty Gal focusing on being debt-free and always having cash in the bank, given that two years after she wrote the book, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy. I read that Amoruso tried to use this book to pivot into a career motivating women to take charge of their careers, but after reading the book, I’m not sure that she’s the role model women need.

Curfewed Night: Basharat Peer

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Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Peer’s Curfewed Nights are two sides of the same story, and that is why I read them back to back.

Peer writes about his childhood growing up in Anantnag near Srinagar, just as the violence was beginning in the Valley. He talks of militants and then armymen visiting his school, how he almost joined the JKLF, the stories of people who actually did and what befell them. Growing up, he moves to Delhi to study but comes back, to write about the Kashmir he left behind, the Kashmir of half-widows and rapes and Army atrocities in camps like Papa-2.

It is certainly interesting to read this book just after Pandita’s, and you see the same event from two different eyes. The sloganeering of “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!” which terrified the young Pandita, the young Peer participated in. The India-Pak cricket match, where Javed Miandad’s last-ball sixer off Chetan Sharma’s delivery left Pandita in tears, was a moment of celebration for Peer and his village. But like Pandita says in his book, their stories diverged after 1990, and that is where Peer’s book becomes difficult to read.

“Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside a college, crossing a bridge and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. It is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there.”

It is indeed difficult for me as an Indian brought up to believe that what was done in Kashmir was right for the country, to read about how the Army actions affected the people in the state. Peer has collected stories across Kashmir, of those beatings and burnings and physical disfigurement in Army interrogation camps, of rapes like those of Mubeena Ghani, who was raped by paramilitary forces on her wedding night, of soldiers sending children into militant hideouts holding bombs. Some of the stories made me sick; I cannot imagine how it must have been for the ordinary people, to live with these stories around them, continually under the shadow of daily violence and death.

Peer’s book is also not without its problems. He never really explains the motivation behind the deep hatred Kashmiris nursed for India, even before the conflict began in the Valley. Traces of that antagonism seem to remain in Peer, and though he tries to present matters in a reporter’s voice, the book is much less critical of the militants than it is of the Indian Army. The violence in Kashmir was a two-way street, instigated by militants, and I cannot accept the view of them being freedom fighters as Peer would like us to believe. He does soften up at the end, sounding hopeful at the launch of the Srinagar-Muzzaffarabad bus service. I do believe, though, the book does an important task in shining light on the Army’s role in the 25-year old saga of violence, and giving a Kashmiri’s opinion on the events that occurred.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which I think summarizes the idea of the book.

“The Line of Control did not run through 576km of militarised mountains. It ran through our souls, our hearts, our minds. It ran through everything a Kashmiri, an Indian, and a Pakistani said, wrote and did.”

Our Moon Has Blood Clots: Rahul Pandita

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The discourse on the exodus of nearly 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the late 1980s has been commandeered by Hindu fundamentalists to justify their own excesses against Muslims.  Pandita’s book is a story of the people who actually lived through those times, and the times they faced after that.

January 19, 1990. The day defines the author’s life, and the book. It is the night mobs surrounded his home in Srinagar, the night his mother stood all night with the kitchen knife in her hand, ready to kill her daughter and herself if they breached their home. That night his family makes the decision to leave their home, and the sorrow of displacement permeates the memoir.  Woven through the personal narrative are the stories brutalities against other Kashmiri Pandits- loot, murders, rapes, lynchings. As the tragedies hit closer to home, Pandita’s mother goes into a slow decline, mirroring, in part, the decline of her home state.

Pandita’s story, of a teenage boy losing his home and seeing his world crumbling around him, cannot fail to move you. He shows numerous instances of Muslim neighbors being complicit in the atrocities, and it is those stories that I found most disconcerting, of how an ideology permeated so much into a community that they were willing to turn on people they had known most of their lives. My knowledge of history, of that time’s events are shaky, and this book helped provide some perspective into one of India’s under-reported  events.

Pandita’s story is not without its flaws. It is exclusively one-sided, but to be fair, it is a personal story, and the one-sidedness would be inevitable. Even so, I would have liked some commentary on how the violence against the Pandits fits into the entire picture of violence in Kashmir. And not to sound insensitive, but Pandita did have it easier than other families. He did lose his home and some of his close family, but his parents did have a steady income due to their government jobs, they never had to live in a refugee camp, and they managed to regain some semblance of their lives. I would have liked a bit more light shone on the lives of those who lived in the refugee camps; one of their voices would have strengthened the narrative.