Friday, July 30, 2010

Reflections: Island Of the Blue Dolphins

The island of Blue Dolphins lies in the Pacific, somewhere off the Hawaiian islands. The island is so named because it resembles the shape of a dolphin lying on its side. On this little island, there lived a tribe of Indians, peacefully organizing themselves into a society subsisting on the marine life. But even this little island of harmony was not spared of conquests and invasions. After a battle that wiped off many of the men and leaders of the tribe, the new leader began to explore the seas to search for another land - the land of the “white men”, near the California coast. A ship is sent for his entire tribe to join him near the coast of Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, one girl of twelve, Karana, jumps off the ship to get her younger brother who was left behind. All alone in the entire island, she bravely awaits the ship to return for many years. This is a cast-away story of a girl who cleverly survives on her own - armed with her shrewd weapons, courage, hope and some loyal animals.

Every time I pick up a book honored with the Newberry Medal, I feel how much I wasted my younger years reading happy, fun, fantasy, fairy-filled, la-la stories. Entering adulthood was all the more sudden and harsh for those of us who were not introduced to heavy concepts - such as survival, the hardships surrounding it, the decisions confronting it, and the principles that help with addressing all of it. It makes sense to slowly inject these issues into young minds, to start the process of thinking, questioning, and informed understanding.

When I started reading the book, I was extremely skeptical of this being a children’s classic. I expected happy magical dolphins and sea creatures that help the girl out (how amusing, I know). But through the course of the story, as tragedies and pitfalls were balanced with determination, optimism and compassion, I conceded that this was indeed a fitting story filled with lots of thought-provoking moral principles for children. This is a story without adornments trying to add happy frills to a tough situation - it relates the story as is, but in such a way so as to not overwhelm children with grief or anxiety.

Karana is written as a strong and clever girl who creatively and constructively combats her loneliness and pursues her quest to survive. I particularly liked how the author balances the ruthless spirit of survival with tenderness, kindness, and compassion. Even though one is driven to defend oneself by killing other creatures, the story brings the message that one has to draw a line to make sure that the spirit of humanity is not lost to barbarism. The story shows the rewards of compassion, friendship and loyalty to animals, and their importance in our lives.

The writing flows well and takes the bitter edge off the theme of survival. Perhaps as an adult, I wished for more emotions in the words, but on second thoughts, I think it is best that children not be choked with heavy emotions on a heavy topic. The book is surely worth its adulation as a children’s classic.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections: The Inheritance Of Loss

In the quaint town of Kalimpong, overlooking the magnificent Kanchenjunga mountains, lives a retired misanthropic judge, his precious dog, his teenage, lonely, grand-daughter Sai, and a garrulous cook in hopes of a better life. The cook’s hopes rest on his son Biju’s shoulders, to be the valiant US employed NRI, who would amass dollars and pack suitcases full of  panaceas to rid his family’s penury. The cook shared the same naive and ignorant dream that most of the world’s poverty driven sections dream. Little do they realize the implications of immigration, and the pitiable states in which their kins live in the developed lands of wealth, only to bury their dignity and identity to scrape a few dollars and earn the esteemed status of living abroad.

Each character in this book has a story of their own, which unearths their inner conflicts of who they were, and who they were striving to be in the eyes of the world. The judge, his grand-daughter and other friends in the neighborhood are still in the clutches of the colonial hang-over. They have been molded to deride everything that is crudely Indian - culture, habits, thoughts, and way of life. But deep down their identities are muddled - they are Indians, but not really Indians. They are foreigners in their own land, yet treated like stray dogs in the western world, whose elite culture they thought they imbibed and were part of. This identity crisis is faced by most Indians, living abroad and within India. Biju’s life in New York, as a lowly illegal immigrant paints the stereotype of the confused immigrant, fumbling to fit in, frustrated by the shoddy treatment, yet reluctant to head back home. All these characters are strangers to themselves, foreigners everywhere, until they sort out their conflicts and priorities.

