Making People Pay

I remember a joke I read long back. A man shows the visitor his dog and says “He is like a member of our family.” The visitor, a tax man retorts, “But that doesn’t give you the right to mention him as a dependent in your tax returns and claim tax breaks.” Tax is something that is so entrenched in our psyche that it has even become part of our jokes, movies and day to day conversations. I can immediately remember at least 2 popular Indian movies around the theme of taxation: ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Special 26’. One of the most important events we remember in our freedom struggle was Gandhi’s Dandi march which was against the salt tax. But ironically though taxation is a topic which holds a lot of emotional baggage, if we come to think of it, our intellectual understanding of the same is rather limited. We do not even want to understand the technical details of the annual taxes we file and prefer to outsource it off to a professional. This book, “Making People Pay” gives us an opportunity to gain a holistic understanding of this esoteric yet so relevant topic.

The author, Dr. Sibichen Mathew, a tax man himself, an Indian revenue service official who has served as the additional commissioner of income tax, is an erudite scholar whose qualifications alone can fill an entire blog post. He beautifully blends theoretical rigor with practical insights to create an eminently readable treatise on taxation. He has taken the topic head on starting right from the genesis of the concept of taxation in historic times, right up to the challenges posed to the international taxation regime due to globalization and manipulation of tax havens by multinational firms.

The author has managed to cover this topic from almost all possible angles. The book covers the historic context, both from an Indian and international perspective, the economic aspects, the operational aspects and the human aspects. He has written in a simple language that can be understood by a lay man without sacrificing the academic rigor. However the casual reader may like to skip the sections pertaining to the survey methodologies and sources as that might make it look a bit formal and heavy. They are there just for the more serious readers who will want to validate the claims made by the author. The general reader can just lay back, skip those portions and just read through the high level ideas the author tries to present. The author has enriched the book with interesting anecdotes accompanied by nice illustrations throughout the book to break the monotony of the reading experience and put a smile on the reader’s face.

Coming to the content, the first topic after the introduction sets the historic context to taxation and how history has shaped people’s mindset towards taxes which will possibly influence present day behavior. The next chapter presents the view of taxation and an individual’s compliance behavior purely from an economic angle. The following chapter brings out how a nation's politics and taxation policies are closely intertwined. Having set the background, the author then details the survey method he has used for his hypothesis. The next two chapters deal with the author’s hypothesis substantiated by surveys and backed by statistical significance of findings. The author tries to point out that the major causes for non-payment of taxes are sociological rather than economical: a perception that their peers also do no pay taxes, a perception that the government is corrupt and does not use the tax income for the said social objective and there is no seriousness on the part of tax authorities to stop evasion. The book also provides some empirical evidence to allay misconceptions about general harassment of public by tax authorities.

Overall, it is very insightful book and I would recommend everyone to pick it up to gain a better understanding of this critical and unavoidable aspect of our lives.

To know more about the book and the author, you can click here.

Chakra - Review

As a fantasy buff, I mostly read about fantasy world adapted from Celtic and Norse myths. It was delightful to read a fantasy story fabricated from elements of Indian mythology. While Amish Tripathi’s work is a retelling of mythology, Ritu Lalit’s Chakra is a work of pure imagination which she has woven around some of the concepts from Raja Yoga. So in some ways she can be considered a pioneer of this genre and I hope she paves the way for many more authors.

The story is about three girls with magical powers who are part of prophesy. They are caught in a gang war among multiple magical clans. The clans are like different covens of witch craft with their own politics and power struggles. Some clans and individuals want to bring the prophecy to fruition and some want to prevent the same. The girls have to navigate their way through this complex maze of intrigue and survive to the finish while coming to terms with their own powers and their role in the prophecy.

Overall the book makes a really pacy read. There is never a dull moment. Something keeps happening all the time and the entire book can be completed in one sitting. Having read so many stories set in Western locales populated with Western characters, it was a welcome relief to read a thrilling fantasy set in our own country.

Hardcore fantasy buffs may be a bit disappointed because this is more of urban fantasy wherein some fantasy elements are introduced into contemporary world. There is no elaborate world building that is the hall mark of pure blood swords and sorcerer fantasy as such. But that serves as an advantage as well from the point of view of Indian readership. In my opinion, India still does not have a market for full blown fantasy. So a contemporary thriller with some fantasy elements is something that can jell better with Indian readers.

