Author: SD

Hello there! I review books at https://wetellatale.wordpress.com/.

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

This is a review of the book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, by Manu S. Pillai.

The book is a compilation of 60 diverse essays from Indian History. Almost all the essays have mostly quirky trivia as a common thread between them. They’re broadly arranged as “Before the Raj” and “Stories from the Raj” (maybe because the stories have little else in common?). The essays begin by reminding the reader of the conventional views held on the topic, Manu S. Pillai then goes on to alter that view, and finally ends with a shrewd comment or dry observation.

His observations, though, are outrightly critical of the school of thought subscribed by the right wing junta of India today. He does not make any apologetic disclaimer to that effect. For example, the afterword reads as an opinion piece in a newspaper, cautioning against a majoritarian dispensation. In addition to this risky enterprise, his essays on the women whose roles have been blatantly ignored by our textbooks stand out for quietly trying to supplement, and change, the story of India’s past. That said, the essays are not prejudiced as far as yours truly could tell, and have more than a hint of scholarship throughout.

My favorite essays were the ones on the mistakenly aggrandised historical figures. For example, there’s the story of Nangeli, who cut off her breasts in anger against the tax collectors, in a rebellion against caste and feudalism that suppressed those at the underbelly of society. But today she’s seen as a virtuous goddess who stood for “womanly honor”. Such heroes, Pillai clarifies, were ordinary people whose messages and ideas have been distorted to suit the narrative of the historians of the day.

That said, I thought the essays could have been better edited. For one, the writing style differs across the essays. Some are written colloquially, and some others as if for the District Gazette. It’s distracting when binge reading! Also, why were the essays sequenced the way they were? Chronology? Dramatic effect? Themes? I don’t know.

The illustrations in the book are excellent! No less. Every one of them is exquisite, and perfectly fits the essay. If I may say so, it was the better part of some essays! The featured image for this review is an illustration from the book (credits due to Priya Kuriyan).

While the book kind of wavers and stumbles here and there, by being a collection of unmoored stories, it has its positives, aplenty, ranging from the sheer research put into the essays and the effort it must have taken to compress the grand stories into such short and crisp essays.

Most significantly, the book excels by being a bold contrarian point of view on many historical figures and happenings. And, as the writer himself doesn’t miss an opportunity to say, that’s important in this age and space.

With that hope, I hope more such offbeat history books come forth. Mind you, not fictionalized poor stories or propaganda garbed as a history lessons. We need to discuss our history more, in order to not let any single narrative lead the way. And Manu S Pillai’s book is a step in that direction.

3.5/5, maybe more!

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The hungry brain

This is a review of The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph. D. (sic).

The 300 odd page book is written for an audience that urgently seeks answers to an important question: what makes us overeat even though we want to be healthy?

Apparently many things, some that we can control, but (to my simple mind) many factors that cannot be controlled. Among the controllable factors are the immediate environment in which we work/live – most environments nudge you to overeat; another factor is the amount of exercise you put in, which trains the lipostat in your brain to set itself up for a lower adiposity level (ie., by exercising, you’re training your body to prefer to contain lesser fat). But among uncontrollable factors are the genes we’re born with, being on medication to treat life threatening diseases, and in my view, the food processing industry that is askew with a profiteering axis that makes (almost all) our food sugary, fattening and very tasty, all at the same time. (cue: workers of the world!)

Some of the chapters repeated what most of us already know. For a non-medico many others were a novelty. But the nuance of the novelty is not explained, leading to yours truly to be quite disappointed.

The written word is unfortunately sprinkled with compelling and vexing illustrations that boggle the mind with its pointlessness and blunt lack of creativity. For instance, there’s one illustration with a picture of the brain, and arrows that go in four directions, with the labels, up, down, left and (can you believe it?) right. The illustrations with pictures of the brain are presumably included to make the book seem like an intellectual work, but they should really be removed, simply to not reduce the credibility of the text.


From the book, a condensed brain-obesity relationship primer:

  1. Modernity makes us fat: technology, market forces, incurably sugar hungry brains (your brain loves cookies and cake; mine goes plain bonkers).
  2. Our evolution from hunters and gatherers to supermarket shoppers hasn’t helped. Some thousand years ago, humans ran after gazelles, and dug for tubers that they then didn’t really cook. Today, all I have to do is order food on Swiggy/Zomato/UberEats (and a poorly paid gentleman (only men so far) comes to my door with my box of food, ready for my gluttonous experience).
  3. Some of us have genes that are easily expressed for obesity. Especially so when our environments are so toxic.
  4. The ‘lipostat’ is stubborn. The lipostat is this system that responds to the hormone leptin that’s secreted by fat tissue. The objective of the system is to maintain homeostasis, specifically, the amount of adiposity in our bodies. Now the lipostat doesn’t care about our goals, it merely does what it must. And that’s why losing weight and staying that way is harder than we thought. The lazy lipostat adjusts itself to make us gain all that weight back. The good news, though, is that exercise inherently tunes the lipostat to a lower set point (is that good news?).
  5. Leptin, insulin, the hypothalamus: the three together are rascals. And circadian rhythm. These guys basically are very sensitive to external and internal cues. So, management of our circadian rhythm and the amount of insulin and leptin we allow our bodies to generate with the kind of food we consume greatly affects the hypothalamus, which then has a direct bearing on how much we eat (at each sitting or between). But managing them is no easy feat. It involves controlling the uncontrollable. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, Bruce?
  6. Stress is bad. And knowing this is no help. Big nope.
  7. PS: special mention and thanks to all the mice that participated, surely involuntarily, in experiments that involved sawing their brains off, starving them, and sometimes feeding them pop tarts. Monkeys too. And people!

The book is a decent primer if one starts with a clean slate on obesity research. The easy penmanship is good for a quick read. But the easy content has sacrificed substance, in most cases. I, for one, would’ve liked knowing more about the lipostat, about how stress actually triggers harmful behaviour, etc. The footnotes were like french fries, really – all fluff and minimal satiety.

I’d be failing the book if I didn’t mention the mature writing style. Something that the writer deserves high praise for is that even though the book is on a topic that readers are seeking personal solutions to, the writing is only limited on the pontification scale. One might posit that it may have been tempting for a lesser writer to add a “tips that will change your life” postscript after every chapter. Thank you for not caving in, Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. (sic).

I’d rate the book a 3/5. Read it if you enjoy learning about how the brain works, but don’t stop here! The right question is, is your time best utilised by reading The Hungry Brain, to learn about the brain-obesity relationship? Maybe so, if you have high reading speed and don’t mind being spoken to like a toddler sometimes.

@NathanWPyle: you killin' me softly.

@NathanWPyle: you killin’ me softly.

The dutiful daughter

This is a review of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, the French existential feminist who defined many ideas including femininity, and who discounted the very idea of “women” as a chain that binds the female folk to the men, in an unequal relationship.

I read this book by chance. It was a beautiful afternoon when a friend was talking to me, and admonished me for something I said, by saying “don’t be a woman!” I was surprised at the reprimand. That was my introduction to Simone de Beauvoir.

So what made Simone the Simone we know? (we try, at least) She was born into a bourgeois French family, and as every other French family they expected her to be just as feminine as will make her desirable for another man. But, lo, she had her own ambitions. She read voraciously. Her parents encouraged her as well, for good measure. But, over the years, as she blossomed (ew, that feminine word, but I’ll use it anyway, because I like how it sounds, irrespective of social conditioning in my own life) into adulthood, she aspired to be more than just a dutiful daughter.

Into adulthood, she read more (in the book, she discusses what she reads), discussed and fleshed out her principles and ideologies. In politically turbulent times, her questions about what’s right and what isn’t troubled and invigorated her to no end. She fell in love with men, whereas she was previously curious as to how that was ever possible, and then she fell out of love with them just as nonchalantly.

The best part of the book, to me, was when she met Sartre, and he took her under his wing, so to speak (he was older and seemingly better read, and was she impressed or what!). The rest, as they say, is history.

The auto-biography offers invaluable insights into the upbringing and the creation of the pillars of ideals of one of the most important feminist thinkers of this era. What caused Simone the kind of cognitive dissonance that sparks such genius? Why did she think differently if her parenting was as average as it could be in a bourgeoise family? What was the unique circumstance under which her adolescence sculpted her mind?

The first person narration of someone who has offered such seminal ideas to our society is one of the important reasons to indulge in the exercise of reading the book. Also, it’s written very well – perfectly chronological (no hanky-panky flashbacks), grammatical (kudos to the translation!), exact flow of thought (no jarring edges).

No amount of scholarly reading will give you the granular details of what created Simone as this book does. If you’re curious as I was, to know what ticked for this person, give the book a go; and what’s more, it’s a good read. I’d give Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter a 4/5.

My biggest grouse with the book is that it was hard to find a good copy. The copy I read was borrowed from a library, and it was falling apart. The next part was in a worse condition. Can’t we have more such great works in our libraries? Amazon was not too much help either. Who knows, given the emergence of a more conscious feminist conscience, may be Simone’s autobiographies will be revived enough for mass paperback publishers to take note and do the needful.

The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.

Water Wars

This is a review of the book Water Wars: Privatisation, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva.

Water Wars is a great book for people interested in management of water; the kind of people who binge read newspaper editorials on public policy. It isn’t a hugely educative read, though, since almost everyone (newspaper nut or otherwise) is aware of the water crisis looming ahead, and that solutions to it are way more complex than we’d care to admit.

Just as well, the book is a worthy read because it is spirited (you can almost hear Shiva crying her voice hoarse about the ills of privatisation of water). Also, literature on conserving and saving our environment is necessary, so any literature at all is welcome.

Shiva is an advocate for community led maintenance of water. Her arguments are premised on the idea that communities are democratic and non-discriminating between sections of society. But is that the reality of communities across the country? Caste, class and religion based conflict, related to water, at the village level, are not uncommon in India. It was Ambedkar that said that villages can be the cesspools of narrow-mindedness – are they, then, equipped to solve water crisis equitably? It’s a pity that this point was not critically examined by Shiva.

She also believes that community management can be a replacement to govt efforts. Very well. But every successful case study on community led water management quoted came with the support of the State. For example, Swadhyaya, Pani Panchayat. So reading her ideas about replacing the state in service provision is a little bit of a hypocritic pill to take.

Predictably, the book signs a huge no to privatisation of water services, be it extraction, distribution or recycling. The reasons being that it leads to pollution, inequitable distribution.

Speaking of pollution, a much needed chapter is devoted to the effect of Climate Change on the dialectic on water scarcity. The bad news (not so much news anymore) is that there is no good news at all. Shiva believes that the solution to climate change induced water and food scarcity, and disasters, lies in enforcing action through international instruments like the Paris Agreement (she mentions Kyoto, actually; the book was released many years ago). But there is no way to enforce these agreements, truly. Finally, in a last breathe effort, she says, we need climate justice. That means a paradigm change in lifestyles of people, and a goodbye to the American lifestyle of consumption. But that’s pretty much impossible.

At this point in the review, I think it’s appropriate to point to some of the great despondence that the writer probably experienced while writing the book. These are the not-very-compelling parts of the book: Many pages are spent in saying that private companies (ranging from Coca Cola to Monsanto) are trying to claim all water services, with the help of the IMF and the World Bank. They’re not do-gooders – they’re trojan horses, apparently. So beware! Also, Public Private Partnerships are very dangerous – it’s all about making public good unavailable and making a profit out of it with public money! These statements are not based on facts or figures, rather, they’re based on strong opinions. I did say the book was spirited.

The book ends with a chapter on how rivers are seen as sacred by most civilisations. It was an appeal to the spirituality of the reader, I think, to conserve our water resources. To me, it was interesting for the narration of all the mythological stories related to rivers and other water bodies.

Solutions?

Shiva’s main emphasis is on local solutions to water problems, and she squarely blames states, countries and international organisations, and especially private interests, for the water crisis.

In Water Wars, fierce arguments to save the planet’s water resources by not doing certain things (like privatisation and monetisation of water) are put forward.

But there are no sweeping solutions that are on offer. While the case studies are quoted as a blueprint to solve issues related to water pollution and scarcity, it is also a fact that these stories are not scalable. Abstract ideas of justice and equity are provided as the panacea for water management. Mostly, the author exhorts countries to look within at solutions offered by communities and at traditional methods as ways forward.

If only that worked all the time.

While compelling, the book does not fully quench the thirst for solutions to water problems and water wars.

3/5.

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

Public Institutions in India: a cross-sectional view

Public institutions are the instruments through which modern states carry out their tasks of governance and development. Indian public institutions require close scrutiny, given that the Indian State is a paradox of, among other things, governance stability and political chaos, to both, good and bad effect. Public institutions in India especially merit much ink and thought for an administrator because of the implications that it holds for her, while she is a player in the game and creator of the same.

The study of public institutions has been carried out in two tangents – in drawing causations between institutions and certain outcomes that they produce, directly or indirectly. Public Institutions in India, on the other hand, is a study of public institutions themselves; on what affects the performance of different institutions rather than how the institutions affect broader aspects of the country’s life. The editors, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contend rightly, that a better grasp of how our public institutions function is imperative in order to appreciate India’s political economy.

Public institutions may be defined as a set of rules and norms that determine roles and which create and foster expectations from each other. When reading this book, though, it is important for a reader to remember the other definitions that enhance our understanding of institutions, ranging from the Marxist to the structuralist (the one ascribed to in this book). Ultimately, it is also to be borne in mind that institutions are but creations of people, and are liable to be preserved, or changed by them, with everyday and epic revolutions to that effect; and in this bottomline, lies the fact that the study of institutions is essential for administrators. To the end that it serves administrators, Public Institutions discusses the design, performance and adaptability of the key institutions of governance in India.

Public Institutions regards a wide range of institutions, from the Parliament, to the Reserve Bank of India, and to the Election Commission of India. The cross-sectional view of these institutions, though, is a tad bit dated today, given the many mutations that the institutions have gone through.

Nevertheless, the book will be enjoyable for the intellectually inclined. That said, it doesn’t conform to the recent trend of books being mediums of storytelling, even if non-fiction (Sapiens, for instance). If the book weren’t in the form of compendium of essays and it had a common thread pulling the reader along, it may have been a different sort of read, but would not necessarily have taken much out of the work. But then again, it may not have been easy to do it, given the vast difference in writing styles of the different writers and the assortment of topics.

As a reader primed to note biases in texts, some biases of the analysts, that even the best statisticians and researchers face, such as confirmation, hindsight, overconfidence bias, were sometimes too stark to skim over. For instance, the Pratap Bhanu Mehta essay concludes that the courts in India have predominantly intervened for the realisation of the duty of the State, as given by the Directive Principles of State Policy, as opposed to preserving and guaranteeing civil liberties. The examples stated to show the courts’ preference to intervene in the former and not latter have been selectively listed, in a classic case of confirmation bias. Mehta’s analysis does not pass the test for bias, given cases that contradict his view, like AK Gopalan versus State of Madras and B Muthamma versus Union of India. That said, the essay on the Judiciary is informative for the uninitiated and delves deep into the malaises and strengths of the institution.

The best part about these essays is that they deliver on their promise – they look at various institutions in depth, their interactions, as they aid or subvert each other, and their future prospects. An example would be the analysis of democratic durability and economic performance of the Indian political economy by Devesh Kapur. He states that despite the political instability that India has seen, she has remained a relatively very stable economy. He suggests, with numbers and graphs (indeed!), that it is perhaps the out of phase life cycle of institutions and political cycles that has reduced the covariance risk and has given more systemic stability to the State.

The writers also suggest ways forward for the institutions that they have analysed, some of which stand out for being forward looking and optimistic. In the essay on the police in India where the multiple linkages to the institution and its effects on society are analysed, it is also suggested that the institution needs to look within and at the society, with research at the core of policing.

The volume following this one is on Rethinking Public Institutions, in which the same institutions are analysed again, after over a decade, by other researchers. This time, with a reinvigorated zeal to suggest reform, with little and great revolutions within.

The purpose of the book, Public Institutions in India, is to appreciate efficiencies, comment on absurdities and highlight lacunae through a cross-sectional view of Indian public institutions. This, it does exceptionally well. The book is a must read for those interested in public policy and administration; preferably over a cup of piping hot tea or warm coffee. It is inevitable that this body of intellectually stimulating work will be discussed and debated in the halls of Indian public policy and administration, for it is one of a kind, and a good one at that.

4.5/5.

Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”