Since culture is so tightly coupled with identity and acceptance, there is an eternal dilemma of what exactly constitutes as culture, and how to attain that optimal balance of both adapting to and being accepted by a new country, while staying true to one’s core principles and ways of life. As globalization opens the world market wide and invites people of different cultures to work together and coexist, this problem affects almost every family in developing nations that reach out for a brighter future with illusions on “better standards of living.”

The common misconception is that one’s own culture has to be forsaken at the altar of the Immigration counter, burying one’s identity and turning into a chameleon with no sense of self, meaninglessly camouflaging with the western ideals, just to be accepted and granted a stint at their luxury, without being shunned. On the other extreme are those who feel terrified and lost without their cultural anchors, that they crudely assert their misguided ideas about culture, only to attract negative attention and revulsion. Both sets of people lose their dignity in the process, yet they cling onto the dream of a better life, even if they are assured of an equally better life back home. No, it is unpardonable to let go of the opportunity to reside in a better country, a more refined society, and a sophisticated community.

In the midst of all these issues, Desai inserts the violent revolutions of the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) tearing Kalimpong. Nepali-Indians demand their rightful place in India, when every family in Kalimpong dreams of immigrating to the West, of casting away their threads of connections to India, and feels slighted at being treated like a nuisance when badgered for a green-card. However, in their own country, they are prejudiced against the Nepalis who have served them for generations. The hypocrisy towards the dichotomous views on immigration is nicely brought out.

The effects of insurgency on young minds, and the corruption it brings forth in confusing patriotism and heroism with terrorism, are deftly brought out through Sai’s Nepali tutor, Gyan. As always, the real cause blends into the background, and the violence marks the external manifestation of  troubled and confused minds.

Desai’s writing was a little aloof for me, yet I connected with the story, for I’m far too familiar with the issues. It made me strangely guilty, and left me assessing my motivations and the reasons for my decisions. I felt her writing was exceptionally acrid towards the legal, comfortably established immigrants. Some parts of her writing were beautiful, but they fizzled away soon, only to be replaced by the aloof and cold tone.

On the whole, while the issues of immigration and globalization have been honestly and expertly addressed, the writing failed to pack in the full punch. The story is a mirror image of lives that immigrants are only too familiar with, and leaves us vaguely disturbed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reflections: The God Of Small Things

Sometimes, books that I revisit help me understand how much I’ve changed, grown, or fallen back over the years. When I first attempted to read this book, several years back, I was a wide-eyed teenager who lived in her bubble of idealism. I found the writing to be choppy, and the story to be disturbing. It bothered my world-view of moral-idealism, and I abandoned the book. Last week, years later, the book had stared at me from an abandoned bookshelf. On a whim, I decided to read it again till the very end, only to discover how much I have changed, and how much I haven’t.

Rahel and Estha are fraternal twins snared in a web of complications weaved expertly by the big strong adults of their world. Their childhood is ruthlessly entangled in society’s biggest issues, the most vociferous debates, when all they tried to do was indulge themselves in the small pleasures of childhood. It is this perspective - how the small and big issues of life coalesce and drastically alter the course of small things, while hardly creating a ripple in the big things, that puts this book in its special place. It is the age-old discussion of individual versus community, and how the individuals always lose out, unwittingly, innocently.

The twins are born out of the unfortunate union of a Malayali Syrian Christian mom, and a Bengali dad, both of whom have their own personal scars and misgivings. Their intentions were masked by impulse and rash hope, only to soon wither away as reality shined through. The twins and their mom, Ammu, are forced to seek refuge in Ammu’s home in Ayemenem, Kerala. An eloped daughter, divorced, with two children, returning home in disgrace, forms the exemplar of ridicule and forced-humiliation for the Ayemenem household members, who view themselves as staunch upholders of morality. Ammu and the children struggle to find their place in the household and in the community, but in vain. They hunger for love and acceptance. Each is caught in their own suffocating insecurity of their bleak future. Like a pile of dried leaves, their insecurities slowly mount from little incidents, which by themselves might seem insignificant. However, driven to the edge, they take a daring little step to reach out for love, only to dearly pay an incredibly torturous price.

