Week 9 – In High Culture

August 11, 2014 – August 17, 2014

On 15th of August, India observed and celebrated its 68th Independence Day. Among many subjects in my life about whose certainty I am never confirmed and never want to be confirmed is also the subject of whether I being a patriotic gentleman or an ungrateful Indian. I have always maintained a very fine distinction in my life – of segregating my loyalty to the Mother India and to the Indian Government. I am not patriotic in modern sense of the word i.e. I will not always support unjust motives [which I also do not know what they may be -and therefore depends on time and events] of my country’s government, however I have an unflinching loyalty towards the land of India- the land where dharma was propounded. As such, this loyalty extends beyond the current political borders of Mother India. This loyalty extends to whole of Indian subcontinent – from Pakistan in West to Burma in the East, and from Afghanistan in North to Sri Lanka in the South. India, whose official name in Sanskrit is Bharata or Bharatavarsha, has always been referred to the Indian subcontinent, by Persians or by Greeks or by the Turko-Mongol invaders or by the British. The ancient Sanskrit epics, literature, stories, myths, and legends have names of the cities, of the kingdoms, of the Kings and of all other characters et al from all over the subcontinent. However, I am not blind to modern political reality too. The current Republic of India encompasses most of the ancient Indian heritage and to that ancient heritage I feel deeply associated with.

The new Indian Prime Minister gave a rousing conversational speech to 1.30 billion Indians from ramparts of Red Fort. He chided, he requested, he begged, he scolded, he inspired, he asked, and he forced us all to act, to recall our ancient heritage, to act accordingly, to shun violence, to act justly, to respect women, to ensure their emancipation, to maintain cleanliness and to achieve a common goal of prosperity of humanity. Republic of India is a 67 year old institution whereas the spirit and soul of India is timeless, in same sense as the Krishna’s message in Mahabharata of the immortality of the soul and mortality of the body.

I read brilliant literature this week in forms of critical essays (classical and modern), plays, epics and books. One essay that I read was In praise of idleness by Bertrand Russell. At first sight, I found the title funny and totally opposite to my another parallel reading these days – of Gita. Gita lays stress on Karma- Action – whereas Russell’s essay extolls virtue of idleness, but only as opposed to the work done for economic well-being. Therefore, I argued that idleness may be a form of Karma too. Karma in Gita is not just any work, it also refers to the duties and responsibilities.  Also, Russell makes a very weirdly convincing case for idleness, and why work – the work for economic well-being – must not be overdone. If anything, read the essay for old world charm in prose of Russell.

Another brilliant essay that I read was In praise of Folly. I particularly admired the use of hypotaxis – making irony, wit and satire- more scathing and subtle at same time. The paragraph especially urging the readers to recourse to Folly, in case they want to have children was so laden with satire and wit that I couldn’t help reading it again and again, so as to learn the art of writing satire from it.

For sake of reading and for sake of Charles Dickens, I read A Christmas Carol. Again. I wish I had that same power as Dickens of building powerful imagery of a city landscape or time of a day through convincing words. I went back to A Christmas Carol to learn how Dickens synthesised his prose. The e-book also accompanied the original manuscript of Dickens and it showed that Dickens wasn’t prone to too many deletions or editings, and was accomplished in his craft.

If you wish to understand nonsense of the world through lense of Absurdism, do read Waiting for Godot, a play on nothing by Samuel Beckett. This play is essentially a play that conveys nothing. Then, during the weekend, I bought Gurcharan Das’ Difficulty of being Good-The Subtle Art of Dharma. I did wonder on the title. I was perplexed whether Dharma is an art or an action or an artful action. Gurcharan Das’ scholarly book explaining Dharma through analysis of epic of Mahabharata is worth accolades. The author has so lucidly woven the Western philosophy with the ideas explained, enacted or described in Mahabharata that I did sit down to reflect on why I should do good. I am neither a moralist nor am I a moral supremacist. I am also not amoral. I also do not approve of moral objectivism. I do have inclination on moral nihilism. Dharma is exactly that philosophy. It encompasses the “just” action or “righteous” actions subject to times and life of an individual.

In several places in Mahabharata, both seemingly moral and amoral characters give perfect explanations for their actions and align it to the mystical Dharma. Mahabharata, at several places, considers no action as intrinsically amoral or immoral (moral nihilism). Then, it goes a step further, and tries to align the morality of an action with the larger good (utilitarianism) subjecting them to surroundings, life and times of an individual (covering aspects of moral subjectivism, moral realism and moral relativism). Mahabharata is also an Absurdist story. It is very common to find in Mahabharata the characters such as Yudhishthira who, after a bloodied war that killed more than 2.5 million people within 18 days to win back their “rightful” throne, feels the war was futile and that it was fought for nothing, and plans to renounce the world.

