Month: March 2017

Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

paul

When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

tuesdays

The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

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Anglophilia

I haven’t been reading much at all, but I still have the compulsive need to express opinions. Sorry.

I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of British TV. It went something like this: “Netflix wants me to watch Broadchurch. Machine learning? Please, it’s clearly a marketing strategy. Mustn’t let them get to me. Oops, finger twitched. Might as well watch. Hey this is pretty good! …. (Several days later) Welp, back to work. Those actors are pretty good, wonder what else they’ve done? Oh, Amazon wants me to watch Doctor Who. Not falling for those tricks again. Hmm, but I have that hugely important exam tomorrow! How else will I procrastinate?”

Rinse and repeat.

The results of my inefficiency, for your consideration:

  • Doctor Who

This is definitely one of the most popular series from the BBC. It has an interesting history as well- it started out in the 60s and was immensely popular, but got cancelled for a decade or two before being revived in 2005 or thereabouts. It’s BBC label means that it must be clean and family friendly (and low budget). Given that I grew up watching the weekly Mahabharatha on DD1, this show is very impressive.

I started out with the 2005 episodes, because NewWho is more readily available for streaming.

Doctor Who is essentially a Sci-Fi/Fantasy show with standalone episodes (more or less, some character development happens over time). The Doctor is a Time Lord who navigates space and time and fights baddies. His low-budget equipment of choice is a time machine, the TARDIS, that looks suspiciously like a phone booth, and  a nondescript LED torch, the Sonic Screwdriver.

Since the show has been running for SO long, it has seen quite a few showrunners (basically writer/producer) in its time. Oh, the Doctor also has the ability to regenerate, thus allowing the actor, and his overall persona, to change periodically. This lets the BBC experiment a bit and keep the stories modern. It’s also an interesting reflection of viewer demographics and culture- while the older Doctors were middle-aged white men, the 9th-11th Doctors have been much younger and more energetic. The 13th Doctor is tipped to be female or black. I’m excited to see what direction they’re taking the show, because there’s a new showrunner next season as well!

Recommended for the young at heart.

  • Broadchurch

Broadchurch is another series by the BBC. It’s primarily a crime-suspense-whodunnit, and I really liked it for the lonely scenery and the amazing acting performances. Olivia Colman is brilliant.

There are 2 completed series- one deals with the murder of a young boy, and the second is a follow-up of the court case. The third series is currently airing in the UK. The murder mystery plot was excellently done. The only gripe I had was that there wasn’t nearly enough foreshadowing before the culprit was revealed- but there were red herrings and unresolved threads galore. They sacrificed the smoothness of the plot for shock value.

I would still recommend this to anyone who likes suspense and mysteries.

  • Bletchley Circle

This was another unexpectedly good show, albeit short. It’s about a group of women codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. What happens to them after? Well, they’ve been sworn to secrecy, but still have apparently superhuman mathematical skills. Which they use to… solve mysteries? I’ll take it.

The first series has a very likeable main character who balances pragmatism with the stereotypical ‘genius’ impracticality. Unfortunately, the subsequent series have a much more Nancy Drew feel to them. I’d have liked to see more than 9 episodes though!

Recommended for anyone who likes historical drama and feminism.

  • Black Mirror

This show has become very well-known in the past year, and its popularity is well deserved. Each episode is a standalone dystopian thriller. While I love this genre, these are dark dark stories. Binge watching is impossible, because of the shock value- it makes sure you have food for thought. Which is a good thing!

The sci-fi hits very close to home- I can imagine some of these issues coming up in the next decade or two. Social media for keeping tabs on people’s behaviour?  Already exists. Crazy murderous drones? Possible. VR hell for people convicted of crimes? Why not?

Watch this if you don’t shy away from serious television.

A Machiavellian holocaust

This is a review of An Era of Darkness, by Shashi Tharoor. The book was written as an extension of Tharoor’s speech at Oxford Union, where the role of the British in the colonies was debated.

Tharoor does not hold the distinction of being a staunch nationalist, but is rather admired for his rational thought and an exhibition of vast knowledge about his country, India. His previous books which have gained plaudits from historians include Pax Indica, India Shastra, among others.

An Era of Darkness begins by effectively demonstrating the agenda behind the construction of Indian history of the pre-colonial times by James Mill and others. While writers like Mill claimed that the Indian rulers before the British were brutish, Tharoor makes the case against the British for claiming to be the altruistic moral force that she wants to be seen as. He also refutes the ideas that pre-British times were the ‘Dark Ages’ of India. The “White man’s burden” (India), Tharoor writes, could have lived and thrived were it not for the British, who extinguish just about everything going well for India when they set up their very first factory (a storage unit) here.

Colonial apologists are often caught praising the British for the wondrous contributions that they made, without which India may not be the giant that she is today. Tharoor argues that neither was the stated intention of the British to rule well, nor was it anything but exploitation of the land, resources and people. Besides, even if the intentions were as charitable as they are made out to be, nothing can justify the cruel truths of British colonialism.

The book describes, among other facets of the colonial rule, the looting of resources and treasures, killing off of indigent industries, racism, policies of divide and rule that rankle our present with communal conflicts, misgovernance for economic interests of the British, the gag on the press, the dysfunctional administration that killed millions in famines. He also examines the apparent advantages of the Raj. He scoffs at suggestions that the Raj has been ‘good’. The utility or aesthetics of the railways, English education, tea, cricket, etc., he says, are a result not of British intention, but despite their intentions.