Roy fiercely brings to life the hypocrisies of the Indian society, especially, in the 60s, when Communism was at its incipient, boisterous stages in Kerala. Notions of equality and freedom did not fit with the community’s model of a moral society. Morality was a vacuous term, muddled by people’s distorted beliefs and bloated egos. Each person was tainted by his own selfish agendas, rationalizing them as being moral and for the greater good. Such a society, clouded by prejudice, deems who can be touched, and who cannot be. And what their role in society ought to be.  Even as communism burgeons, there is a double-standard on who is worthy of its principles, and how much of it. This becomes the moral-mantra to base all their rational and irrational deeds.

I never expected this book to leave such an intense emotional impact on me. The mix of heady emotions overwhelmed me so much, that I had to wait for a few days to write this post. In some ways, I still am that wide-eyed girl, hoping for harmony and kindness in every path that humanity takes. It still pains me to see the remnants of colonialism and caste-distinctions wreaking havoc in personal lives, and individual happiness. It pains me even more when children are mercilessly involved in cruel, complicated, moral dilemmas. It isn’t fair that their lives are scarred irreparably due to moral implications beyond their grasp of understanding. From a child’s lens, everything is simplified and seen for what it truly is. If only adults could simplify, and experience the smaller, delicate things in life that build up to the bigger causes. What a refreshing objective it would provide.

This time, I found the writing to be deeply moving, and incredibly imaginative. It a took me awhile to connect with the writing style, but when I did, I was hypnotized by it. I marvel at Roy’s ability to pick out the most subtle, yet the most deepest of emotions and thoughts and convey them through metaphors that are both ingeniously creative and simple. She brilliantly defines each character with their unique personality. The writing cuts through with sarcasm and insight, and tender descriptions. Her descriptions are intensely vivid, sometimes cruelly vivid. I think it was her writing that really brought the story closer to my heart.

Some parts of the book - especially how the twins resolve their hollowed emotional angst, was a little hard for me to accept. I could empathize with their scars and the need to fill their void with love, but the Freudian theories of repression that Roy unravels, somehow didn’t hold water with me.

Except for that quibble, the book has endeared itself nicely. The characters and the intense emotions pulsing through the book have been etched into my heart and memory.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Sphere Of Acceptance

On the fringes of the ostracized circle, where people’s merciless gazes are the scorching, penetrating lashes of the sun, she tiptoes into the polka dots of shades. Ah, but the shades are none other than the swooping shadows of the vultures above. Hovering close, eyes leering, beaks clicking with mirth, thrilled at the look of confusion and shame on her. Dare not she rest her weary eyes. Dare not she find comfort in the unintentional breeze flapping out of their wings. The old birds are here to feast on her misery, to cackle at her misfortune, to meticulously pick apart pieces of fleshy gossip and rumor, and relish them down with the satisfaction of being on the safe side of the circle. The legal, accepted, side.

All it takes for her is a meaningless little step, a mere hop, to get into the sphere of legal acceptance. An entry given as a reluctant compromise for having eventually conformed to their rules. But the gap between that hop is wider than eternity. The vital difference between disdain and approval, between treating her like a person and a smelly mouse. Yet,  having come from that mid-line, of being neither here nor there, she loses her worth, the esteemed merit of joining the niche. She can step into the circle, but should remain at a safe distance from the crowd. The past hangs over her like the dead albatross on the mariner’s neck. A constant, heavy reminder that she is inexcusably different, ineligible to fit in.

Then, the boundaries cease to make a difference. She wouldn’t have fit in the disapproved circle, neither did she find her place tip-toeing on its edges, nor will she snugly attach to the elite circle of legal and social acceptance.

Does it matter then, where she stands, or is pushed to stand? Why fuss over those arbitrary lines? Who defined them? What reasoning went behind those sharp, cruel distinctions? I thus try to distill her muddy thoughts, to filter the sludge of feelings choking her.

