Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pleasure Principle

Penny had been offered two great jobs, both of which will help her finally realize her life-long dream. One job is in the island of Raritaria, which had strict laws against drinking, drugs, extra-marital/pre-marital sex, crude entertainment, junk and fast-foods. The island permitted only "higher" pleasures - such as art, classical music, gourmet food, literature and theatre. Rawitaria, on the other hand was the exact opposite - it offered nothing in the means of intellectual or "refined" pleasure, but pandered to hedonists. It had excellent restaurants with greasy, lip-smacking food, Cabernet circuits, fancy bars, discos, and liberal concessions on sex and drugs. Penny was in a quandary - she didn't know which island to choose. She enjoyed both forms of pleasures every now and then, but she was pushed by the normative attitudes of society to prefer the "higher" pleasures to the "lower" ones. She wasn't sure if Beethoven was indeed a better choice than Britney Spears. (Original Source: Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (1863))

What gives us a greater source of happiness and satisfaction - the "lower" or the "higher" pleasures? It seems to just boil down to individual tastes and preferences, that naming one "low" and the other "high" seems unfair and pompous. So how would you name them? In your mind, is one "better" than the other? Can we objectively choose one island over the other? Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy that tries to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Would one kind of pleasure cause more happiness than the other, to the greatest number of people?

This might seem like a trivial question, but I think it goes beyond just a matter of taste. In the present generation, it is sad that our recreational lives revolve around how to kill time, with as little thinking as possible. In one of the HGTV shows, a designer snobbishly critiqued a newly designed living room - "Although the design of the space is nice, there is one serious flaw - the living room does not have a TV to define it." I was as irritated as the owner - since when did a TV become a necessity to "define" a living room? What happened to good conversations or just the quiet enjoyment of the magnificent views of the ocean (which the house had). Why let our minds be numbed by the inane blaring of a TV? Such pleasures, according to me, are not necessarily "low". They are merely excessively sensory-centric, and are quite temporary in satisfying us.

Unfortunately, anything that comes with the tag of "refined-taste" is regarded as ostentatious and pretentious, way above the lay man. But appreciation of art, literature, and good music, despite requiring sensory perception, transcend the senses and appease the intellect. In effect, they offer some positive growth to our thinking in the long-run. They infuse a wholesome culture to lead our lives. If the intellect can be stimulated, there is a higher chance of a long-lasting, "permanent" satisfaction. I'm reiterating the words of great scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita. However, such tastes are associated with the elite and a higher social status. Therefore, the world bursts with ignorant, fastidious people, who cannot appreciate or understand any refinement, but blindly follow their herd for approval. Such charades, in superficial ways of dressing and behaving are loathsome.

While I enjoy literature, music and art, every once in a while I don't mind dumping myself on the couch, munching potato chips and staring at the TV. As a matter of fact, sometimes I need to get away from all the thinking and analysis of ragas and neravals, and just blare peppy pop songs to combat the monotony of a long drive. Sometimes mozzarella sticks are comfort food, not sushi. But then, only sometimes. But if I had to choose, which one is more important to me that I will not be able to live without?

I'm not exactly a party animal. In the long run, I can compromise on not eating cheese and potatoes fried in unhealthy ways. I can live comfortably without TV, drugs or drinks. But I will miss music of the kind that just lets me tap my feet. With music, I find no barriers, no necessity for classifications and boundaries. I can never ever concentrate on lyrics, I can only follow the melody and the rhythm, that once upon a time, even Britney Spears injected some inspiration into me. But that's probably how most people consider this whole topic...probably the distinctions between the two forms of pleasures are quite trivial by themselves. However, I can't imagine giving away literature and art to listen to Britney Spears and eat fun food every day. But that's just the way I am wired.

However, just because I picked the "classy" island, it doesn't mean I like going to fancy restaurants that insist on prim dress codes, or having stiff parties to discuss Shakespeare. I like to curl up on the couch and nod to sleep as I listen to Mozart, walk with my friends to a coffee place and discuss books, take a slow walk to enjoy Nature, engage in meaningful conversations over a jigsaw puzzle, attend plays and musicals in a plain sweater, and appreciate art from a road-side vendor for its personality and creativity. Refinement is the lens through which we see simple pleasures of life - without any pomp or snoot. In the end, it's about refining the time that we spend in the company of those who matter, not killing time by drowning ourselves in mind-numbing pursuits.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reflections: The Bean Trees

Marietta is a level-headed, gutsy girl from Kentucky who gets through high-school and lands a boring, tedious job to make ends meet and support her mom's meager sustenance. She soon grows sick of her town, and her mentally corroding job and craves to reestablish her life in a new surrounding. She buys an old Volkswagen and sets off west with hardly any penny but with loads of good wishes from her mom. She trudges through Oklahoma and stops at a shady bar in a Native American neighborhood. After being drunk on her fear and worries, she stumbles into her car only to encounter a Native American woman plopping a little child into her car's backseat, requesting her to take the child away. In her half-delirious state she tries to protest but the lady disappears. The little girl looked around 2 years old and was staring at her through big black innocent eyes, vacant with fear. Perplexed that someone would abandon a child in the backseat of a drunk stranger's car, she drives to find a place to rest for the night. Quite contrary to most toddlers, the child obediently sits at the back, with not a whimper, despite rain lashing through the leaky windows. Soon, the numerous bruises and scars on the child's body bore evidence as to why she was probably safer with her. She names the child Turtle, for her characteristic behavior was to firmly latch onto anyone or anything with an iron grip. Marietta gives herself a fresh start by changing her name to Taylor, and sets out to straighten her life and that of Turtle's, in the city of Tuscon. In Tuscon, she meets many interesting people; one of them is a single mom on the verge of a divorce, utterly in denial and lacking in confidence. Together, the ladies offer solace to each other through their friendship and fight against the world's queer injustices. The story is eventually about the role of love, faith and friendships in the persistent battle of survival.

Marietta and her friend are polar opposites - the former is ready to take life by its horns, while the latter is paranoid of everything turning disastrous, and fumbles to feel her footing in reality. Through the course of the novel, both women gradually learn to accept and understand those aspects in life which cannot be controlled, and those that can be controlled. Their growth eventually leads them to make the best use of the cards dealt to them. The growth of the characters is quite well done. The story itself is quite straightforward and simple, without any superfluous twists. The plot merely reflects the mundane oddity of life.

