Month: September 2015

Life Pro Tips for Commuters

I spend around 1.5 hours of my day travelling to and from work- a combination of navigating the obstacle courses that pass for footpaths in my city, and hanging for dear life from a public bus. So basically, that’s a not-so-insignificant amount of time lost to irate honking and carbon monoxide.

To clarify any questions, I live in an Indian city that’s rapidly becoming (in)famous for its mind numbing, lung clogging traffic. Spending 45 minutes on an ~8 kilometre commute is enviable here.

Here are some tips on how to pass time while travelling-

  1. People watching: As I discovered recently (unintentionally, I swear!) this can rapidly descend into stalking territory. If you know the names and workplaces of your fellow commuters, I think it’s time for you to get yourself a new hobby.
  2. Audiobooks: My first audiobook was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F Scott Fitzgerald, as narrated by, uh, a generic male voice. It was entertaining enough for me to go out of my way to prolong my ride. Since it is a novella, I was able to listen to the whole thing in a single trip of ~1 hour.  The idea of audiobooks while commuting is a terrific idea in theory, but fails to take into account that India is a noisy noisy place. I lost many sentences to the sound of the bus conductor yelling and the horns of trucks. Best stick to light novels with a simple plot; nuances of language cannot compete with city sounds.
  3. Podcasts: I reviewed Serial in a previous post- that kind of story is engrossing, yet fast paced enough for travel. Freakonomics Radio provides much food for thought, if economics interests you.
  4. Radio: Danish Sait’s prank calls, enough said.
  5. Music: If you are a music snob, the radio may be too proletarian for your tastes. Download entire albums and you’re good to go. Crank it up loud enough to drown out the noise of irate car drivers though.

Grown-up children

This is my review of Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson.

Have you read Bridge to Terabithia? It’s impossible to get through it without tearing up- I dare you! Katherine Paterson is clearly an author who knows how to bring depth and emotion to the shortest, lightest stories. So I picked up Jacob I Have Loved with high expectations. To be honest, I was let down.

The protagonist of the story is Sara Louise “Wheeze” Bradshaw, who believes that her twin sister, Caroline, gets a lot more attention than she does. Which is probably true- Caroline is a musical prodigy, while Wheeze spends most of her time fishing. But this isn’t ordinary sibling rivalry; Wheeze has nightmares of killing her sister. The situation worsens when Caroline gets a generous scholarship to pursue music lessons at a boarding school. Wheeze drops out of school and helps her father with his fishing. Eventually she works up the courage to leave her tiny town and build a life for herself elsewhere.

I had several problems with this story. Firstly, it’s quite dated and uninspiring. Wheeze studies hard to complete her high school exams and begin college, where she decides to pursue a degree in medicine. Her professor tells her that medicine is a difficult career for a woman and encourages her to switch to nursing instead… Which she does, without a second thought or regret. Secondly, I felt that Wheeze “settling down” was itself unbelievable. She spends so much time in the book struggling with her ambitions and frustration with being stuck in a small town, that I found it hard to accept that she was satisfied in another small town, even if she did have a loving family and rewarding career. Her animosity towards Caroline didn’t get closure either. The same for her inappropriate crush on a family friend who is older than her father.

The book is not all bad though. It is a good coming of age story and in a strange way reminded me that teenage angst often simply fades away, however overwhelming your troubles seem. Like in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson shows that she can take children seriously, and that’s a rare quality in an author.

3.5/5 from me.

Holocaust writing

This is my review of Night by Elie Wiesel. Or not. It seems wrong somehow to review this book. How can you give a rating to something as terrible as the Holocaust?

Night is a memoir of Weisel and his father’s experiences in Nazi camps, one of which was the infamous Auschwitz. It’s a slim but powerful book- under a hundred pages, packed with terror and emotion. Wiesel was a spiritual teenager when the war began, and interestingly was interested in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah (I thought that was a 90s craze!) When his family was evacuated to the Nazi camps, he was separated from his mother and sisters, but managed to stick with his father for several months, through manual labour, starvation and ‘selections’.

The memories are disconnected at times, but the most horrifying incidents are described in excruciating detail. You get to watch as the spiritual, idealistic youth loses his faith and becomes cynical. His father dies towards the end of the war, but Weisel survives and is reunited with his mother and one of his sisters. He went on to win a Nobel peace prize for his activism.