Well, the week was well spent in high culture and solitude. Whether solitude leads to the high culture or the high culture leads to solitude, who can tell?

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The Depression

So, we have lost a person, who stimulated people across countries, religions, races and languages to laugh and enjoy this mostly meaningless, nearly catastrophic and almost chaotic world. The person goes by the name of Robin Williams. The agent of laughter was lost to depression, which manifested itself in form of suicide, which came through asphyxiation, which he achieved by hanging himself. I empathise with his depression, and somehow, I can relate to his “brave act” of committing suicide. 

I have fought my own demons over last more than 2 years. I am still fighting them. I fight them every day. I will perhaps fight them until I die, or perhaps I will start ignoring them, which doesn’t come easy. While we continue to guard ourselves against external aggression from other humans, we, somehow, neglect the fact that our own life is greatest threat to our own life. Our past is the only barrier to our glorious but uncertain future, it is the only hindrance and it is the only weapon that can slay us despite all the guards that we may employ. 

For the people in depression, being awake is painful. To remain awake is a challenge, and to get a sound sleep is a contest, between two unknown and unfathomable realms of darkness. To drag oneself through mundanities and meaninglessness of world around is just not worth the pain of being awake. To sleep is the cure of depression, well that’s what medical fraternity believes in, and that’s what mostly relaxes a depressed person. In November of 2012, I had consulted a psychiatrist-doctor, in hope of seeking cure of my depression. The doctor prescribed me sedatives. and nothing else, just to induce sleep and to relax the trenches in my excitement level, which had gone much below the normal. Even though, I have largely recovered from the depression, though only 2-3 months ago, I now find this world and its people nothing more than figment of my imagination. Not that I suffer from any neurotic disorder, but I now have general disdain for world, and nothing else. My depression has manifested itself mostly in seeking solitude, reading books, working diligently, and writing blogs. 

Robin Williams fought his demons for far too long. He was an exceptional human being with a gift to make people laugh, and therefore, his demons must also have been exceptional, that they couldn’t be cured by sleeping under effect of soporific drugs. He finally found his cure – to sleep forever. To judge him as a coward, would be a great disservice and disregard to this exceptional human being, who made us laugh despite all the depression in his personal space. To judge him as a coward, would also lead to underestimating the power of depression and to the depths it can plunge an otherwise normal human being. 

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Week 8 – Lost

August 4, 2014 – August 10, 2014

How does an aloof and solitude-loving person like me react to a sudden and radical change in surroundings, which start brimming with people? I found myself lost. Totally. Completely. I was annihilated by company of strangers, whom I met out of my own accord. The weekdays were better, worked greatly but the weekend not so. Now that I sit down and think about the events of the weekend, I am not mighty impressed by myself. The weekend was entirely lost on trivia. Though, it is good to be lost in trivia once in a while, but this state of trance must not stretch for more than a few hours of a day. By the time, Sunday night arrived, I felt guilty of having done nothing substantial or worthy during the weekend. It was lost in a silly pub crawl [which I enjoyed when I was crawling] and subsequent non-hangover; however later that evening, I felt bad about the whole business. The weekend gave the impression of having lost the whole week. This was a week I would like to forget. Though, the irony of writing about this is not lost on me.

The week arrived with a bad news that Hamas has violated ceasefire or declared to violate ceasefire, moments after Israel withdrew their troops from Gaza. A terrorist organisation can never be a people’s representative and it is about time that the people of world realise this and help establish a civilised, modern and secular democracy in Palestine, devoid of hatred for Jews.

Well, India lost yet another test match against England. England have been playing very impressively ever since their earlier loss to India. Indian batsmen, as it always happens, are all out of form-simultaneously and suddenly. Next week, or rather this week, I pledge to finish this book I took up around two weeks ago and I would also try to review a book. Of course, my first attempt at book review won’t be exceptional, but I will try to do the best I can.

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Week 7 – In reading and merriment

July 28, 2014 – August 3, 2014

The week went by in gaiety and mirth, and with ample reading. In fact, I finished two books this week and one of them within a day. One book being – Before Memory Fades by Fali Nariman, a reputed and well-known Indian lawyer’s autobiography; and the other being, The Legends of Khasak by O V Vijayan,  a Malayali author from Kerala, India. The Legends of Khasak was English translation, by the author, of  his classic Malayalam novel Khasakkinte Itihasam.

Autobiographies are interesting to read. They always make me wonder on the power of memory. They make me wonder on how our lives can all be summed into a few pages of a book. This makes me wonder how any human’s life is full of as many unremarkable seconds, minutes and hours as mine is, but their remarkable second, minutes and hours far outnumber mine, and which is what make their autobiographies remarkable. 