Turtle is an endearing child who tugs at the heartstrings. I think Turtle is an extremely adorable pet-name for a baby! Kingsolver does a very refined job of showcasing the subtle emotional, physical and mental traumas of an abused child. Like many kids in the real world, Turtle is a resilient survivor. In comparison to this young child's strength, Taylor realizes how weak she really is in coping with loss and pain. I'm always touched by such kids' implicit faith, helplessness and silent endurance of all the world's insensitivity. The child really forms the heart of the novel, although her story is but another brook in the woods. Through the dynamics between Turtle and Taylor, Kingsolver explores the meaning of motherhood - the doubts, the limitations, the joys and the satisfaction.

But there is one low point. I unfortunately could not connect with Kingsolver's writing, although it was insightful, simple and down-to-earth, quite befitting the theme of the novel. I found it to be too wry and dry, very much like the desert lands of Arizona. Her parched, stripped down writing style struggled to keep my attention and interest. But I plodded along to make sure that everything turned alright for Turtle.

In all, The Bean Trees is a realistic story of life, inspiring and touching.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reflections: Chronicles Of Avonlea

Avonlea is a warm community in Canada, home to the ever adorable and memorable Anne Shirley of Green Gables. It is a place where people's goodness of heart knows no bounds, in an era of simplicity and harmony. Chronicles of Avonlea contains snippets of heart-warming stories spun around the folks of Avonlea. The community's favorite girl, Anne, features in some of the stories, where she unleashes her characteristic mischief and spunky wit to help her friends straighten their little issues. The stories are full of cheer and humor, some even profound and poignant in the morals they convey. I loved every story and I recharged myself through the positive (if a little idealistic) portrayal of humanity's goodness. Montgomery's writing deserves all the adulation it receives - grammar, imagination and vocabulary are wielded together so beautifully that even the most complex of emotions is captured with simplicity and eloquence.

The stories are strung along very simple themes - the power of love, the healing borne out of forgiveness and compassion, the ruins cast by vain pride, the miracles that can be worked through faith, the folly of rash judgments and service to humanity through multiple ways. The stories are crisp and the morals stick hard. To spruce things up, there are some hilarious stories with a romantic twist that subtly dole out little nuggets of morals. I was impressed with Montgomery's stress on feminism and empowerment balanced against certain aspects of tradition and social norms that were prevalent in the early 20th century. The stories are well-rounded and thoughtful.

This is a delightful book sure to lighten any reader's heart.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reflections: Life of Pi

We try to skirt past a lot of things in life, but some of them hound us with the same intensity with which we evade them. So it is with certain books. Having heard an assortment of unpleasant and mixed reviews for Life of Pi, my curiosity to read it was neutralized to the point where I didn't really care to give it another look. But library after library, book shop after shop, it stared, nudged and taunted. It's not easy to evade a well-acclaimed book like this. So finally, when I found it lying in a tub of $5 books, I was left with little choice. I went by my friend's words, "It's not a feel good book, but one you should read at some point." And I wholeheartedly agree.

The whole world knows its story. Pi Patel and his family decide to relocate their livelihood from Pondicherry, India, to Toronto, Canada. Pi's dad owned a zoo, so most of the exotic wild animals were shipped through the same cargo ship in which the family set out to travel. Misfortune strikes and the ship sinks. Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a ravenous hyena, a wizened orangutan, and a fierce Bengal tiger. An average 16 year old boy would have instantly plunged into the ocean, rather than contemplate survival amidst such a crazy menagerie. However, this story came about because Pi was different. In addition to the ocean teeming with merciless sharks, Pi suffers from an unshakable will to survive, which doesn't let him give up. He fights a fierce battle against all odds, and finally reaches land. His adventure and endurance are incomprehensibly courageous and incredulous. But his story reaffirms the power of human will.

This was truly a riveting book. I was sucked into the lifeboat along with Pi and I was glued to the words like my life depended on them. It was an intense read, fluctuating between revulsion, disbelief and insight. Despite my intolerance to gore and violence of any kind, I surprised myself by reading every page. Sadly, just like Pi, I too started getting used to the sheer brutality demanded out of survival in the wild. But it was primarily the writing that propelled me to want to get to the end. I loved Martel's writing - his words floated along the pages with much insight, vividly capturing every emotion and every thought of a castaway. Although it was revolting to read his graphic descriptions, his casual ease and nonchalance betrayed how much he was ingrained into the character of Pi. I think it is this harsh portrayal that truly emphasizes the magnitude of how wild and barbaric the game of survival is. He sensitively brings out Pi's moral gradation (or degradation)... from the fastidious, ethical, vegetarian, to the slow metamorphosis of a starving animal struggling to survive. Morality takes on a whole new definition. Interestingly (as I hark time and again), if our ancestors hadn't been amoral and ruthless, our species couldn't have come into being. In this present age, even without the threat of dying in the jaws of wild animals, it is the ruthless, aggressive kinds that survive. In many ways, the lifeboat and Pi's story are symbolic of our true shades of character - humanity seems to be meaningful only in the context of threat-free survival.

The ending dawned a whole new understanding of the concept of humanity and our various prejudices and hypocrisies. With the weight of our bloated ego, it is impossible for us to come to terms with humans exhibiting beastly characteristics. It is easier for us to escape into denial, and substitute, blame and conjure a convoluted understanding of an unpalatable situation with animals, rather than humans. It is acceptable if animals kill, but something in us rebels unceremoniously if humans are shown in the light of vicious, callous animals. Aspects of reality that cannot be digested are construed in a different pattern,  desperately associating meaning and forming an acceptable "story" or point of view that fits the mind. I think the book has proved this point with the distaste it has garnered among most readers with its story. While the conjecture of humanity dying in the face of survival is indeed unsettling, how we try to clothe it with our imagination is fascinating. The concept of God thus arose due to our need to tone down reality, and hold onto some expression of meaning and consolation. Faith gives us the ability to view reality differently.

Martel's wry sense of humor and the epic battle of Pi make a powerful experience. To a large extent I agreed with his discussion and defense of zoos. His research and understanding of animal psychology is quite impressive. Pi's story of courage and endurance is touching, even a tad inspiring. His violent struggles and his forced apathy for the lives of other creatures are disturbing. I have to agree with most other readers that the book indeed evokes a mixture of feelings. I don't think I can say that I loved the book, but I did find it to be an impressive and intense read, never to be forgotten. Does it make me believe in God? I believe in the need for trusting in some faith called God... but it reaffirms my faith in and understanding of Nature's relentless laws.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Of Hearts and Heads

