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Life Pro Tips for Commuters

I spend around 1.5 hours of my day travelling to and from work- a combination of navigating the obstacle courses that pass for footpaths in my city, and hanging for dear life from a public bus. So basically, that’s a not-so-insignificant amount of time lost to irate honking and carbon monoxide.

To clarify any questions, I live in an Indian city that’s rapidly becoming (in)famous for its mind numbing, lung clogging traffic. Spending 45 minutes on an ~8 kilometre commute is enviable here.

Here are some tips on how to pass time while travelling-

  1. People watching: As I discovered recently (unintentionally, I swear!) this can rapidly descend into stalking territory. If you know the names and workplaces of your fellow commuters, I think it’s time for you to get yourself a new hobby.
  2. Audiobooks: My first audiobook was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F Scott Fitzgerald, as narrated by, uh, a generic male voice. It was entertaining enough for me to go out of my way to prolong my ride. Since it is a novella, I was able to listen to the whole thing in a single trip of ~1 hour.  The idea of audiobooks while commuting is a terrific idea in theory, but fails to take into account that India is a noisy noisy place. I lost many sentences to the sound of the bus conductor yelling and the horns of trucks. Best stick to light novels with a simple plot; nuances of language cannot compete with city sounds.
  3. Podcasts: I reviewed Serial in a previous post- that kind of story is engrossing, yet fast paced enough for travel. Freakonomics Radio provides much food for thought, if economics interests you.
  4. Radio: Danish Sait’s prank calls, enough said.
  5. Music: If you are a music snob, the radio may be too proletarian for your tastes. Download entire albums and you’re good to go. Crank it up loud enough to drown out the noise of irate car drivers though.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book that has to be chewed slowly.

It’s wonderfully written.

It will, at points, shock you with its little quirky insights on “being Indian”; actually, even “being Indian”, in the abstract, is questioned and argued about in the book.

Irrespective of what you want this book to be, it will turn into that book that you want to read because it allows you the luxury of self perception, into the society (and maybe yourself).

It’s an enriching book, in that it makes you look at your countrymen with more empathy for their steadfastly held (always steadfast, never slack..) beliefs. It’s, however, not a book you want to discuss details of with your devout and orthodox relatives who argue endlessly, one-way (some will be maddened into thinking you’re turning into a deviant rebel if you do talk to them with the rationality that might stick when you read this book). It broadens your mind, undoubtedly.

A friend said, after he read this book, he looked at people, and India, differently. That sounded very cliche. But he was right. This one gives you a rather grey tinted looking glass. It makes you conciliate with the anomalies of your society, it helps you make peace with all kinds of gobar too. (But it didn’t really help me make peace with whatever it is that the “nation wants to know!”*)

As for the title, it’s not misleading. The essays in the book reflect on the argumentative nature of Indians, and help you realize that being argumentative is a powerful tool you can have; not to be mistaken with being loud and thick. This book, for example, is soft spoken (if I may), but is compelling. The essays are about the different hues of deliberation, discussion and debate that conversation and practices lead one to; it, at no points, mistakes lambasting and being crass for being argumentative.

As for the writer himself, what can I say that a Nobel** cannot? Salut to you sir. Thumbs up on the choice of the book cover. So gorgeous!


*reference made to an unpopular Indian TV anchor who lives in his little deep well, like the green frog did.

**the Nobel was admittedly not for his work on culture, history or polity (which this book is about), but was in the field of economics. Nevertheless, it’s a great measure of one’s greatness, at least in the annals of bloggesh. *tips hat at imagined audience

India’s Daughter/Sister/Mother

Like every other amateur feminist, I watched India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on a 2012 Delhi gang rape. It hit close to home, and left me shaken. Frankly, I watched the documentary only because of the controversial court order by the Indian government that required YouTube to pull down the video in India. I wanted to see for myself what the government deemed so slanderous.


Who’s the Real Monster?

There’s been some radio silence here at WeTellATale, partly because the only writing I’ve done in a while has been in the interest of self-promotion (aka shameless bragging). Anyway, here’s the recommendation for the day.

Many of my friends are die-hard manga+anime geeks. They tend to disappear into dark rooms with a laptop and a large packet of cookies, and emerge 36 hours later with dark circles and a manic look, having just read/watched a couple of series non-stop. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The first manga I tried was Death Note, because that’s where newbies usually start. After getting adjusted to the right to left reading style, I really enjoyed the story progression. It is no less detailed than a text-only novel would be, and can convey ambiguity a lot better; more of the plot is left to your imagination.

