book review

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.’”

One Day

This is my review of One Day, by David Nicholls.

Nicholls is a well-known screenwriter, and wrote the screenplay for  Starter for 10 (and the novel on which it was based), which is a charming indie-ish comedy about quizzing. One Day has also been adapted for the big screen, but does not translate nearly as well.

One Day is a stereotypical romance novel, except it’s not. Nicholls seems to revel in de-romanticizing relationships and situations.

The story is almost simplistic. Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley are two university graduates who meet by chance on the day of their graduation. Despite a brief attempt at romance, they decide to remain friends. The book follows them and their relationship over nearly 20 years, from 1988 to 2006.

By necessity, the whole novel is made up of a series of vignettes from Dexter and Emma’s lives over the years, always on St Swithin’s Day (don’t worry, no-one knows what that is). It’s fairly obvious what the outcome is going to be- the DexAndEm EmAndDex best-friendship is clearly a cover- but the journey is long and winding and riddled with obstacles. Emma is stuck in a dead-end job despite her academic brilliance; Dexter’s career is threatened by his alcoholism; both have serious relationships.

What I liked was the brutal insight into romantic cliches. Like turning on a tubelight behind an Instagram-filtered selfie (poor analogy, but you know what I mean.) Picture this: a man and woman lie together in bed on the morning after their graduation party. In Nicholls’ version, the man has just realized that the woman is not as good-looking in the light of day. The woman is terribly nervous, and terribly pleased that she has caught the eye of this handsome, popular boy. Awkwardness ensues. Another interesting observation is that the poor, plain Emma must become well off and attractive before she finds love.

What I didn’t like was the overwhelming clichedness. We only see the characters’ personalities via dialogue, served in witty anecdotes. Each of which is repeated in two points of view. It gets tedious, but it’s still a very light, quick read.

3/5 from me. Read Love Story by Erich Segal if you want the original, classic version of this story.

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written by Arundhati Roy, who is famous for being the winner of the Man Booker Prize Award for her previous work of fiction, The God of Small Things (and is famous still for eliciting vile hatred among the gatekeepers of Indian Nationalism and Patriotism).

Anything to do with Roy becomes political, as might be the case with this review. Even though I’ve tried to be apolitical, how can I seem to objectively review this book? Roy is, after all, a woman who stokes the deepest fears in people who admire her, detest her, or, who try to be indifferent to her. I’m aware of the political speak that the review of this book can seem to exude, just as the book itself did. After all, as Roy says, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Before the book was released, commentators commented on the political undertones of the novel. I was intrigued. When I purchased the book, I mulled over the meaning of the poem on the book jacket for a long time.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody.
No. By slowly becoming everything."

What does the poem mean? Are people shattered in the course of their lives? Are the shattered people reduced to things? Are the people reduced to things after being shattered? Will knowing the stories of shattered people’s lives leave me shattered too? Can’t I tell a shattered story without being affected? Should I be stoic and unreasonably tree-like in my attempt to tell the shattered story of the dehumanised shattered people? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. Such angst is a hallmark of Roy’s works, especially now, when she’s weaving metaphors through every sentence.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I figure, is the place that the (shattered?) people of the periphery congregate to; and if it had to be a physical location, it would be the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, an ascetic Sufi saint who was executed by the Mughal King, Aurangzeb, for the crime of blasphemy, being naked, and mostly for being a nuisance. The enigma of the saint shines through in all the protagonists – eccentric people from the fringes who live their ludicrous lives with aplomb.

One of our protagonists, Aftab or Anjum, a transgender person, or a Hijra, as she likes to be called, was introduced to the Sufi saint by her grief-ridden mother (for having given birth to a Hijra). After many years, during which time Anjum discovers her sexuality, moves out of her house, into Khwabgah (a place where Hijras stayed, and which literally translates to “a house of dreams”), attains fame, etc., she finds her daughter at the Shrine. Anjum’s life changes as tragedy strikes soon afterward, and she goes off to live in a grave yard.

Saddam Hussein, a security guard who rides a pony, is another such eccentric character. He, too, ends up living with Anjum in Jannat, the palace in the grave yard.

Another main protagonist, Tilotamma, is an architect who is possibly modeled after Roy herself. In her life, everything is a metaphor. As a young graduate student in Delhi, she falls in love with a passionate and handsome man, who goes on to become a Kashmiri militant fighting for Azaadi, and who calls her Babajaan. She is also romanced by a idealistic hardcore investigative journalist who is soon absorbed into the State’s news mill. She loves him for a brief period, but then falls out of love gradually. She’s also the love of a man who joins the Intelligence Bureau; a true patriot who thinks they can never really be together, for reasons ranging from her being “rootless” while he belonged to an “upper caste”, him being married to a woman of his parents’ choice, to her being as aloof as she is, etc. And towards the end of the book, or somewhere in the middle (it’s hard to say when), she also adopts an abandoned child born to a raped Maoist militant. Tilo’s story, or multitude of stories, was my hook.