The week also went into hanging out. I have always wanted to come up with a high-brow term for: hanging out, because that’s not what I do usually when I hang out. I am mostly drinking out, thinking out, walking out, laughing out, or sitting in (a pub) etc., but NEVER hanging out. I have coined a few terms, such as, pleasure walk or time, which sounds too gayish when I say this to my male friends and too saccharine while conveying this to my women/girl-friends; or leisure crawl, which is just too pedantic, in my opinion. However, for time being, I am settling with – hanging out. During one of the hang outs [not sure whether they are two words or one word], I had this steak at this Argentinian restaurant – Pampas. This was the best steak I have ever had.

The gym work out was particularly painful this week, since I upped my weight range from previous levels. My day is quite tightly packed, from office to work to gym to reading.  Sometimes, I wish we had more than 24 hours in a day. We have to sleep too within those 24 hours, which is just too stupid. 

I also took out time to write a blog about book reviews. I am now selecting a book to write a review about, and most likely, it would be a Sherlock Holmes novel or novella. 

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On reviewing books

If the snippets of judgments, opinions and criticism that are given, often orally [in letters, over messenger apps, Facebook groups etc.], while recommending a book to a friend, don’t constitute the quasi-intellectual labour of reviewing a book or a work of literature, then, I, insofar as my memory permits, do not recall endeavouring my self into this brilliant labour. I do not know what elevates a review to an essay, or what relegates it to a mere opinion, or what gives it the air of a critique or what leads it to just stay what it is meant to be – a review.

I have often meditated upon this subject. The subject of reviewing a book. This exercise has always attracted me, has fascinated me and has given rise to such temptations where one feels helplessly helpless because of lack of skill in indulging in such a bravado. To me reviewing a book is as fascinating as skydiving. Not that I had dreams of authors or publishers calling me to their book releases, or of editors of famous newspapers and magazines, from around the world, texting me to write a review for a book, to be published in their columns and bytes, but I have had a fair and balanced fascination for this particular pursuit, where I have fantasised that my reviews are read with great interest, not because someone wants to buy a book but because they admire my style of writing the review, the way of judging a book, my language of criticism, or my attempts at providing a new stream of arguments, against or supporting, the work at hand.

I have often read reviews of the books that I don’t usually read or end up reading. The purchase of a book, after reading a review, for me, is mostly coincidental, however reading multiple reviews, after I have read a book, is a must-do exercise for me. My book selection is driven by subject matter, and recently by “lists” such as “Top 100 greatest fictions”. However, this hasn’t made me stranger to book reviews. I do read reviews of the books that I read after I am finished reading with them, since this is a crucial exercise for me, for I want to know different point of views on the language, experience, story, and style of the book.  This exercise is all the more important when one reads a non-fictional subject, since the authors cannot be unbiased in their review or recording of history, biographies, economics, politics, war, military conflicts, science, religion, philosophy and all other non-fictional human experiences, hence it is crucial to read multiple reviews after you have read a book on such a subject. In this era of tailored information, the information that is tailored to one’s search queries on search engines or social networks, or the kind of emails that one receives or news one reads, a conscious effort must be made to tear through the filmy cushion of favourable opinions and analysis, and to stare into the opposing point of views and arguments, or else one faces a risk of living in a closed dark box during all of their existence.

I have read reviews (literary criticism, to be particular) by the great authors, and their language and style of criticising a work or praising it has always mesmerised me. I read reviews as an attempt to see beyond the obvious, to understand a different take or a similar take on different grounds, or similar take on similar grounds with similar justifications but conveyed in an elegant prose. Therefore, reviewing a book, for me, is a quasi-intellectual exercise. It feeds on another person’s greater adventures and meditations, but it is not without one’s own meditations and fair share of cognitive labour.  I prefer book reviews published in literary magazines and some exceptional political and economics magazines and newspapers such as The Spectator, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sunday Guardian and The Economist. Some reviews published in Indian magazines or periodic journals have also been exceptional. It must not come as a surprise that reviews published by many readers on Amazon are scholarly, incisive and full of opportunities for learning.

I once heard that reviewers are the people who themselves couldn’t or can’t write books. I disagree. Every human being has a cognitive capacity to support or discredit any idea, based purely on personal anecdotes, evidences or experience. Without reviewers, the book publishing will become a one-sided conversation where the author talks to his/her readers. The reviewers make this conversation equal, and the good reviewers make this conversation scholarly, or amusing or full of learning. If the idea that an author’s idea, argument, experience, or evidence can only be refuted by an equally voluminous book, then perhaps the wrong ideas and experiences will enjoy far greater half-life in public than they do now.

Therefore, realising the significance of book reviews, and myself being a fan of book reviews for quite long now, I now feel that I too should try my hands at reviewing books and further the cause of learning for the people who happen to stumble upon my blog, even if occasionally, and of course, also for my own records.

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