Sandy was a generous woman who brimmed with kindness and compassion. Her empathy was so far reaching that her heart would immediately melt at the sight of others' discomfort, and she helped others without thinking. If someone suffered on the road and asked for money, she would hand double the request, unquestioningly. However, Maria was different. She believed in thinking before acting, and was not one to easily give way to the emotions of the heart. She greatly disapproved of Sandy's behavior, for she felt it wasn't right to be charitable without thinking of the consequences. According to Maria, if Sandy handed out money and materials to the needy, especially children, they are taught to be forever helpless and dependent. Besides, what if the money was spent on drugs and frittered away? Isn't that Sandy's fault? She, on the other hand, would put some thought into the matter and come up with an effective and practical way of helping people. Maria never felt sad, nor did she empathize with people who suffered. She worked from a sense of duty, and put as much rationality as she could in the process. According to her, she was being more morally responsible, than someone like Maria, who rashly acted on her feelings of pity. But people around Maria saw her as a cold, unfeeling person. Everyone felt closer and warmer to Sandy, and they couldn't agree with Maria's point of view. (Original Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

Sandy is a person who listens to her heart, while Maria listens to her mind. Is one better than the other? Not really. If so, we wouldn't have evolved to have both feelings and rational thought. But, in order to be morally responsible, is feeling, or thinking, more important? Again, the answer seems to be both. But if we had to choose one over the other, due to some compulsive changes in the future of evolution, which one would it be?

One thing that comes clean is that both ladies act on good intentions. The consequences, and the means to achieve the good ends, are in question. To the practical person, Maria makes a lot more sense. At the end of the day, global issues such as poverty, cannot be eradicated if every philanthropist randomly gave out money and materials. There needs to be a plan, and a systematic effort to pool in money and effectively utilize it through long-term solutions. Such long-term solutions need to be conceived and implemented. Rational, practical thinking is of utmost importance to ensure money is well spent, and resources are managed properly, so that there is little disparity in its distribution.

But such rational thinking cannot be set into motion without the impetus of feelings such as compassion and empathy. Some people like Maria are motivated enough by their sense of duty. But to me, duty is incomplete without genuine feeling. Besides, sustaining a grueling long-term effort requires much more than just duty - there needs to some feeling of involvement.

We evolved to feel first, and then think. Our animal ancestors cultivated the sense of morality primarily through feelings of empathy to fellow members. From that instinct, we have come down several stages wherein we have a more sophisticated moral structure built on the pillars of empathy and rationality, for successful and harmonious coexistence. One cannot exist without the other. However, merely rational thoughts of helping people cannot sustain without the feeling to want to help. But a feeling of wanting to help has immense hope to be practically and logically structured, given some time. I think the essence of humanity lies in feelings of compassion and kindness. Rational thought follows those feelings. If we had to compromise, I think we would survive better with feelings of morality, than rational thought on morality. Imagine a scenario such as a sinking ship; would a plain sense of duty and rationality alone urge men to rescue others, before they tried to save themselves? Rationality would scream: save yourself, there is only 1 boat left.

In the above scenario, Sandy is surely commendable, but she has to be advised on how to effectively channelize her feelings and donations, so as to truly address core problems. While Maria is very sensible, a future of humanoids like her who are cold to suffering, but can calculate a plan of rescue, is troubling to envision.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reflections: Mermaids

Certain predilections and characteristics of mine are so innate, that I can't trace back to their roots and figure out the reasons for them. One such predilection (which hovers in the territory of obsession) is my fascination with fish and most (pleasant) things that live in water. Curiously enough, my name's literal translation is - "that which grows in water", usually interpreted as a lotus. I am told that one of the first things I ever drew as a child learning to write, was a fish, but not the regular oblong one. It was something like a flat puffer fish, despite me never having seen an aquarium then, nor any fancy pictures of different varieties of fish. I used to fill pages and pages with this curious fish, spluttered with scores of bubbles, big and small. Next followed my love for bubbles. Even today, much to the amusement of many, I buy those huge Gazillion bubble bottles and love to blow bubbles, delighting in the hundreds of colorful balls dancing in the air.

Right from the dreamy child who would be rapt with awe just by looking at a painting of a fish, to the "grown up" person I am today with Goldfish and Danios as pets, my affinity towards fish has been steadily growing. The first time I ever set foot in an aquarium was when I was around seven years old, years after the birth of my intriguing attraction. Suffice to say, I was glued to the glass walls of the muddy tanks at Marina beach, mesmerized by the shimmering grace and colors, until I was peeled away from the place. It quite logically follows that a young girl who was so wildly enamored by fish, would soon use her imagination, and dream of herself as being a "fish-girl"; one who would get to swim to the bottom of the sea with her exotic fish friends and discover a whole new fantasy world of bubbles, treasures and other creatures. I loved this little imaginary world of mine, and secretly wished that I be turned into a fish-girl; little was I aware of who or what mermaids were. Imagine my thrill and delight when I first watched Disney's Little Mermaid. I believed it was a movie made exclusively for me, and since then started holding Disney in very high esteem. Besides, what a wonderful reassurance that smart people believed in fish-girls too! My fantasy world under the sea had come alive, and I wished ever more fervently to be a mermaid.

The sea, the mermaids and her fish, enthrall me as much as my reason tries to dismiss them all away. I'm aware most of it is just myth, but I can't seem to shake off the enchantment. I'm always happy to slip off into their fantasy world, enjoy and then return safely to reality. And thanks to friends like her, I am pampered to no end with such books.

Mermaids is an anthology of fantasy and science-fiction short stories revolving around the myth of mermaids and other sea creatures prominent in Irish and Scottish folklore. The book begins with a general, objective discussion on the myth of mermaids, their supposed sightings in the context of mythological references and folk-tales around the world, and tries to mesh together a partially coherent explanation (if any). Mermaid sightings have been mostly supposed as sailors' drunken interpretation of sea mammals such as manatees and dugongs. This explanation first felt absolutely ludicrous. A huge, bald, shapeless manatee with whiskers being compared to a nymph-like maiden with porpoise-like fins? Well. However, a couple of hundred years back, sailors spent years together at sea, fighting against the waves, starved of land, home and the company of women. It doesn't seem terribly unlikely for drunken sailors hallucinating in the sea-sicknesses to mistake a manatee or dugong surfacing miles away from the ship, for a partially clothed maiden. Dugongs apparently nurse their young above the surface of the water, by holding them to their chest (pectoral glands). Such a scene, seen at a distance by lonely sailors, through mists and sea-sprays, could very well have been interpreted as a mystical maiden nursing her child. Although this greatly amused me, I can well understand the sailors need for spicing their monotonous journeys with such beliefs and supposed sights. Still, the myth is not entirely struck off. The stories in the book draw on the many inexplicable sightings and beliefs, and end with a strange, haunting touch.