Not too long ago, I reviewed Maus, another memoir of life in the concentration camps. The two books are very, very different, and it’s not just because Maus is a graphic novel. Night was written several years after World War II ended (Weisel was initially unwilling to write about his experiences), and focuses on feelings and impressions, as opposed to the factual account presented in Maus.

Read this book because it presents a historic event in a way you could never imagine it.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book that has to be chewed slowly.

It’s wonderfully written.

It will, at points, shock you with its little quirky insights on “being Indian”; actually, even “being Indian”, in the abstract, is questioned and argued about in the book.

Irrespective of what you want this book to be, it will turn into that book that you want to read because it allows you the luxury of self perception, into the society (and maybe yourself).

It’s an enriching book, in that it makes you look at your countrymen with more empathy for their steadfastly held (always steadfast, never slack..) beliefs. It’s, however, not a book you want to discuss details of with your devout and orthodox relatives who argue endlessly, one-way (some will be maddened into thinking you’re turning into a deviant rebel if you do talk to them with the rationality that might stick when you read this book). It broadens your mind, undoubtedly.

A friend said, after he read this book, he looked at people, and India, differently. That sounded very cliche. But he was right. This one gives you a rather grey tinted looking glass. It makes you conciliate with the anomalies of your society, it helps you make peace with all kinds of gobar too. (But it didn’t really help me make peace with whatever it is that the “nation wants to know!”*)

As for the title, it’s not misleading. The essays in the book reflect on the argumentative nature of Indians, and help you realize that being argumentative is a powerful tool you can have; not to be mistaken with being loud and thick. This book, for example, is soft spoken (if I may), but is compelling. The essays are about the different hues of deliberation, discussion and debate that conversation and practices lead one to; it, at no points, mistakes lambasting and being crass for being argumentative.

As for the writer himself, what can I say that a Nobel** cannot? Salut to you sir. Thumbs up on the choice of the book cover. So gorgeous!


*reference made to an unpopular Indian TV anchor who lives in his little deep well, like the green frog did.

**the Nobel was admittedly not for his work on culture, history or polity (which this book is about), but was in the field of economics. Nevertheless, it’s a great measure of one’s greatness, at least in the annals of bloggesh. *tips hat at imagined audience

What matters in the end

This is my review of Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

I have been lucky enough to know my grandparents, and other relatives of their generation. Like most other Indian kids, a sense of respect for the elderly was drilled into my head at a young age. Culture aside, I relied on my grandparents to be more laid back and indulgent than my parents were.

It’s painful, even as a child, to watch someone you love gradually lose their health and dignity to old age. In many cases, this is accompanied by a not insignificant amount of physical suffering. Incontinence, dementia, poor immunity, weakening of bones- the list is endless. I discovered this book on Goodreads, and made a spur of the moment trip to Blossoms to pick it up when a close relative was diagnosed with an untreatable cancer.

Atul Gawande is an Indian origin medical doctor and writer in the USA. I’ve read only one of his other books, Complications. He tries to bring a touch of humanity to medicine, a science that is rapidly becoming about business and profit. When a senior citizen is diagnosed with a terminal illness- usually cancer- the knee-jerk reaction is to fight it head on with poisonous chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Gawande urges doctors to think twice before prescribing painful treatments that are unlikely to work. The role of a doctor, he says, is to improve the quality of life and not merely its quantity.

He substantiates his suggestions with statistics. Apparently, a huge chunk of medical spending in the US can be attributed to people in the last year of their lives. When the treatments aren’t working, Gawande argues, why put patients through painful surgeries and hospital stays? He also puts forth a framework for deciding on treatment paths, especially in the case when the medical decision making falls to a relative of the patient. What does the patient value most in his/her life? Is it physical mobility? Being able to spend time with relatives? Or is it the ability to live independently? Based on the answer to these questions, sometimes it is more appropriate to send a patient to hospice care, or prescribe palliative surgery instead of aggressive treatment.

I give this book a 4/5, because I could relate very well to the issues discussed. Gawande discusses an emotionally charged subject with the right balance of head and heart. I very much hope that you don’t like this book, because that means that you have likely never seen a loved one suffer.