Endearing characters apart, the book traces some of the most seminal moments in Indian history, like the partition, the emergency, the 1984 sikh riots, Godra 2002, Kashmir 2010 and 2016, Maoist movements in Andhra Pradesh, the India Against Corruption movement 2010, to name a few. But these events are scattered across the book like bread crumbs, in a jumbled up time-line, which only a keen reader can keep track of.

When the reader turns the last page, though, she wonders why this is no more than a work of fiction. Is it not an argument made through fiction? Argument or not, the very obvious references to the Indian leadership and polity can make the book more of a political memorandum than a piece of literature.

In an interview, Roy was asked why she resorted to fiction when the reality, or Duniya, is so starkly fantastic and mildly dystopian. She said, “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves”. That declaration pretty much sums up this book: an attempt to make sense of the world – of the dance of the world – by threading together the shattered tales of a shattered people.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, happiness is redefined and is free of the crutches of social norms and facts. It’s written with a luxuriant flow of words and with the ragged edge of a penmanship that seeks to speak directly to the reader. If you read the book as a work of contemporary fiction, it may be a 4/5 experience. If not, I can’t say.

Queen of the Court

This is a review of Queen of the Court, Serena Williams’s autobiography, penned with Daniel Paisner. She gives us rare insights into her childhood, training regimen, among other curious details in the life of a champion. The book was published in 2009, when she had “only” 11 Grand Slams to her name. Today she holds a record whopping 23!

When I picked the book up, the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew very little about what Serena Williams is made of; what kind of person is she? Is she as tortured as Agassi was, as hard on herself as Nadal, or as perfectly naturally athletic like Roger Federer? What is it about her, the sinew and guts, that make her the Queen of the court?

Legend has it that Serena and sister, Venus Williams, were born because of some happenstance by which their father was watching the 1978 French Open on TV. The announcer mentioned that the player, Virginia Ruzici, had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play, more than Serena’s father earned all year. He was stunned and inspired. The story goes that he went up their mother and said, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

They made tennis their life. The older Williams girls were trained along with the young potential protégées. In their household, every little game was about tennis, and every day, needless to say, was spent hitting balls, or practicing form, or watching a game. This tennis regimen involved a lot of homework for the parents, especially their dad, who was their coach in the formative years. For him, training the girls included learning the game, the tricks involved, game play, coaching methods and juggling his day job with the tennis-life. The focus with which the girls were brought up, and the up keep of that spirit – with love and respect for the game – is commendable to say the very least.

The Williamses’ dedication to the sport, bordering on religion, is almost unthinkable, given that they literally practiced in courts while next door there raged gun violence. They hopped from public court to public court, with an old car loaded with balls, racquets and brooms to clean the court (of dry leaves, if they’re lucky, and drug paraphernalia, if not). The girls themselves were driven and passionate, with abundant conviction and confidence, from the beginning, that they would be tennis stars one day. Their father kept the improbability of that away from them, though.

As a child, Serena sees herself as the spoilt brat in the family; the youngest one who is spoiled with love and affection, the one who hides under the shadow of the big sisters, and the one that gets away with all sorts of mischief. One such mischievous act got her career as a professional tennis player started. When Serena was 8, her sister Venus entered a professional 10-and-under tournament, as per her father-coach’s plan. Serena, who always wanted what Venus had (and who believed she was ready!), demanded that she be allowed to play too. Her father felt she was not ready yet, and so turned a deaf ear to her. Come tournament day, the family travelled together as usual, and Serena was tagging along with Venus and her father. When they reached the courts, however, Serena slipped away. Her father noticed, only a little later, that she had wandered off. He asked one of the referees if he’d seen Serena (who was a known face, there, being dark skinned and being a part of the Venus entourage and all). “She’s playing her match, out back in court number..” he said. Apparently, Serena had taken the liberty to enter the tournament by herself! And she proved her father’s fears wrong.

This spunky young lady, though, is besotted with self-doubt. But, due to the criticism of the nay-sayers, who had pinned her down to forever be no more than “Venus’s little sister”, or despite it, she rose through the ranks and held her own. She suffered through injury, the loss of a sister to gun violence, vicious hatred and racism on and off the court, and still came at the top of her game.

Although the book was a quick read, it dwells on many aspects of Serena’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches upon many facets too, from family to training to sponsorships to fashion. It also has some family pictures and some entries from her journal, which make the memoir all the more personal and stirring. (Although I would have liked very much if the textese were corrected.)