The book contains 18 stories, all of which are shrouded in the mysteries of the deep seas. I expected all of the tales to be adaptations of folklore, based entirely in fantastical places and mythical eras, but most of the stories are based in this generation of science and growth. There are thought-provoking stories on the future of bioengineering, the speculation of mutating humans to live under the seas when the dry lands brim with population and pollution, and on marine biologists who encounter curious species that boggle their understanding of evolution. Some stories are whimsical - such as a man trying to enter a mermaid in a swimming contest, and a vain man who discovers that the mermaid of his dreams is a middle-aged unattractive pseudo-fish. The stories thus break stereotypes of how a mermaid is claimed to look or behave. However, the stories are woven around one stereotype though -  mermaids and mermen are always shown from a seductive, romantic angle.

The stories also explore the myths of other sea-creatures, such as the silchies (seals with human form), and subtly hint at the need for conserving marine creatures. Reckless treatment of the ocean and exploitation of the life it holds, affect us bitterly. The common folk-wisdom is: the ocean pays back what we give. Poseidon, the God of Sea, and his numerous mer-children are believed to avenge the ill-treatment of their creatures. The stories are well-written and completely waft the reader to sandy beaches permeating salty breezes, seaweed aroma, and the majestic roar of the sea.

The oceans are so vast and deep, scientists are yet to document and comprehend all the wondrous species it embraces. Maybe one day we will truly unravel the mystery of mer-folks, or creatures which display striking characteristics borrowed from fish and humans. Till then, my indulgence in this fantasy will continue.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Pysche's Drama

A sting wrenched the mind, let loose a deep feeling of abandonment, and the tiresome relentless question - how did it all go wrong? Battling the wave of mixed emotions, high and low; words of angst spewed in much haste. Curled up in fear, the mind rocked itself to sleep, as streams of helplessness lashed against the pillow. And the dreams drifted back and forth.

An angry lion chasing down a dusty road, a hand desperately clinging to a steadfast grip, old yet robust. And as the heart races and ebbs with feet that try to fly with the wind, the roar recedes. And then emerges a bigger roar, a T-Rex gnashing his teeth and uprooting homes. A wail pierces the air, worrying about the lives lost and those in danger. The feet work themselves to action again, tugging that old faithful grasp and dashing to find refuge. Road after road the feet run, up winding stairs and through iron-wrought doors, doors after doors are closed, pulled, slammed, bolted heavily, windows are shut down, the iron grills pulled to test their strength, and into a corner, inside layers of safety, making sure the hand reaches for the loving grip, the heart huddles; the thumping not ceasing in the least. Soon the iron doors morph into oars and the sturdy place bounces off a raging sea; sharks and whales circle around, manifesting their magnificent dives and tails. The boat crashes, the waves lash, the whales pounce, the mind screams, but there is no feeling, no pain.

Back in a familiar place with those near and dear, watching closely at a gaping hole in the wall. And out of it slithers a nasty worm, huge and fat, with a surprisingly benign smile. But disgust rises up in the air, fear mingles ominously. The people nearby vanish into mists. All alone, again. And the worm keeps drawing itself out, bigger, and bigger. Hands and mind are petrified, muffled screams of help scatter unheard. 

The screams are the loud sirens of a rickety train. A hand shoves bunches of people into compartments. Crouched again in a corner, the safety of the familiar clasp, soothes the trembles. A rumbling is heard in the distance, the train rattles, and the wind hisses and howls through the brittle windows. An approaching storm, someone says. The train will be hurtled into nothingness, others quiver. With a wave of resolution, the mind decides to firmly shut and bolt the train's door, confident that it will defer the storm's wrath on the train. The heart leaps with its first encounter with the looming imminence of death, and shatters itself to pieces as the hand presses against that familiar touch, that unwavering bond. How can I comprehend the feeling of seeing you hurt and lost? Assuring one another with empty consolations, we huddle, hoping against hopes, futile prayers muttered under the gripping uneasiness of uncertainty. The storm approaches faster and faster, the train rattles  and sways like an aspen, and the heart and the mind hug each other close, awaiting the very end.

And finally, dawn bursts through the windows. The vampires of the mind are chased for now. But the nightmares are sure to linger for a lifetime. A commendable mind, an over-imaginative psyche, playing out fears crawling deep under the cracks of the subconscious. Fatigued by the constant running, the crouching, the hiding, the incessant locking of doors after doors. Where am I fleeing off to? How many layers of shutters can I draw around me. How safe will I truly be deep within myself, with so many walls of solid brick built around me?

Enough of all the teasing, mind. I get the message. The phantoms of my fear will continue to take the shape of lions, dinosaurs, whales, sharks, worms, snakes and storms... all raging outside my barred doors, unceasing till I unlock and face them eye to eye. And so I shall try, to stay where I am, and face the demons right through their unflinching eyes.

Do nightmares provide strength? I should think so, or why would the mind go through so much trouble to fabricate all the drama?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reflections: The Hobbit

I'm in the throes of a fantasy-craving. By now the symptoms are familiar enough, that I resign the idea of any restraint, and merely indulge in it. And what harm can come from it, I ask? Nothing, except that I halt in  my steps when I see a chimney swirling out black smoke and look around for a dragon, and I can't be blamed if I peek into shrubs that rustle, hoping to find some tiny creature scurrying away into a hole. Well. I say this a million times - what is life without such imaginations? And most importantly, what is life without such books that drift us off to fantastical lands?

The Hobbit needs no introduction. I'm sure that I'm one of the very few fantasy-loving-geeks alive, who resisted reading this for so long. Well, if you started with The Lord of the Rings, it seems trivial to go back and pick up a "toned-down" prelude to it. Also, I was distracted and occupied with Harry Potter. I'm so scatterbrained that I can only have one addiction at a time. Now that the mists have cleared, I have finally finished reading this fantasy classic as well.

Bilbo Baggins is a well-mannered, modest hobbit, going about his simple life, happy to be unperturbed by adventures involving wizards and dragons. But not for long. Gandalf, the great wizard has his plans, and he ordains Bilbo to star as a hero/savior in an impressive treasure-seeking-dragon-slaying expedition. Bilbo's knees weaken at the mere mention of such an adventure and he scuttles back to his cozy home to be content with his timely meals and good-night sleeps. But Gandalf doesn't let go that easily. The following day, thirteen queer dwarfs plonk themselves in Bilbo's home, relate an extraordinary tale about their ancestor's ravaged kingdom upon a mighty Mountain, and request (command) Bilbo's "services" to help them regain their rightful land and wealth. Of course, after slaying a fiery dragon laying guard. Try as he might, Bilbo cannot wriggle his way out of the adventure, and upon Gandalf's push, he finds himself in the thick of an adventure of a life-time. The party encounter hungry trolls, menacing goblins, giant spiders and ravenous wolves, but manage to be victorious; thanks to Gandalf's magic, Bilbo's wit...and a ring he happens to accidentally find. No matter how magical a creature, the greed for gold and power haunts and corrupts all.
Needless to say, the book was a wonderful read. It is a beautifully written fantasy adventure, peppered with humor. Humor, fantasy, adventure, and wars don't usually go together, but it very well does in this book. Bilbo's bumbling antics and most of the dialogues are witty and funny. Bilbo's growth from the fumbling, scared, constantly-hungry hobbit to the wise and courageous hero is wonderfully done. It almost seemed like Gandalf was helping Bilbo realize more about himself through this journey.