Another thing I felt was that to some extent depth of characterization was sacrificed to accommodate more action. This again I believe was probably done keeping in mind the Indian audience’s preference that can we well gauged from the blockbuster Bollywood movies.

One good thing about this book compared to most other Indian books is the language. The language is of much higher quality compared to most Indian authors. She has also done the descriptions well and one can experience the events in the story through all five senses.

Overall I would say this is a nice and breezy read that I would recommend to every Indian reader. This book is the first in a trilogy and I look forward to its two sequels.

Life is like this

I guess many of us would have heard this saying attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Same can be said of humor as well – the joke can be on ideas, events or people. Humor around people and events are both easier to write as well as easier for the reader to grasp and succor, which is one of the reasons for the high popularity of this brand of humor. On the other hand humor around ideas requires an intellectual caliber of both the writer as well as the reader. ‘Life is Like this’ is one of the rare humor blogs that focuses on satire around ideas. However I must say it enjoys a reasonable amount of popularity.

The blogger in question, Suresh has been someone with who I have had close association for close to two years and he follows my blog reviews and kind of respects my opinion on making a blog effective. So the blog is more or less in line with what I would probably be looking for. That way I think there is little I may be able to offer by the way of suggestions for improvement. But let me still go over each aspect one by one.

In terms of name, I think he has nailed it. ‘Life is like this’ puts across appropriately what the blog is about – a humorous look at the vagaries of life, some of the ludicrous social norms and foibles of human behavior. The punch line describes the nature of his writing perfectly - A dose of adventure and entertainment, a lot of humor, a bit of philosophy. However I am a bit unsure of the adventure bit. I guess that was included to cover his posts on trekking. But I think the trekking posts are out of resonance with the main theme of his blog unless he wants to assign some allegorical significance to his treks and starts to use them to take pot shots at human life. So even if these posts figure in the blog for the lack of an alternate medium to bring them out, they are not something I would highlight in the punch line. The url however is not an easy one to remember and has not much to do with blog title or content. So if and when he goes for own domain, I would suggest to go for a different one.

Moving on to the look and feel, it is a very simple theme and has a clean look – no fancy colors or designs. One of the striking features of this blog is an utter paucity of images. Generally I would recommend adding some images to supplement posts. But in case of Suresh, I feel this the lack of pictures deliberate and kind of accentuates his image as a ‘to the point’, ‘no frills’ kind of person. So I would leave it that way. In terms of gadgets also they have been kept to the minimum. The one gadget that is there is one I do not like and I have expressed previously on many of my reviews – the live traffic feed one. I hope the makers of the gadget don’t end up suing me. Well anyways – I see it as a non-value add from the visitor's perspective and I feel it occupies an inappropriately large amount of space. But I guess bloggers like to indulge themselves and like to take a peek from time to see if anyone is visiting their blog and from where they are visiting. Navigation is exactly how I would want it to be – there are the archives, all posts labeled accurately and use of static pages and tabs to give links of posts belonging to different major themes.

I had started off this post with a mention about the content. I feel the content is perfect and there is always the same underlying theme. It is humor at its best and many of his posts work at two levels –there is the deeper satire on social norms and a more superficial self-deprecating humor. So it caters to both kinds of people - those who like simple slapstick and those who like something that tickles their intellect as well. Also he has a social message that he tries to bring out in both his serious posts as well as the humorous ones. As I had mentioned earlier, if one were to see his blog as a niche blog, some of the contest posts, book reviews and trek reports seem a bit out of place. One thing I usually recommend for blogs that depend on regular readership rather than floating traffic from search engines is to have a regularity and pattern in posting. This is something Suresh has already started already doing. He usually has a post on his blog on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Also series are good way of keeping readers engaged – they keep coming back every week to see what is next. The 'phrases and meanings' was one such good series. Hope to see more such series.

I think when talking about content itself, I have got a bit into the interaction space. Suresh is one blogger who maintains an excellent rapport with numerous bloggers. He visits many blogs, has done guest blogs on over a dozen different blogs and replies religiously to every comment. He always uses the same picture with red striped shirt in all his social media interactions making him easily recognizable at sight. So overall this aspect is going quite well.

In the final analysis, this is definitely one of the better blogs in the blog-o-sphere that I would recommend everyone to frequent regularly. Let me give a select sample from his blog to get the new reader started.

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces