Arbit

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.

Bhagat Singh, the atheist

This is a comment on the essay, Why I am an Atheist, originally written by Bhagat Singh in Gurmukhi. It was translated to Urdu/Persian script by Maqsood Sadiq, and from Urdu to English by Hasan. It can be read at marxists.org.

Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary socialist* in British India, was the man that Bose said was the symbol of the new awakening among the youth. He was a luminaire extraordinaire in the freedom struggle, and he was all of 24 years old when he gave his life to his muse, liberty.

In his book/essay, Why I am an Atheist, he argues that he’s not an atheist because he’s vain or proud, because he thinks he’s superior or equivalent to God, no. “I need no opiate to meet my end. I am a realistic man. I want to overpower this tendency in me with the help of Reason.” He believed and wrote, thus, that a mere belief in God must be tempered with reason or suffer criticism. Furthermore, he argues, as a Marxian, that religion is the opium of the masses, hope of the hopeless. He sees religion as a curse to the freedom struggle. He calls scriptures fairy tales and expresses irritation that they are considered sacred and factual. He concludes by saying that religion is a creation of the powerful, to continue to control and exploit a section of the society, for generations.

He was often told that as a proud and vain man, he will submit himself before the Almighty when his time comes to a close. Yet, in defiance of the naysayers and to once and for all argue against them, he wrote the essay while he was in jail, awaiting the noose (having been convicted and punished to death for the assassination of a British officer), for his country, with conviction that his life was well lived and with fervent desire to leave behind as much of the spirit of the struggle as he could.

He pours his anger and annoyance into the essay, bemused and simultaneously mad at the inexplicable acceptance and resignation of the Indian people in the face of exploitation, from other Indians and from the British. The urgency of his tone is palpable as he exhorts his countrymen to rise and claim what is rightfully theirs.

I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it. Not that they are keeping us under subjugation with the consent of God, but it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing? Is He getting a diseased pleasure out of it? A Nero! A Genghis Khan! Down with Him!

The essay is relevant today and will remain so forever. Criticise, question, analyse, he said. (Today, if you don’t agree quickly enough, you’re slaughtered by self styled ‘nationalists’.)

You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, Ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.

This is a read that may be best enjoyed by the unprejudiced mind, one that is curious about the thoughts of the men that created the ground for debate and discourse in our polity. Try not to look for a confrontation with his arguments, and try not to profusely agree with him, and you might come away with something worthwhile. Reason.

An unsolicited TV recommendation

I just got done watching Master of None (available on Netflix, and uh, less legal sources on the Internet). And I had to write about it, even though we don’t usually do TV reviews here.

Friends was my first ‘adult’ sitcom. Rewatching it for the 128938th time, I came to the slightly depressing realization that I can (finally) kind of, sort of relate to the topics. Dating, cheap apartments, strangely formal parents- these are issues that a mid-twenties single working person would face, not a teenager living with her parents. But at the same time, the show presents a very suburban white American view of these issues- and an old fashioned one.

Master of None, however, captures the Peter Pan mindset very accurately. Today, Ross would be weird for being married by his mid-twenties; Rachel wouldn’t be alone in her cluelessness about jobs and laundry. MoN updates the single yuppie in the big city stereotype to fit today’s multicultural America. We’re single until our thirties, we’re passionate about our tacos, and don’t compromise on our careers or love lives.

Aziz Ansari, the protagonist, is the coolest guy ever, seriously. (No, he didn’t pay me to say that) He is the kind of guy I’d like to hang out with- laid back, spontaneous (except for food) and surprisingly politically correct for a comedian.

Watch watch watch. 4.5/5

The resurrection of the writer, Perumal Murugan

On 5 July, 2016, the Madras High Court (HC) upheld the right of Tamil author perumalmuruganPerumal Murugan to publish his novel, ‘Mathorubagan’, and its English translation, ‘One Part Woman’.

Last year, in an infamous episode of exercising one’s right to be offended, a bunch of people from Perumal Murugan’s village took offense to his story (which described the village and its cultural practices) and forced it out of the stands. They made him apologise for his writing (the nerve!), and forced him to retrieve unsold copies of the books. The State stood as a spectator to this, like a mannequin does when a store is being vandalized.

After this sordid affair, Perumal Murugan had had enough. He declared the writer in him to be dead. Here‘s a post on that shameful episode.

On 5 July 2016, the HC, after upholding Perumal Murugan’s right to publish, also dismissed petitions that sought to ban the books (this time, the “vigilantes” were trying to twist his arm through legal routes, as opposed to plain bullying). The HC said, quite plainly, that no one is forced to read. ‘If you don’t like a book, simply keep it aside.’ Well said your Honour!