My favorite part was Bilbo's encounter with Gollum and how he "riddles" his way out. A fitting prelude to a timeless fantasy lore.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reflections: The Secret Garden

After all these years, I still keep discovering so many more truly timeless Children's Classics. Enid Blyton's books reigned supreme as children's books in India, that people like me somehow never got around to reading other classic books as kids. The Secret Garden is quite easily one of the most wonderful and charming books that I would heartily gift to little boys and girls. I would lovingly mandate all my little cousins, nieces and nephews to read this before they hit their teens. As a matter of fact, I would be that annoying lady who would insist on shoving books in front of children who haven't taken to reading yet. And if I come across an adult deeply wallowing in their furrowed discontentment, this is a book I would give to rekindle the child within them and bring a little smile and hope.

Mary is a scrawny little girl, who is completely abandoned and neglected by her parents; so much so, that sometimes people even forgot she existed. Not knowing what it means to be loved or cared, Mary grows up as an indifferent, obstinate girl. Following her parent's death, she is shipped off to live with her uncle - a supposedly grumpy and ill-tempered man with a hunchback. Her uncle's house is a sprawling mansion housing its own mysteries and secrets. Despite living by a beautiful Yorkshire moor, the mansion exudes an eerie air, with its locked rooms, unused corridors, mysterious cries... and a locked garden. Mary slowly gets used to her new environment and unravels a few mysteries. Her gripping loneliness makes her reach out to people, animals and even plants. The locked garden piques her innocent curiosity and she sets on a little adventure to battle her boredom. She finds the key to the mysterious garden and works hard on replenishing it, till it thrives with beautiful flowers. She hoards her little secret with two other young boys and together they discover how simple pleasures in life and positive thoughts can create Magic.

I expected this book to be about fantasy and magic, with elves, pixies and fairies leading the children on a little ride into their fantasy world, but what a pleasant surprise the book was! The book teaches kids that we all can create magic and miracles without the need for pixie dust and powerful wands. Burnett carefully guides children into the realities of our world, but without ripping apart their delicate and rich imaginations. The children find out that magic lies within them; "good magic" is about invoking good, positive thoughts of what we would like to see happen, and then trying our best to act on them. Magic is that fleeting power that combines the forces of Nature along with human will and unadulterated faith, to bring those things which we resign as being impossible, to fruition. Burnett beautifully expounds a weighty topic dealing with the power of the human mind, with simple and intelligent grace. She slowly builds a little mystery in the story, gently tugs thought-provoking questions and explains it all in an endearing tale of optimism and hope. The book also intersperses little morals on kindness and compassion. The story reaffirms that laughter is a wonderful medicine for the mind, and that the world can be viewed in a different light if we called out to the child inside of us. I marvel at how eloquently the book is written to appeal to children and adults alike.

I loved how refreshing the book was, with its beautiful and vivid descriptions of a garden blooming to life, and the promising revival of the children into healthy, happy kids. I couldn't have found a better time and season to read this book. With Spring marching its way into our gardens, the book would egg any reader to go out into the sunshine, revel in Nature's bounty and free their mind of clutter and negativity with every caressing breeze. The book is a bundle of happy, positive vibes sure to cast a spell on any reader.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reflections: The Feast of Roses

The Feast of Roses is a sequel to The Twentieth Wife. Both books bring to life Empress Nur Jahan and the trials and tribulations of the Mughal dynasty. The Twentieth Wife told the story of the rise of Jahangir after Akbar's demise, of Mehrunissa (Nur Jahan), her long romance with Jahangir, and the culmination of her marriage to him as his twentieth wife. Its sequel narrates Empress Nur Jahan's swift rise to power against envy and hatred in a man's world, and her eventual fall from her pinnacle after Jahangir's death. History leaps off the pages and comes alive, entrapping the reader in a bygone era, where power and wealth blinded people, when a Mughal woman ruled a vast empire with an iron fist, where life everyday was a calculated game of revenge, manipulation and diplomacy, so much so, that even kinship was brutally disregarded for kingship. Despite the beautiful prose embellishing and romanticizing the events and the characters, the bitter taste of a callous dynasty lingers.

Indu Sundaresan has to be commended for her efforts at dusting the pages of History and polishing the multiple facets of Nur Jahan. Jahangir was enamored by her, loved her so much that he, a Mughal Emporer, trusted his Empire in her hands. Veiled and hidden behind a lattice screen, she intelligently ruled the Empire, squashing all her adversaries in shrewd battles of manipulation. So much manipulation startles me, and the meager exercise of reading about them fatigues me. But these are the men and women who have left their marks on history, immortal for centuries to come. It's a sad fact that Nur Jahan abused many of her powers, her pride and temper interfered and resulted in impulsive and bad decisions, that towards the end, it feels fit that she was brought down from her seat of arrogance. On the other hand, one can't completely blame her, for she was in the heart of a jungle, surrounded by treacherous people, all intent on somehow clambering towards the throne. She could trust no one, not even her own brother. The game of survival had to be played with equal measures of cruelty and tyranny. And it's impressive that Nur Jahan could play such an aggressive game, that too having not been trained in any way.

With Nur Jahan's fall came the ascent of Shah Jahan, as the Mughal Emperor to take over Jahangir's place. It's aggravating that history repeated itself over and over again in the Mughal dynasty. Every son hatching a plot to secure the throne at the expense of his brothers, cousins and own father, is appalling. Indu Sundaresan burnished the character of Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) and made him valiant, compassionate and like-able in the beginning of the book, but no matter how craftily she weaved the story, he invariably soiled as a despicable Prince who mercilessly instigated so many murders within the family, to capture the crown. And I know that his son Aurangzeb, administered on his father and brothers, equally horrible treatments to grab the throne. Some karmic cycle, with each son trying to overthrow his father and murder and imprison his brothers to amass power. Despite the strict adherence to religion, where was the spiritual/moral grounding on all these princes?

