book review

Read this read this

I don’t know who recommended this book but I definitely owe them a coffee.

This is my review of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman.

Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer. Despite the unusual field of study, this book is one of the most informative and eye-opening works I have ever read. You’ll never look at any man-made device the same again, promise.

Have you ever tried using a new device- a new Samsung phone after a series of Nokias, iOS after Windows, hell, even a can opener- and chastised yourself for being technology illiterate? In reality, every mis-click that causes you to lose data  is a design flaw, and not the user’s fault. By definition, all gadgets are intended to make the user’s life simpler, not more complex.

The book is perhaps intended to be a textbook, but is light enough to be casual reading for a layperson. However, several basic concepts are defined fairly rigorously- I had to read a chapter or two twice. It was first published in the 1980s, so there are several charmingly outdated examples related to landline telephones. It hasn’t aged well, but the examples aren’t completely obsolete so they put the ideas across effectively enough.

5/5 from me. Read this if you are in the mood to learn something new, and aren’t intimidated by mild technology/engineering jargon.

Here are some takeaways from the book that really stuck with me:

  • Read The Fucking Manual is excellent advice, but an ideal design should be intuitive enough for someone to use it straight out of the box. A good metric to judge how intuitive controls are is to look at the mapping between the control and the function. Do you have 3 buttons for a dozen functions? Chances are, the average dad is going to have a hard time. Are the controls at least vaguely reminiscent of the functions they’re for? An example of this would be pushing a joystick forward or up to make your virtual vehicle move faster.

 

  • Norman Doors: This is a example of poor design. It refers to those annoying doors that say PUSH and PULL on them because it’s not immediately obvious what you are supposed to do without trial and error. A better alternative is illustrated in the header image for this post. Simple and effective.

 

  • Repeat after me: The Customer is King. Usability studies are essential to make sure that a) functions are intuitive and b) basic errors in judgement do not have catastrophic consequences. For instance, Norman noticed that this book was being shelved under psychology, which was slightly misleading. Switching it to design/engineering ensured that it was accessible to the right customers. Another example was the positioning of a ‘clear all’ key on a calculator in the spot usually occupied by the Return key. Experienced typists kept mashing this key at the end of a long equation, erasing all their work.

 

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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.

In an old house in England…

This is my review of the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.

I was led to this play via a mention of the grouse population problem in another work of fiction. A Google search told me that this is a modern play that has mathematical references. Since I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi, I had to give it a shot.

The last play that I read was the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve read film scripts before too, out of sheer laziness. What I’ve realized is that scripts are, by necessity, a very crude medium for storytelling. Yes, spells can be cast non-verbally and very destructive spells do exist. But it is far more visually appealing to have duellers dodging blasts of colourful light. On film or stage, visual effects are necessary, even at the expense of a plot hole or two. For more obvious reasons, you also cannot have any trains of thought, or flashbacks, or any other crutches to help a dull audience member understand a character’s motivations.

I tried very hard to keep all these constraints in mind while reading Arcadia, because a lot of the subtler plot points are given away by casting and set design commentary, and a reader loses out on the experience of piecing the clues together on their own.

The first scene shows us a young man with then improbable name ‘Septimus Hodge’ tutoring the young Thomasina. It’s the early nineteenth century, and tutor and tutee(?) engage in some Oscar Wilde-worthy banter. It’s clear that Septimus and Thomasina are both extremely intelligent. The first few scenes are a delight, both for the wordplay and the way that anachronistic science and mathematics is discussed from a perspective that is very different from today.

In the present day, a scholar is studying the architectural style of the house; a scientist plays with data he finds in old hunting records; and a historian tries to uncover the story behind an eccentric genius who lived in the house nearly two centuries before.

These two storylines are interleaved with each other, with many visual parallels- the old house, lookalike characters. It’s set up as a mysterious collision with some revelations at the end. Unfortunately it’s not quite subtle enough on paper, and one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the set design.

I would recommend this play, but only if you really take the time to sit down and visualize how the story pans out- don’t just follow the (overly simplistic) storyline like I did!

4/5. I’m not great at visualizing narrative, but if you are you’ll probably enjoy this one!

 

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 –

serena.png

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.