Death Note is about an overachieving schoolkid, Light Yagami, who finds a notebook that is capable of killing anyone whose name is written in it. He sets out on a mission to eliminate all ‘evil people’, with the company of a shinigami- death god- who was the previous owner of the book. Not surprisingly, he goes power crazy, and his murders attract the attention of an eccentric detective, L. A cat and mouse game ensues. L is a genius, but Light is no ordinary high schooler, and evades capture by assigning a new dummy killer. There is an incredible plot twist about halfway through, and it looks like Light has won, until two new detectives, M and N (so creative!) join the team. Unfortunately, at around the 70th chapter (out of around a 100), I began to lose interest in the story. Much like the soaps we see on TV, the writers seemed to have resorted to arbitrary plot twists to increase the page count.

Despite the fact that I skimmed through the last part of the book, I would still recommend this manga. 3.5/5. A good manga, and an even better anime, I’ve heard.

Recently, I discovered the MangaRock app. It’s awesome. It has some features of an eBook app- screen dimming, page search and so on. Its homepage has updates on new chapters of popular manga, and allows you to pick a list of websites from where it aggregates the chapters. You can also download whole chapters to read offline. I recommend this, because downloading pictures on mobile 2G is slow and expensive.

So the first manga I downloaded was Monster. The protagonist is Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese surgeon working in Germany. He’s a very promising doctor, and is engaged to the hospital director’s daughter. What more could he ask for? He’s unhappy though. The hospital shows a preference for rich and powerful patients, but he believes that all lives are equal. One day, twin children come to the emergency room. The boy has a bullet in his head, and the girl is in a state of shock. Turns out that she witnessed the murder of her parents and has been traumatized. Tenma is asked to operate on the town’s mayor, but chooses to treat the boy, since he arrived earlier. The mayor dies, they boy is saved, and Tenma is in trouble.

Here’s where the story begins. Tenma’s fiancee dumps him, and his future at the hospital is looking bleak. Then (luckily?), the director and another senior doctor are murdered, and in time, Tenma becomes Chief of surgery. Another murder takes place in the hospital. Suspicion falls on him, but he discovers that the boy, Johan, is behind these killings and many others across Germany. Meanwhile, his sister Nina has repressed her memory of the incident and now goes by the name Anna Liebert.

Our hero is wracked with guilt because he saved a child who turned into a ‘monster’ and sets out to find him. Anna, who has gradually regained her memories, joins him in his hunt. It is revealed that the twins had a horrific past, and this has contributed to Johan’s insanity.

The themes of this book are child abuse and negative social conditioning. Johan spent some years of his childhood in Kinderheim 511, an orphanage where a ‘social experiment’ was being carried out- the children were being trained to be murderers. In the course of his search, Tenma encounters the original planners of the experiment (who are still in business!), plus a new neo-Nazis, prostitutes, and other victims of child abuse.

This book has an ambiguous ending, and unlike Death Note, kept me hooked till the end. Like any story of this length (165 chapters!!!) it had many parallel plots that were added halfway through. While they didn’t really contribute to the story, the child abuse theme kept them tied together to some extent.

A very very good, well researched story. Read it for some good entertainment. 4/5

Give this man the Nobel! – An Ode to Bob Dylan

Reading through the posts on this blog has made me realize how poor my writing actually is; and more importantly, it made me remember the necessity for proofreading before hitting ‘Publish’. My apologies for the typos and crappy phrasing in my old pieces, I’ll try harder in future.

Bob Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times since 1996. In this letter, an English professor lobbies for his cause, saying-

His blend of poetry and social consciousness with music is
entirely appropriate for Nobel recognition. His songs from the
early 1960s to the present have been passionately concerned with
civil rights, world peace, the preservation of the environment, and
other crucial global causes.

During the peak of the the American counterculture boom of the 1960s and 70s, Dylan’s powerful lyrics appealed to the young. He rode the wave of the anti war movement with anthems like The Times They Are Changin’ and Blowin’ in the Wind. It’s not surprising that his folksy tunes became an integral part of the pop culture of the time.

Even today, though, I believe that Dylan’s work deserves a place among the classics of English music. I’m pretty far removed from the American Civil Rights movement- being in 201x India- and his music still seems relevant and relatable; the sign of an evergreen classic.