The bulk of his arguments against the colonial rule is solid. Where he falters, if at all, is in his somewhat repeated resort to a hypothetical rule of the land by Indian rulers. Even in doing so, though, he’s maintained a scholarly rigor in comparing India with other states, and in sticking with hard facts for the most part. Also, the chapter on reparations and return of stolen antiquities is an exercise that might well be futile, although well intended. Despite the fervour with which Tharoor and other writers speak of it, the fact is that the cost of colonialism is impossible to determine, and the antiquities will not be returned any time soon (because, in the words of UK’s former Prime Minister, “If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British museum would be empty.”).

Tharoor’s wit and lyrical writing makes this a very entertaining read. And a necessary one, when you realise how far reaching the effects of the colonial rule are. That the British don’t even acknowledge their horrible deeds done in their colonies, through their education system, or through official channels (as Germany does, for instance), is saddening; and if you go by Tharoor, it’s also expected of them, since, after all, their forefathers were comfortable with seeming to be a moral force rather than actually being one, when they ruled over India.

4/5

That the loot, pillage and killings of such magnitude has been brushed under the carpet, and that the British are instead lauded for being the harbingers of modernity and democracy in the colonies they occupied, makes for a holocaust that only Machiavelli could have outdone.

Fortunately, the bluff on the British rule has been called.

The Color Purple

This is a review of The Color Purple, for which Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983. It’s a novel that is best known for its narrative style, for its depiction of discrimination in its most normal, and thus cruel, form, and for its breathtaking message.

The narrative style takes the cake. It’s written in the form of letters, a possibility that I had never considered for an entire novel. Another pleasant suprise to me was the fact that one’s English needn’t be perfect to write a masterpiece (to an English speaking audience). The language used in the book is not a refined or grammatically correct English, but one that is more familiar, a more natural human language. This book is proof that it is far more appealing to write on behalf of the character, than to write perfectly.

The book begins with letters from Celie to God, to whom she writes because she has no one else to write to. From Celie’s letters we learn that she is a poor and uneducated girl, whose stepfather beats and rapes her when she’s 14. He impregnates her twice and abducts her children. Celie is then married away to “Mr. _____”, who dearly needs someone to take care of his children. At Mister’s place, Celie lives a life of a sub-human (which is not too different from the life she lived in her father’s house). Celie accepts this treatment, for a while, without complaint:

“He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.”

In the meantime, Nettie, Celie’s young sister, escapes her father’s house and comes to live with Celie. But when Mister makes sexual advances to her, Celie advices Nettie to seek help from a well dressed woman she saw in the marketplace. Celie only wants Nettie to escape the life that she has resigned herself to.

After Nettie escapes, Celie meets another remarkable woman. Mr. ____’s son, Harpo, marries a ‘wayward’ woman, an assertive woman, Sofia; and they live in a cottage by the house. Sofia is rebellious and audacious, and will not take being battered as normal. She even beats up Harpo when he beats her to assert his manhood.

You ever hit her? Mr. ____ ast.

Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.

Well how you spect to make her ind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.

Celie’s life begins to change when Mr._____ brings home his sick mistress, Shug Avery. Shug is a glamorous jazz and blues performer. She is everything that Celie is fascinated by. She has a mind of her own, she seems to have Mister’s full attention, and she seems to be gloriously independent.

Shug and Celie become intimate friends. Celie tells Shug all about Nettie, her little sister. Shug is her protection against Mr. ____’s battering, and Celie is one of Shug’s best friends. It doesn’t take long for Shug and Celie to discover that Mr. ____ had been hiding the letters sent by Nettie, for over thirty years.

Nettie writes about her life with a missionary couple, who also incidentally adopted Celie’s biological children. The letters speak of their time in Africa, about how they struggle to keep themselves afloat, alive, with disbelief and hope, while they live with a tribal group. Nettie’s letters are written in a more literate hand, speaking of African history, and what not, while Celie’s are rough at the edges, but written in a warmer tone. Nettie speaks of a world alien to Celie, and shows her powerlessness as she watches oppression meted out against the natives in Africa. Celie understands, in a way, as she herself is oppressed by Mr. ____, for being a woman, a wife. However, Shug’s conviction that Celie’s life is not hopeless changes Celie’s life, starting with how Mr. ____ treats her.

Throughout most of the book, Celie’s emotions are leashed. She’s almost afraid to speak her feelings – about her father, Mr. ____, Shug. She could be described as stoic, but I think she was numbed by fear. But, by the end of the book, she’s a revelation, like a person who seems to have noticed the purple flowers. Just what happens to Celie, Shug, Nettie, Sofia (what happens to her is slightly amusing, but also awful), Harpo, Mr. ____, and the others (that I haven’t mentioned in the review), is left to you to find out! Do Celie and Nettie ever meet?

The book explores themes such as sexism, feminism, racism, among others. If any of this matters to you, you will connect with its strong, vulnerable, incredibly courageous characters. The awful circumstances that define Celie shows us how much courage it takes to break free of those binds. This book begins to help us understand what we might need, to find ourselves, to not merely exist, but to be alive; to look at the purple flowers. The Color Purple is a lesson in audacity and about the importance of equality of people, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race. My only quibble, if at all, is that there is hardly a good man in the book.

4.5/5

The book’s title comes from what Shug says, about what it means, or takes, to be alive. She says,

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back”.