But the book didn’t fully satisfy the curiosity that I picked it out with. Now I know what she wrote in her little Match Book, one that she leafs through during matches, like, “U will not be afraid. It is not in your vocabulary. It is not in your nature. It is not in U, period. NO FEAR!!!” I also know how much she loved fashion and thrived on the looks she created for each tournament. I know, too, that she was moved by her visit to Africa (a Roots-esque visit, I’d say). But I don’t know how she really battled her poor self-image, how she remained efficient even as her haters grew louder, and I don’t know the little details of her practice and cross training, or diet, and I am fully blindsided on her childhood outside of the tennis courts, which, I reckon, made her into the tough lady we see on court.

Also, since the book was written in 2009, I had no way of learning about her journey since (duh), which has only been more inspiring than not.

In 2017, she won the Australian Open when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. What wouldn’t I give to know what she wrote in her Match Book for the finals? Here’s a picture of the Queen at the 2017 Australian Open –

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One of Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

For someone who plays tennis, Queen of the Court is a must read. 5/5. For the rest, who hope to learn how to hit a top-spin, the book is no good. For a tennis or sports fan, the book is worth a slow weekend. 3/5.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

(Queen, Killer Queen)

No Child’s Play

There is something exquisite about children’s books. There’s joy and wonder in the discovery of new things. There’s unbounded love. Most importantly, there’s the tremendous responsibility of nurturing and molding young minds. Shouldn’t that make reading children’s books a great learning experience?

This post is a review of a famous children’s book, Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H Porter, and a book of compiled letters to Indira Nehru, Letters from a Father to His Daughter, by the inimitable Jawaharlal Nehru.

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The ever so happy Pollyanna

Pollyanna is a book about the little child, Pollyanna, who is glad about everything under the sun. She is the person behind the adjective Pollyanna or pollyanaish. If she finds nothing to be glad about, under the sun, then she just digs deeper till she hits the goldmine of gladness. She’s a delight. She’s a great person to introduce to children, especially in times such as this (cue dramatic music), because she is an embodiment of hope and joy, and possesses the power to transform even the grumpiest of people.

However, since I am, I think, an adult, I didn’t find Pollyanna to be enlightening or even cute. In fact, I felt intensely sorry for her. What would ever happen to her when she grew up and saw the purple flowers, like Celie did far into her adulthood? I would definitely not want to witness her bubble bursting. Of course, when reading a children’s book, one is supposed to wear one’s most childish pajamas. But, try as I might, I couldn’t pretend not to be an adult when I read this book. Besides, it also didn’t help that I am biased towards books that are based on plausible dystopias rather than books that are desperately trying to be about a utopia.

Apart from the main selling point of the book, I also disliked the way it is written. I had always thought that writers before the mid 20th century were very conscious of their grammar and punctuation. But, it turns out, I’m wrong. Porter has unfortunately used big shouty letters to emphasise words, rather than effectively use simple words.

If you’re a child under 10, or know a child that young, gift him or her this book. It will act as a balm when he or she ever feels let down by their worlds. I’d root for Black Beauty and Heidi though, instead. Anyway, if you’re an adult, it’s a 2/5.

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Young Indira Nehru

Pollyanna doesn’t make for a great present to a 10 year old, but Letters from a Father to His Daughter does! The book is a compilation of letters that were written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter, Indira Nehru, who would go on to become the first female prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The letters were written with love and devotion, and published with the hope that “such of them as read these letters may gradually begin to think of this world of ours as a large family of nations“.

The letters cover the creation of the earth, evolution of life and man through civilisations, stratifications based on race, gender, caste, class, creation of social institutions, and their relevance today*. The simple language and the breadth of information compressed is wonderful. It made me appreciate the exceptional talent every parent must possess to answer their children’s infinite queries.

What stood out in the letters was the lack of sermons. Nehru treats little Indira as an intelligent person. There’s the glow of constant engagement between father and daughter; as if her education never ceases and as if she was always thirsty for more. Nehru emphasizes, in the first letter in the compilation, that to truly understand the world, it is important for Indira to step out of her comfort zone. “If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born,” he wrote. We also see Indira being groomed as a world leader, a humanist. Nehru’s words are timeless. He wrote, “As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

As an adult (clears throat), I had a good time reading the book. The book gave me an idea or two on how to smother my little nephew with love and be an overbearing aunt at the same time. I thought the book could have packed in more illustrations, though, seeing as the ones that made the cut into the book are as pretty as they are. Also, in some parts of the book, I had an undesirable urge to argue with Nehru on some of his ideas. But, even so, the letters don’t truly belong to any school of thought, per se, and the book is an enjoyable and age-appropriate read throughout.