Will he come back and write more books, though?

After being harassed by the thin-skinned, easily offended lovers of all-that-is-imagined, we can’t say. But we would love to see him back. As does the HC, which said “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.

Welcome to Zombieland

So, audiobooks. For those book purists who look down upon eReaders because “I love the FEEL of paper pages!”, this might cause spontaneous combustion. But for people who spend a not-insignificant part of their day in crowded buses, hanging on for dear life, it might not be such a bad idea!

…Unless, like me, you have terrible listening comprehension. Like zero.

I still tried, because I hadn’t read anything in ages. So here is my very vague review of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.

This book was published in 2015 and got overall good reviews, with someone (I forget who) dubbing it the modern day American Psycho. I loved the satire on modern society in AP, but found it somewhat dated, since it was published in the 90s. I was hoping that YTCHABLM would have more relatable humour.

It did, sorta. There’s some bashing of consumerism, with a mega-supermarket chain called Wally’s (sound familiar?) that uses some strange marketing tactics to suck people in. Also an all-natural junk food called Kandy Kakes with aggressive advertising and an infinite shelf life.

But apart from that, it’s the strange, uber introspective narrative of a girl called A who finds herself being replaced by her roommate B and abandoned by her boyfriend C (such naming. much wow). She has a mindless job and all the charisma and personality of an overripe banana. Her roommate on the other hand is dependent and helpless, and eats only popsicles, because oranges are too hard to peel.

The entire novel is an overly dramatic monologue, with some entertaining observations. The drama is intentional, but tends to get on one’s nerves, because the plot as a whole is not terribly eventful. It’s more about the wit and funny-strange observations on culture than any beginning-to-end storyline. The audiobook version that’s available on Amazon Audible has a narrator that fits the character very well.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel unless you’re a big fan of satire, but I DO recommend using your one month free trial of Audible if you have an Amazon account. It’s a new medium of storytelling that’s worth a try.

3/5

Self-help = Help yourself

I didn’t intend to review this, but it’s been ages since the last post and well, this is what I read. So, without any embarrassment, here is my review of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

Ironically, I kept putting this off, and ended up abandoning it eventually (hey, it kept telling me to Get Things Done, and wading through this book wasn’t helping me Get Things Done). I was pretty skeptical about the idea of self-help books, but wanted to give it a shot. Also, engineering education left me with zero work ethic, and study habits that look like this:

  1. Wait for the night before the final exam/ submission.
  2. Ingest copious amounts of caffeine.
  3. Memorize textbook solution manual/ plagiarize code from the Internet.
  4. Hello, sunrise!

This didn’t seem like a very good idea in the long run…

First, let me summarize what I gleaned from the first 50% of this book.

  • The main aim is to get into the Zone, where you are fully focused on your work.
  • Having worries or ‘Oh, I have to do that, too!’ bouncing around your head takes away your focus.
  • Maintain detailed documentation of your to-do list, and an inbox of things that you need to get done.
  • Break tasks down into bite-sized sub tasks (and sub-sub tasks if needed) to avoid unstructured work. All work needs to be geared towards completion of a task- you shouldn’t waste time thinking about what needs to be done next.
  • If any task takes less than 2 minutes, just do it now.

That stuff seems pretty obvious, right? Unfortunately the author goes the business management route of laboriously developing terminology for everything and explaining it before getting to the gist of things. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Mockery aside, there are a couple of tips that could be useful in practice. Pre-planning and breaking down assignments and projects make it a lot easier to start work in advance. Having a giant 12-hour task looming makes it tempting to procrastinate, having a one-hour-long reading to do is less intimidating. However, the planning and inbox system he describes seems super laborious and could increase ‘planning overhead’ time by quite a bit, something he seems to realize considering that 2-minutes rule.

This book could be useful to someone who has a lot of responsibilities (managers, people with households to run, etc), but not so much for students or people with more intellectual jobs (say, code monkeys). Also his writing style is super annoying, and you need to be dedicated enough to plough through the annoying jargon to get to the actual content.

2/5 from me.

Yes, I like adaptations

And now for something completely different… Poetry adapted into movies. “How,” you ask, “does a poem have anywhere close to enough content for a movie?” Well, you haven’t been reading the right poetry. We’re talking narrative and imagery, not daffodils and brooks.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is just bleak enough to be romantic without the sweet aftertaste. A Yale student Yulin Kuang has adapted it to a short YouTube clip. I like the poem, most of it, but the video seemed lackluster and too literal. But it’s worth a shot- being an English-as-a-second-language learner in school meant that I never really was exposed to any poetry more recent than the nineteenth century. It was nice to find that yes, there is poetry that is edgy and dark.