The whole era was burgeoning with so much wealth and greed, attracting the British and Portuguese who acted like ants scrambling towards mounds of sugar. Jahangir managed to deflect the British requests for treaties, but we all know how things turned out later. It's frustrating that so much wealth was squandered and lost under profligate monarchs. Although it was a treat to read about the extravagance of that era, the cloying materialism gets to the reader; that even the Taj Mahal fails to impress me as a monument dedicated to love. Shah Jahan wanted to be immortal, to be known and be praised as an Emperor who built an exquisite and opulent tomb for his wife. If Shah Jahan really were such a sensitive person to recognize and appreciate love, he wouldn't have committed such heinous crimes against his own family. An Emperor needs to assert his mark in more than one way, and Shah Jahan did so.

Well, enough of me and my idealism. One cannot change history, but the book vividly plays out the events and gives dimensions to the important characters, while nurturing awe and bitterness.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Bigger Picture

Marsha had joined the police force with the objective to protect the public and make sure justice was meted out. She often told herself that such an objective was more important than the set of rules that come with upholding it. She often had to remind herself about this, for she had a tough time making up her mind to break rules to eventually uphold her ideals. And now there was this nagging case - a good man had made a terrible mistake, resulting in the death of an innocent woman. However, Marsha had enough evidence with her to frame the story differently and convict a different man of the crime. This man, according to her (and the entire police department), was responsible for a number of cold-blooded murders, but had escaped every time due to insufficient evidence. Marsha strongly felt that this criminal ought to be in prison, instead of that other harmless man who, due to a very unfortunate slip of an accident had killed the innocent woman. To her, she was upholding the spirit of justice. (Original Source: Insomnia, directed by Christopher Nolan)

Will I never tire of writing about this theme and asking the same questions with slightly different flavors? Not yet. The more I think about the core of morality, and the more I write and rearrange my thoughts, I hope that one day I will be satisfied with my answers. Completely assured. I know that such a day is nearing, but it may not be today.

The one thing I can now state with certainty is that, Morality can only address one of two things in most extreme scenarios - the practicality of a situation, or the satisfaction that the underlying  theoretical principles of morality are upheld. Having finally reconciled to that, it seems like a no-brainer to be practical than sit and argue about the philosophical implications. The world functions on pragmatism. That's the reason why we (the public) are perhaps relatively safe today. If rules are followed to the t all the time, ironically, everything comes to a stop. There have been numerous examples of labor protests, wherein laborers decided to follow all the rules stringently (rather than abstain from working), and work still came to a grinding halt. There are even incidents of the traffic police deciding to protest by sticking to their rule books and ensuring no traffic law was violated. And as one can guess, traffic came to a halt. If the police department had always been intent on following rules, I'm sure several hardened criminals would have been missed, only to trap those who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, thus jeopardizing society's safety. We can all argue that jeopardizing society's welfare is antithetical to the spirit of morality.

I have also realized that when a dire situation stares us in the face, and the clock keeps ticking, people act on their gut feeling - call it intuition or a reflex, but the answer comes surging to them. The rest of the dilemma is in trying to understand how to rationalize the answer to fit to the rules and framework of morality and legality, because we are never content till we try to mellow the pangs of guilt and the nagging voice of conscience. This is what Marsha is trying to do. And I'm sure most of us can understand her rationalization. It's different to read about a hypothetical scenario with the people and the lives of others being imaginary, and then leisurely chew on the situation to come up with the politically correct answer. But I'm sure our attitudes would be different if we were part of the scenario, if the men were known to us directly or indirectly, if we had directly suffered under the hands of the criminal, if we were related to the harmless man, or if we had witnessed the atrocities of the criminal.

Utilitarianism, is thus the principle that best mirrors the practicality of most of our decisions. The consequences matter, for we live to experience them. Besides, the principle is not applied with the intention to be malevolent in any way. The intention is to safeguard the public; trickling down to the intention to survive, and to survive as peacefully as possible. Eventually, it stems from our self-interest to protect ourselves (do I hear a sigh of relief? ;)). If we hadn't acted on that instinct, we would have ceased to exist. And so, the epiphany is - morality is intricately twined with self-interest, although it is masqueraded as only being responsible for the interest of the community. Individuals make up community... but many times, benefit of the community takes a higher precedence than individual benefits. Collective survival of the species is important for individual survival.

Therefore, with the assumption (or the clause) that Marsha's intent is not to abuse her powers, and that the criminal does not have any signs of reformation to stop being a threat to the community, the spirit of morality/justice is upheld by framing the criminal instead of the harmless man. Doesn't it set a wrong precedent? Well, in reality, we have suffered through eons, having already set multiple "precedents" of hurting millions of innocent people. With the spirit of justice having already been grossly annihilated, we are well past setting precedents. Why miss the forest in search of the trees?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections: The Opposite of Fate

Life mostly runs on hope. But every now and then, as we are forced to find our way through thick jungles of uncertainty, we often wish for a pause button  to freeze the moment and collect our thoughts on the looming shadows in the horizon. Are they merely shadows cast by our fears, phantoms of our imagination, or spells cast on our set route of destiny? Is this moment a result of fate? Or is faith a weapon to slash and barge our way through the jungle? There are no easy answers. To the person who believes in the reality of the phantoms, faith is useless. But to the one who is willing to keep moving, faith is worn as an amulet close to the heart. Is it a placebo effect? Does the amulet really hold magic? Only the person who hoards such an amulet knows the answer.

Amy Tan's book of musings is a collection of snippets, reminiscing the flash-bulb moments of her life. Through her recollections, she muses on her encounters with fate and faith. Misery molds human minds - too much of it kills the mind, too little of it is a blessing, while a decent cupful is the impetus to our growth and wisdom. Tan has had her cupful. Her childhood was riddled with eerie coincidences of tragedy and pain, many of which were indeed good fodders for her novels. Tan's family "legacy" also teems with even greater tragedies; starting from her grandmother's harrowing life, down to her mother's miserable childhood, an abusive marriage to her first husband, loss of several children, and Amy's dad and brother to brain tumor. All of these trickle down to how her mom reacts and vents her anger, depression and insecurity, all on Amy and her brother. Needless to say, Tan's relationship with her well-meaning but difficult mother has left her with deep scars, which her stories and writing have been trying to heal and make peace with her life. Tan's spirit of resilience and hope, open-mindedness and charm, have left a deep impression on me. Our lives are different, but her writing makes the reader's spirit or self, tune in to her thoughts in a way that is difficult to establish. I empathized with every word, every thought - her feelings and thoughts were not new to me, and I could find much solace in the hope she inspires.

