Month: October 2015

One small step for SciFi, one giant leap for engineers

This is my review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

Let’s talk about the representation of different professions in pop culture.

Lawyers- Boston Legal, Suits, The Practice

Doctors- House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and those old hospital soaps (one of which had George Clooney)

Psychic detectives (and this isn’t even a profession)- Psych, The Mentalist, Dexter (sort of)

Billionaire industrialists- Batman, Iron Man

Advertising- Mad Men, wasn’t Chandler in F.R.I.E.N.D.S also in advertising?

Chefs- Masterchef, ’nuff said

Engineers- Uh, Dilbert?

We live in an age where astrophysics is a more sexy profession than engineering. Luckily, the huge popularity of The Martian could change that. Not that my engineering degree equipped me to repair NASA-designed high technology equipment on the surface of Mars….

This story is about Mark Watney, astronaut/botanist/mechanical engineer, who is left for dead on Mars by his crew. Turns out he wasn’t dead, and needs to use his wits and engineering superpowers to survive on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

I’m one of those weirdos who loves sci-fi but not fantasy, and this book is just about perfect. Weir has clearly done his research- the book gives the right level of technical detail without becoming heavy or boring. Mark’s tone is humourous and witty and the plot moves at a consistently quick pace. The only complaint I had was that it reads like a movie plot; not an flowery adjective or wasted word to be found. Could be a plus too, if you like no-nonsense narrative.

This book is a solid 4.5/5. Read it if you’re a fan of the Hitchhiker’s series, or sci-fi/comedy in general.

Live another sol!


This is my review of Room by Emma Donoghue.

Saw this book on a Bestsellers of 2015 list, and was fascinated by the true crime premise. I lou psychological thrillers, and this seemed right up my alley.

Jack is a lively, precocious five year old. He lives with his mother, dislikes green beans and spends much of his time glued to the TV in his room. The normalcy ends there. Jack has never left his Room- to him it’s a proper noun- because his mother has been imprisoned there for seven years by a kidnapper. And he’s the product of repeated violent rape.

Disturbing, yes. Somehow this is offset by the casual, matter of fact narration. In Jack’s world, ‘screaming for help’ is a game to be played after lunch every day.

Not to worry, mother and son are rescued about halfway through the book. From there on out, the story is about Jack’s impressions of the outside world (talk about culture shock!). His mother spirals into a depression, and they’re both the target of some unpleasant paparazzi, but all this takes a back seat because to a five year old, pizza and toys are much more important.

This kind of terrible crime does occur today, and is undoubtedly terrifying for the victims. But in my opinion, telling the story from the point of view of a child distracted from the horror/emotional aspect of it, and didn’t have the saving grace of unique insight.

So despite the promising theme it wasn’t really what I expected. 2.5/5. I wouldn’t really recommend this book.

PS: This is *-ing awesome. Short story dispensers in public places. Beats staring at your phone to kill time.

Graphic Memoirs Are Cool

This is my review of Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green. As the name implies, this memoir is primarily about the author’s struggles with eating disorders. Quite a bleak read.

To be honest, I picked up this book because it was right next to a fat, colourful Asterix compendium… that was in French. College libraries for the win! But I digress.

Despite my initial skepticism (largely because it wasn’t Asterix), I ended up finishing this fat 500+ page tome in one sitting. It draws you in with its simple illustrations and narrative.

Katie was always a picky eater. She talks about how she hid away unwanted food as a child, and speculates whether that was an early symptom of the illnesses that plagued her for over a decade. During her teen years, she became sensitive to comments on her appearance, triggering her spiral into anorexia. After a brief recovery, she falls ill again and takes the help of an alternative healer to get rid of her ‘negative energy’. Seemingly cured, she heads off to college for a degree in Biology.

Her demons creep up on her again, this time in the form of binge eating. She seeks help again- from a real therapist this time- and slowly but steadily works her way back to health. Armed with some insight into her thought patterns and feelings towards food, she faces her illness head on. Plus she switches careers and becomes an illustrator. This memoir is, interestingly, her first work.

I liked this book for its minimalist illustrations and simple ways of representing complex emotions. However, I think that the whole premise falls flat unless the reader can relate to eating disorders, or Katie’s way of thinking in general. It is so personal and introspective that a bystander must either share in the emotions or move along. Either way, Katie Green has great talent and I will definitely be looking her up in the future.


A Black Widow?

This is my review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

My second Great-American-Novel-type book in a row. And I don’t mean it in an awestruck GREAT-American-Novel!!! kind of way. I mean it as a genre of fiction that offers a lot in terms of insights into culture, but not much in terms of plot. For instance, The Great Gatsby is certainly well written, and afforded a peek into the culture of partying and bootlegging that I knew nothing about. But strip away the novelty and you have a confusing tangle of plot, with some unrequited love and an unsatisfying ending. The same applies to Jacob I Have Loved, to a certain extent.

The themes of this book are (in the trendy hashtag style) #feminism #blackpower #womenempowerment #everglades (?). The story is narrated by Janie, a close to middle-aged woman who returns to her hometown after being away for several years. Her neighbours don’t know why she has returned and accuse her of vaguely immoral things, since she was recently married to Tea Cake (the origin of this name goes unexplained), a man much younger than herself.

Janie is misunderstood, though. As a teenager, she was married to a much older man, mostly because there was no one else to look after her. Her second marriage also failed- he saw her as a trophy wife and didn’t treat her with respect. It was her third marriage to Tea Cake that showed her what a healthy relationship should be. They move away and set up a business, but a hurricane strikes.

This book definitely takes you to a different time and place, with its black dialect and culture. But the ending is a little too strange compared to the bleak portrait that had been painted earlier. If you like this novel, try out The Color Purple, which is also about the struggles of black women in the time of racial segregation.