Aaaand now for our feature presentation. The Song of Lunch, featuring Alan Rickman. This is no joke. The talented Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play middle aged ex-lovers in this BBC short based on a poem of the same name. I hadn’t heard of the poem before, but had a sneaking suspicion than Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace) would make a narrator to rival Morgan Freeman. In the wave of RIP Snape mania, I managed to find an undoubtedly illegal print on YouTube, and watched it immediately (thus procrastinating my homework for 50 minutes- instant gratification is my vice).

The first segment is hilarious- Rickman sneaks out of his office at lunchtime, with no intention of returning for several hours. Any cubicle-dweller will relate to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you take the first couple of steps out of the building without being spotted.

The story gets serious afterwards, though. Rickman has a date with an old flame, who ran away with a more successful man. He is clearly not over her, and tries to drown the initial nostalgia and disappointment in several glasses of red wine. Which does not end well.

Once again, I was surprised that poetry could be so, well, contemporary. This short reminded me of cynical indie movies with unpopular-geek protagonists, despite being a regretful poem about unrequited love. Rickman’s badass-ery might have had something to do with it.

Watch this. 4.5/5

Miscellany

2015 was disappointing, reading-wise. I didn’t reach my paltry target of 30 books, and more upsetting, didn’t read as many good books as I would have liked. The downside of only reading light novels. Anyway, be prepared for more random non-literary posts; it’s either that or reviewing technical papers.

  1. RIP Alan Rickman. Currently, no fewer than 5 of my WhatsApp contacts have “Always” as their status message- this frustrates me so much. I’ve heard that the greatest achievement of an actor is to be mistaken for a character they’ve played, but come on, he has done better than Harry Potter for sure… Hasn’t he? I reviewed Sense and Sensibility a while ago, and he was certainly good there. And if you’re looking for something offbeat, check out the insanity called Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
  2. Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. I dare you to read it without feeling queasy- I finished this short story a couple of hours ago and am dreading the thought of lunch. It’s a short story revolving around masturbation that ironically was published in the Playboy magazine. It’s awkward and gross and may just go over the line unless you have a stomach of steel- try it here.
  3. South Indian cinema today. I finally got around to watching Bangalore Days and Premam, two recent Malayalam movies that have done much to shatter the pretentious artsy image of Mollywood (?!). While they’re very modern and amazingly well-made, they have a few ridiculous plot twists that remind you that this is a south Indian entertainer.  On the other hand, the Tamil movie O Kadhal Kanmani is a brilliant film that deserves your time, even if you must use subtitles. Its portrayal of two couples- one young and modern, one old and even more modern- is sweet without being unrealistic or annoying. Plus A R Rahman’s music, need I say more?

Movie Adaptations, Morals in Children’s Books, etc

Firstly: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility movie.

I haven’t read this classic by Jane Austen, despite liking Pride and Prejudice. But Emma Thompson won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for this one, and I wanted to understand what exactly goes into adapting a screenplay. I mean, Austen did all the work already didn’t she? Plus, it’s Ang Lee’s first English language movie and he is all famous now.

I’ve concluded that there are only a dozen active British actors. You see them once in a while in Hollywood movies, but whenever any big budget Brit movie is made, they congregate into one star-studded lineup. This is no different. Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Kate Winslet (from that sinking ship movie) and Hugh Grant (from all those chick flicks) play the main roles. And Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) is one of the romantic heroes!!

The story has the typical Austen-esque drama- “He talked to me, but he is already engaged!”. But the characters are not as cartoon-y as the book, I think.

All in all, a well made movie especially if you’re a fan of the genre or can appreciate the subtleties of good direction and acting.

Secondly: CS Lewis’s Narnia series, and what he really meant.

The Narnia series is widely accepted to be a Christian allegory, with King Aslan playing the role of Jesus. The question, then, is what does Susan’s situation signify? As a kid, it never bothered me one way or another. She enters the magic kingdom along with her brothers and sisters, and in due turn, is banned from it when she becomes ‘too old’. However, she does not return at the end of the series even though her older brother Peter does. This is attributed to the fact that she has ‘discovered lipstick’ and is interested in socializing. Which is still okay, until you realize that she’s being punished pretty severely for these ‘mistakes’- her entire family dies in a train crash at the end of book seven. Harsh. Reddit has discussed different interpretations here, give it a look if you’re familiar with the series and curious. As always, Reddit’s infamous hive-mind has come up with some amazing stuff.