While Tan's musings start off with the question - fate or faith, her answer, or rather her exploration of the answers is not binary. It is quite interesting to read about her colorful life and her journey so far. It resembles a mottled patchwork of so many patterns -  of her past, her purpose, and inexplicable coincidences representing fluctuations of her destiny, all threaded together with a tight string of hope - perhaps even love. It was fascinating to me that most of her decisions were propelled by strong forces of intuition, or as she supposes, spirits of her loved ones. She candidly acknowledges the possibility of tricks played by her hurt and ravaged mind, making her read into coincidences. So she leaves the interpretation to the readers, almost sensing those wary eyes narrowing in cynicism.

The book also speaks to us about what it takes to be a writer, and what one has to endure to continue being one. She discusses the labels attached to writers, especially those of "color", and the impositions made by the literature-community on the norms of such writers. I have resented the stereotype that sticks with writers of ethnic origins. Someone from India, almost certainly is expected to write about India, about its culture, and boost its image in a positive light for the benefit of the world. So is it with authors from other Asian and African countries. Why? Why should this be the norm for literature and novels? Aren't there books beyond the genre of fiction to focus on those aspects? It makes little sense to me when people look forward to reading a best-selling novel to try and learn about a new culture. The few tidbits gleaned through the story don't constitute as culture-education to me. And the author's attempts at satisfying the reader's interest are by spewing the pages with detailed descriptions of the food and the design of furniture around, most of which have little impact on the story, and only stand out as distractors. It reminds me of the monotonous formula used by Indian movies - insert comedy, insert romance, insert a sizzling scene, some melodrama, a "fight", sprinkle in some sentiment on Indian tradition and voila, there is a best-selling movie.

The genre of fiction exists for a reason - its responsibility is not necessarily culture education all the time. Books like Adiga's White Tiger are loathed by some because of its "unhealthy, pessimistic" portrayal of India. But isn't that reality? What are we gaining by constantly brushing the grime under the rug and showing off a seemingly pleasant home blithely swarming with termites? I agree with the need to instill positive role models rather than perpetuating the negativity, but it isn't realistic to expect every single book (that too a novel) based on such countries to form the story around such tight constraints. Stories so churned out are too contrived to expect any reformation in people's thought processes. Each author has a different perspective to convey, their stories can be different, and the thoughts which are sparked by addressing the current unpalatable truths can be a fruitful turning point. Realism always helps; sugar-coating it, often times turns it into an imitation candy. If people choose to understand everything about what India or China is, from a novel picked off at the airport, I don't know what to say. Several rich and vivid documentaries and books exist precisely for the purpose of cultural education. While deeper principles and traditions of a culture may be brought out through the story - one book, one story can only provide a shade of any culture. Expecting everything in a nutshell is undermining the worth of stories and the purpose of literature.

The book encourages the reader to think along with Tan, to pause and grieve, to be intrigued and be inspired. She writes because writing is a part of her, and the more she writes, the more sense she makes of the world and the more balms of healing she dabs on to her blows. And just for that sentiment, the book connected with me.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Reflections: Autobiography of a Yogi

This classic spiritual book unfolds the autobiography of the renowned spiritualist, Paramahansa Yogananda. Born into a pious Bengali family, he realized quite early in life that his true purpose was to tread the spiritual path of self-realization and renunciation. Amidst the understandable disapproval of his family members, Yogananda rebelled to seek his true purpose. Education from schools and universities seemed futile to him in his ultimate quest to seek a Guru who would help him comprehend the fundamental existential questions on the Universe and humanity, which continue to elude scholars and scientists. His adolescent years were filled with angst,frustration, impatience and the beginnings of meta-physical experiences with numerous saints. In his early teenage, as his destiny had ordained, he met his guru - Sri Yukteshwar Giri, and started his formal training in spirituality. At the behest of his Guru he forced himself to get a bachelors degree, for his guru was pragmatic to instate the truth that education, a worldly degree, was important if he wished to be taken seriously. His Guru held him grounded to his worldly duties, while ensuring that his true purpose was unwaveringly held in mind. After his education, Yogananda was advised to travel to the West to spread the philosophy of Kriya Yoga, a specialized technique of meditation, to help people attain self-realization and understand the true purpose of their lives. Through remarkable prose, Yoganda expounds the importance of meditation and the scientific truths underlying the metaphysics of spirituality.

It takes a while to truly get into the book... the chapters grow on you. The first half of the book is weaved with implicit, unquestioned assumptions on God and existence. To a skeptic, the questions of how, why, and why not, need to be proved by addressing each individual hypothesis. If the mind cannot comprehend them all at once, everything is trashed altogether. I'm such a skeptic too. But before I started reading the book, I convinced myself that I will keep my mind open, read through every word, reflect on every thought, while realizing that I may not understand them all, and that I, as a human being, have serious limitations on my rationality and the extent of my consciousness. If I were a 14th century woman who was given a glimpse of what the 21st century would look like, I would have likely ridiculed all of them. Humans flying? People talking across continents through some device? Ridiculous! And if someone tried to explain to me that everything was scientific, and went onto write equations of Bernoulli's principle and talked about theories on vibrations and electrons, I still wouldn't be capable of following any of it. To me, my senses, and my limited state of intellect, it would never make sense that sound travels as waves and can be tuned, packaged and sent through air, without pigeons. But after a few hundred years, like children slowly discovering the world around them, we have evolved, studied and stumbled on many scientific laws. We still have a long way to go to unearth the meaning of everything.

From time immemorial, human society has always ridiculed that which cannot be understood by the collective rationality of society. We have this pride that being on top of the food chain as the most evolved creature on the planet, our intelligence is boundless. Cognitive psychologists and researchers in Human Decision Making have churned out innumerable empirical evidences on our serious cognitive limitations of memory and rational thought. Scientists will also affirm that the brain and intelligence evolve, and have been evolving. I'm not asserting that everyone should therefore choose to believe everything in the metaphysics realm with a broken humility that we have limitations, and that we may understand them some day into the future. All I'm emphasizing is the need for an open, analytical mind.

Evolution of the consciousness

The idea of  evolution of human intelligence has always resonated with my comprehension of the world around me. I'm quite open to the possibility that there are dimensions around us which we haven't yet conceived or understood, and will do so as our intelligence and consciousness evolve. They escape the perception of our 5 senses, but our intellect keeps bumping against an invisible wall that seems to lock out the answers to many mysteries. Books such as this, embraces the notion that science will get us past that wall and will help us understand more about the nature of the tiniest particles that created us, that constitute us, the other dimensions around us, and eventually the laws of metaphysics. This is where Science and Spirituality will eventually intersect, or so is my understanding. For this to happen, with each successive generation, humanity's mind evolves until it is fit enough to make sense of the Universe. In a metaphorical sense, this is what the principle of re-birth is... at least to me. We start ignorant, and after multiple births we eventually get to a state of realization, after which we escape the urge of evolution, birth and death.