Subversion of the right to freedom of speech

Indians, anyone will tell you, are talkative people. They can talk about mustard oil and about United Nations Law of the Seas, about what the Char Log will think and about IQ scores, about Barack Obama and about Putin, about Modi’s suit and about the half naked Fakir. Indians can talk tirelessly. They can do so eloquently, and with zest and purpose. Few, though, can claim to have given their life or life’s work to the Right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression.

The Right to Freedom of Speech and expression is a fundamental right, that is available to every citizen of India, and is protected dearly by the judiciary. The judiciary, in India, is said to be the second most trusted institution of the country, closely following the Election Commission.

In the Keshavnanda Bharti case, the Supreme Court of India held that the parliament cannot amend the constitution in such a manner that the basic structure is in any way affected. What is the basic structure? Suffice it to know, for now, that it includes all the fundamental rights in the constitution. The Supreme Court thus drew a line that the legislature had to toe, when it came to the right of the citizens to their freedom of speech.

The executive’s overtures with respect to their attempts to subvert our freedom of speech has also been checked by the judiciary, or sometimes by the sheer volume of the speech itself. Censuring free speech on the internet? The SC quashed the Section 66A of the IT Act, that allowed the police to arrest people on arbitrary grounds for whatever they’d written on the internet. Porn ban? Joke; it simply can’t be done. Digital blocks imposed by the union, that too on an entire industry, are but a joke.

The only time when the legislature or executive can make a law or take action against speech is when the speech seeks to adversely affect interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

So, if you want to carve out a country in your backyard (like a maoist), you could be arrested. And, if you say that all politicians loot people and bleed people of their sanity and dignity, you can be penalized. If you write a book that makes a case for creating a new country out of India, you can well be thrown into jail. If you propound lies about someone or something, be it in academic papers or through the media, you can be penalized.

Sadly, and factually, there’s another class of people who have been shut up, literally, by the people they tried to talk to, for speaking the truth. Imagine being gagged and strangulated for observing casually in a crowd of people that the earth is revolving around the sun. You were gagged because the people you were surrounded by disagreed with you. They would really like the earth to revolve around a cupcake. You were forsaken because you spoke of the sun. The sun does not exist, they say. The sun is an illusion you have created to corrupt minds and dirty the history of the people of the cupcake. The glowing blurb in the sky is the caramel oozing out of the cupcake, they say. How dare you say things like Hydrogen and Helium. Be gone! Off with your head!

Thus begot what happened to men like Kalburgi, Dhabolkar, Pansare and, I might add, Perumal Murugan too. Kalburgi, Dhabolkar and Pansare were killed by people who disagreed with them because they were rationalists, that is, they spoke sense. Perumal Murugan was gagged out of his village for writing a fictional story based on true events of a century ago, about a custom which the locals would rather not be reminded.

Here, the exercise of curtailment or restriction on free speech and expression was assumed by the proletariat, not the legislature or executive.The proletariat was given the rights to freedom of speech and expression, not the right to take it away! There’s a right to freedom of speech. There is NO corollary to it, and there is NO right to be offended.

What has the state done, in response, though? It was shocked at the reactions of the public to these men, and it hasn’t recovered from the shock yet, more than a year since these incidents began occurring.

Does the state, the protector of our rights, need a jolt to be woken up from its pretend-slumber? For, I find it hard to believe that they could be oblivious to the need to address such subversion of fundamental rights. There are more than enough men among them who have been able to amass wealth enough to make a Somalian mafia don blush. Such acumen need only be expressed in its very minimal amount to find the perpetrators of crimes against the basic structure of our constitution. The will needed, of course, has to be dug up from the reserves that lie deep in their minds which is mostly dominated by vote-bank calculations and efficiency methods in amassing more wealth.

If the state is going to continue its hibernation and ostrich-like behaviour, maybe it’s time the rare utterances of brave ideas and stories should be made more common.

Maybe it’s time that the rationalists unite, to say loud and clear, that eliminating those awe inspiring men was futile. That the intellectual and creative fire in our bellies cannot be extinguished by the most lowly and disgusting expressions of disagreement, even through gun powder and violent picketing.

So, here I am. I dare you, to say people like me are wrong to stand by the men whose lives have been wasted because of you.

I dare you, I double dare you, to fight me with words, with ideas, with an instrument known as debate, or discussion. If this is war, I can tell you that you’re going down, for I’d rather be dead that live a life looking over my shoulder! I’m willing to fight, tooth and nail, sir. My right to freedom of speech is sacrosanct, more so than the infinite inane beliefs you hold.

Indians sure can talk, but now, I don’t see them voicing enough concern about the butchering of the intellect in their national fabric. The silence is loud, and is driving lunatics to suppress the few with a voice. This should not be, it must not be, it shall not be. This is my minuscule contribution towards ending the silence of the masses. My shout out to the miscreants who have killed and maimed free speech in India: please, stop.

I’d written this a long time back. However, most of it is true today too. I was inspired to post this (with some edits) after an argument I had with an otherwise sensible friend, on the need to respect everyone’s rights (specifically, the fundamental rights of freedoms). He said ‘your freedom to carry an umbrella ends at the edge of my nose’ – apparently, expressing views that contradict the majority’s views should be done with “sensitivity”, or not be done at all (the latter is preferred). I thought that was a lot of cow refuse. Majoritarianism (be it religious or cultural) is being given greater preference over constitutional correctness, and that is absolutely reprehensible. It is time, I thought, rational and liberal voices also speak up, and refute the apparent justifications given by narrow minded men. Hence, the post.