You can learn and grow up with Dylan. From the bitter Positively Fourth Street (“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend”) to the wise Blowin’ in the Wind (“How many deaths will it take till he knows/ That too many people have died?”), he covers a whole gamut of emotions. How many breakup songs today can claim to be as classy as Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, with it’s resigned “You just kinda wasted my precious time/ Don’t think twice it’s all right”?.

Dylan’s music is an acquired taste- or maybe something that you appreciate as you get older. All I know is that his scratchy vocals and occasionally harsh harmonica playing take a little while to get used to. I’m not alone either; the cover versions of Knockin’ On Heavens Door (Guns ‘n’ Roses) and Like a Rolling Stone (The Rolling Stones) were much more successful that their originals, probably due, in part at least, to the more melodious interpretations by the covering bands. On the other hand, Dylan’s imperfect voice singing Forever Young sounds better to me than the smoother cover by Johnny Cash. Not all songs need professional voices to make them sound good.

Recently, some lyrics were uncovered that had apparently been handwritten by Dylan way back in 1967. A group of currently popular musicians (including the lead singer of Mumford and Sons) came together to make an album- Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. Personally, I think this is a brilliant initiative, because they’ve composed the music and put a modern spin on these (pretty old) lyrics. The end results, though, weren’t as impressive as I had expected. There are only two outstanding songs, in my opinion- Nothing To It (vocals by Jim James) and When I Get My Hands On You (vocals by Marcus Mumford).

The former is a breezy, light song that reminds one of the invincible feeling of having no responsibilities- “Well I knew I was young enough/ And I knew there was nothing to it”, “Heads I will and tails I won’t/ Long as the call wouldn’t be my own”. The latter is the highlight of the album, a song that should rank among his best work. Mumford pulls off this love song perfectly, and the strangely trippy video makes it even more addictive. Here ya go, you can thank me later:


The Internet is Awesome (or, Some Ways To Waste Time)

1. Tumblr

If Twitter is blogging for the ADHD kids, Tumblr is for the dyslexic. Set up an account and follow the (predominantly visual) blogs of your choice to create a news feed of sorts. You create your own blog by sharing other people’s pieces, or creating ones of your own, a la Twitter. It’s quick, simple and addictive!

Before the literary snobs scoff at Tumblr’s picture book appearance, I have to mention that you can follow pages by The New Yorker, The Guardian, the Paris Review and Reuters. I’ve also found several pages with interesting infographics and gifs illustrating mathematical or scientific concepts (computational fluid dynamics anyone?). There are also many, many fan pages for TV shows that post hilarious gifs almost as soon as a new episode releases.

Highly recommended for anyone into art, illustration, or English TV and movies. Others might find it a little harder to find worthwhile blogs to follow, but definitely worth a shot.

2. Reddit

They call themselves the front page of the Internet. Pushing it, but this question and answer site is definitely very entertaining. And addictive. Extremely addictive. There are subreddits for everything under the sun, from television to music to science to fitness to recreational drug usage. My current favourite is r/suggestmeabook, where people put up their preferences and get recommendations from other users. It’s a very different experience from the automated suggestions you get on Goodreads and other book database sites.

A bonus: the redditisfun app is well designed and the plaintext format of the site lends itself well to viewing on a small phone screen.

3. Coursera

One of the largest platforms for MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – today. You can study courses as diverse as Biochemistry and Philosophy, all in the comfort of your home. And for free! Be warned, though, that you’ll probably only get a general idea of the subject unless you have the motivation to complete all the assignments and exams. For more technical topics, explore the MIT CourseWare and Stanford Online courses as well.

The question on everyone’s mind: Can I put this on my CV? The answer: NO.

4. Stack Exchange

I owe the guys at Stack Overflow half my salary. That aside, did you know that Stack Exchange has pages for language, cooking, travel and board games? This site’s USP is it’s no-nonsense, formal style. Correct answers are marked, and poor or off-topic responses (and questions, too) are downvoted into oblivion. So rest assured that any information you get from this site is accurate. Well, more accurate than most of the stuff floating around the Net these days…

5. XKCD/ PhD comics

PhD comics provides insight into the lives of grad students that’s alternately inspiring and disturbing. As a bonus you get valuable life lessons such as: never title your project reports something like report_final.txt. It’s like asking fate to smite you.

Silly, geeky and sometimes touching, xkcd is a must read for anyone who knows what angular momentum is. The what-if section is legendary amongst the geekiest of the geeks and for good reason. Humour+science+stick figures= WIN.

Strongly recommended for all engineers. Yes, even you pseudo-engineers. XKCD provides explanations for all their comics, so there is no excuse!