At its core, the book claims that we can accelerate the rate of evolution of our intelligence/consciousness through meditation techniques, such as Kriya Yoga. According to the principle of meditation, the body and mind are closely tied together, their harmony swelling us with wellness, health, clarity and intuition. The body is seen to contain different pockets of energy, each responsible for a unique function. The aim of meditation is to align all the energy centres in our body such that they harmonize one another and eventually the entire body and mind. Aligning the energy centers across the body's mid-line can be perceived as trying to harmonize ourselves with the philosophy of the Golden Mean - learning to be balanced and living with equanimity. When spiritualists claim that God and answers are within us, they imply that when the body and mind are recharged, consciousness and intelligence grow (or evolve) and the energized clarity yields us wisdom and understanding. According to Yogananda, recharging our mind for a few hours by sparking the energy centers along our spine is equivalent to going through a few hundred years of evolution - in terms of our intelligence and wisdom.

The "Science" of Energies
Hmmm... energy centers, harmony, recharge, clarity... huh? Fret not, there are explanations offered in a much more coherent and intelligent manner in the book than my attempts. I am not sure of the math of few hours of true meditation = x years of evolution, but the theory makes sense. The underlying philosophy that the book tries to communicate is that our bodies and minds have immense potential by virtue of their stored up energy. Yogananda explains this through Einstein's theories. If all matter is compacted with energy that even a teeny tiny atom has the power to explode with intense power, what about the human brain abounding with rich thoughts? How much energy must lay packed in us? If we have so much energy coiled up inside us, our true purpose seems to be to release that energy for the betterment of ourselves, humanity and the universe.

Each thought and brain activity sends out energies and vibrations that can be caught and translated into quantitative forms through EEG techniques. The EEG signals translated from thoughts and brain activity can now be interpreted to execute the action/s they are issuing, through machines and devices. Games and accessible tools for the physically challenged are being developed now with this technology. Advances in neuroscience have now made it possible for us to wear a device that will sense our thoughts and execute actions on the screen without us moving a finger. The ability to move things just by thinking about moving them was previously termed as clairvoyance. Science has now made it possible. Telepathy doesn't seem so far-fetched now, does it?

When this book was written in the 1940s, Yogananda confidently talks of brain waves and thought signals being tuned in like radio frequencies. Aren't we close to such a phase now? Slowly, the meaning of prayers now makes sense. What are prayers, but concentrated thoughts on something we wish for. If there is a device that can now push keyboard controls by sensing our thoughts, it doesn't seem totally impossible for the vibrations of our prayer signals from our thoughts to act on the universe to create at least a ripple somewhere, resulting in a cause-effect chain. Science has defined the butterfly effect and chaos theory, hasn't it? The power of positive thinking can now be scientifically presented. This theory has many parallels with String Theory - and it may very well be the key to understanding the nature and creation of this Universe. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about String Theory to critically analyze this theory, which just goes to show that I have so much more to learn even in the realm of Science, before I can pass any judgment in the metaphysical arena.

"Let there be light"
Scientists have all been stumped with the question of how to reconcile the infinite regression that accompanies the question of which is the simplest, basic element of matter. Even the tiniest particle must be made of something, which will be made of something, which will be made of something...and so on. Where does it end? What are we eventually made of then? At one point, everything must have been created out of nothing. What is nothing? Isn't it also something? Physicists have been struggling to discern how light/energy was created out of nothing. Yogananda therefore expounds that Light is the only absolute in our creation (part of the "Let there be Light", theory). And that everything in this universe is ultimately made of particles of light. A person with an evolved consciousness understands this; to them, the knowledge and awareness of such aspects are as intuitive as most of the simple scientific laws are to us. The craving for materialism disappears with this awareness, for we realize that we are all made of the same basic elements. This is what the Bhagavad Gita also tries to explain - the eventual blending of our consciousness and awareness with the cosmos due to our realization that God (light) is within all of us and that we (light) are also part of everything else. Other complex aspects of metaphysics, such as materializing the physical body in two different places etc., are supposed to stem from this basic theory.

The Illusion of Materialism
The more we try to delineate materials around us, the more we are said to be trapped in the cycle of Maya or illusion. The more we realize the transience and similarity of every material around us, we (hopefully) stop attaching any significance to materialistic possessions. The principles of duality slowly dissolve. There are accounts of real saints who have lived hale and hearty without eating a single morsel of food for more than 50 years. They recharge themselves through the energy of the Universe - the Light. If the body is viewed as an amalgamation of chemicals, running chemical processes that help us function, it seems plausible that there exist techniques of meditation that try to alter the breathing pattern such that the body is supplied with more oxygen (more energy), while depleting the concentration of carbon (retarding the rate of decay of the body). The meaning that surfaces is that man can sustain without depending on anything material around him.

So the answers eventually have been simplified to - 1) first ardently practice meditation, 2) expand your consciousness, 3) realize about yourself and your integration within the whole. But meditation is hard. True meditation takes more than closing one's eyes and trying to think about nothing. The technique of Kriya Yoga is methodical and takes years of practice to reach that one true state of harmony. The path towards self-realization is long and hard, but no doubt seems worthy of the effort.

As always, I was impressed and heartened that religion was not a topic of concentration in the book, despite drawing on the messages from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. The discussions are holistic, tightly integrating the unity between all religions and scriptures. Bhakti is definitely one aspect, one path toward self-realization, but without us fervently asking the fundamental questions on the Universe and about who we are, Bhakti is fruitless - so confirms Yogananda, all his Gurus, and the Gurus' Guru.

To me, the book was a major stepping stone to bolstering faith in my thoughts and prayers. To my immense surprise, the book doesn't take on a fatalistic approach to explain our existence and lives. Yes, there are many deterministic factors that we are born with, but the great saints weigh the power of human-will above our Karmic patterns and the constellations of stars and planets. I can now at least consider the possibility of miracles, if not truly believe in them yet. As much as it has assuaged some of my nagging questions, there are still many that lie raw and stinging - Is our purpose self-realization, renunciation of everything that is worldly and material? Then what am I doing here? How do we define duties? How can "worldly duties" balanced with such a quest? Why is it important to renounce the ego in this whole experience? Shouldn't ego be a part of self-realization? Or is it because we cannot truly understand the uniformity of things around us  if we continued to focus on the ego, "I", as being separate from everything else around? How exactly do our Karmic influence and free-will interact with each other? Where do the two draw lines, confining one from influencing the other?

It is unrealistic for one book, a little dabble in the pool of metaphysics and spirituality to unravel every single mystery to me. So I will persist, but perhaps now with a little more confidence that the universe isn't as elusive and ambiguous as it looked a couple of weeks back.