If you’re a young child of 8-12, this book can be rated 5/5. For a person older than that, however, the book comes close to 4/5, for its simplicity, its power through knowledge and, also, by being the book that possibly shaped the life of one of the most prominent leaders of the world’s largest democracy.

Children’s books are a thing of beauty, and I have realised through the act of critiquing them, that they’re tricky and a joy to read. Nevertheless, I figure, children’s books are no child’s play.


Feature image: Aaron Shikler’s painting of a young JFK.

The art of translation

Translations have the ability to ruin or enrich a piece of literature. In this review, I look at two books that were translated to English. Chemmeen, written in Malayalam by T. S. Pillai, was translated by Anita Nair, and One Part Woman, written in Tamil by Perumal Murugan, was translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.

The problems of translation are many, and I don’t pretend to know all of them. But, even to a novice, many of those problems become evident when it’s a translation of a nuanced story. Likewise, the beauty of a good translation is evident when a reader is moved by the literature, an artwork by itself, despite the translation. To be able to accomplish the latter requires responsible and dedicated translation, which, I’m afraid, is rare to find.

One Part Woman was written in Tamil under the title Maathorubagan. The book kicked up a storm when it was published. A section of the society demanded that it be banned. But fortunately, in an unfortunately flawed judgment, the courts allowed the book to be published.

The book, One Part Woman, is about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love with each other. The tenderness in their relationship is touchingly written; allowing me to forget that this is a translation! Their attempts at conceiving a child go in vain, and they are hounded by the social sanction of being childless. But then there comes relief – a chariot festival, where consensual sex between any man and woman, married or unmarried, is allowed; all for the benefit of the barren women. According to this tradition, the acts committed on the occasion of the festival are sacred and fully sanctioned by God. But will it push Kali and Ponna’s relationship too far if she participates in it?

The tale is harrowing because of how human it is. It examines, with nuance and lyricism, the ways in which society manipulates our choices, emotions, relationships. By the end of the thin book, I was exhausted and moved. The story is exceptional, goosebumps-worthy. It made me wonder how exquisite the Tamil version would be. But thankfully, the translation is excellent in that simple English is used to tell the tale without any jarring pitstops.

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The Tamil book, Maathorubagan

And then there is Chemmeen, an epic story, and a regrettable translation. Chemmeen is more famous as one of the best Malayalam movies, than it is as a Malayalam book. The story is gold! However, the intricately woven themes and the strong characters have to be rescued by the reader against the tide of the grammatical errors that steal the treasure – the story. The flat tone used, with a mechanical translation, was highly off putting.

“It was bone-chillingly damp. Then one morning the sun rose in a clear sky. The boats were launched. There was a good catch. The boats came back to shore and brisk trade happened.”

“A few days later a huge quarrel erupted on the shore. All the fisherwomen who sold their fish in the east ganged up against Karuthamma and abused her.”

Lines that may have sounded poetic in Malayalam lay diminished in this translation.

Apart from my grievance about the translation, the story is beautiful. It’s a classic. It examines the lives of a community of fisherfolk in Kerala, their interpersonal relationships based on status, class and religion. It is essentially a love story, though. All the characters are built expertly, except Pareekutty, who remains slightly mysterious and romantic till the end. The protagonists of the love story, Karuthamma, Pareekutty and Palani, are honorable, loving, flawed, passionate people. Even though Karuthamma loves Pareekutty, she marries Palani. She does so because, among other myriad reasons, Pareekutty is not from her religion, because her father asks her to do so, because that’s her duty to the community, as a fisherwoman. As you can see, from this very short snippet of the story, multiple themes are intertwined in the story. And the story itself has many twists and turns. What happens to Palani, Karuthamma and Pareekutty? Do Palani and Karuthamma live as a happily married couple? Or do Karuthamma and Pareekutty get together? The richness of the story merits every high praise. But, as for the translation, the lesser said the better.

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A still from the 1965 Malayalam movie, Chemmeen


Chemmeen and One Part Woman share some similar themes, but Chemmeen, I’d say, is more layered and complex, and is a better drama; a classic! One Part Woman, though, has won me over with its simple, yet nuanced, story.

TS Pillai’s Chemmeen deserves a 4.5/5 for being such an epic story, but I’d rate it at 3/5 due to (despite) the disappointing translation by Anita Nair. Don’t read it if you cannot stand a beautiful story being lost due to the ineptitude of the literature.

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman fully deserves a 4/5, for its story and the translation that does it justice. Read it if you enjoy heartwarming lyrical love stories.

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.

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”.