Thank those hands that try to pull you into the circle. Accept gracefully that their forces can’t hope to overpower the forces of repulsion. Seek your little radius to root yourself. Remember to always travel with yourself, lean on yourself, for you are the only one that matters. You are the only one who can be your best companion.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Staying Afloat

It doesn’t help to remember that you were always a little lopsided in your gentle gait. The way you cocked your head in the morning to greet me. And weaved through the pulsing greens and the flutter of bubbles, like a jet plane slanting dangerously near the clouds. I tried to be prepared. I even tried to avert. Prevention is better than cure, I kept saying as I shelled and plucked at moist little green peas and let them drift near you.

But the day did arrive, when I saw you frantically somersaulting in little circles, as if you were caught in a scary, invisible Ferris-wheel mechanized by your delicate system. Whoever said you were incapable of emotion. I could spell out glints of helplessness, panic, and fear in your glassy eyes, as you fought to regain control over your body and straddle it upright. But things went awry.

How sincerely you tried. And how much you tried. Relentlessly. Recklessly. Over and over you tumbled, and steadied, tumbled and steadied, before you were crushed down onto the rock bottom. What irony, I say. You struggling to stay afloat when you were marvelously designed to gracefully glide. A failure in the fundamental machinery. No cure, no room for remorse. 

Does that pacify? Does that save me the harrowing “If only...” thoughts playing music on my strands of guilt? It does and it does not. The lack of control, the inability to formulate a solution, the ineptitude to accept the lack of one, churned in rhythm with your topples of struggles.

I see yet another being I cared for,  through impenetrable glass walls, deemed incurable, lost to fate. The big person outside the glass walls - I was God, to you. The one who could determine your short-term fate - to live or not to live, to have or not to have, to eat or not to eat. But someone much bigger watches me through an even bigger glass dome, and you through your little cube of glass, through the dome. He perhaps decides some aspects of our combined fate. My power reaches only so far. Beyond the glass dome, rests the reigns of my feeble power; the muscle to provide the torque of change, the magic wand of cure.

To euthanize or not. To lean on hope or resign to stoic acceptance. The cycle in my mind wheeled with your efforts. After a courageous week of your dogged struggle to stay afloat, you slowly gave up. Fighting till the last breath, twitching till the last spurt of energy.

This is to commemorate your tough fight against survival. And to mark my prickling disappointment on witnessing all of it, down to your sad, pleading eyes. 

Rest in peace, little pet. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reflections: One Hundred Years Of Solitude

This much glorified piece of epic literature was on my indefinite wish-list for years together, until recently a dear friend of mine was clairvoyant enough to realize that it was about time I read the book, and had it knocking on my door. The last several days with this book have been a very interesting and exasperating experience, as I still try to pull together enough thoughts to cogently convey my reflections. I guess this is what happens when you start a book with high expectations, and mount double the amount of expectations on you to be able to gather every ounce of brilliance that the book has to offer.

The synopsis is seemingly simple - too simple, as a matter of fact. The book traces seven generations of the South-American Beundia clan, through their trials and tribulations, in the mythical village of Macondo. It might seem like just an epic family saga, but no, the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the magical-realism that is threaded throughout their tales, open multiple vistas of thought and wonder. It’s been discussed that the tale’s newly discovered village of Macondo, with its raging civil wars, and its baby steps towards civilization have parallels with Latin-American History. Just as History repeats, the Beundia family traits are inherited and repeated across generations. But unfortunately, I know nothing of Latin-American history to have grasped the underlying symbolism of the characters and the occurrences, which is perhaps one of the reasons I am still beating around the bush trying to define the tale or the book. If I’m begged to not over-think it, I would say it’s a tale which vividly sketches both the intensely mundane and the extremely profound aspects of humanity. The tale is a mixture of everything stark and contradictory about human nature, and the journeys we undertake.

However, my biggest angst with the book is that I couldn’t orient myself to a theme...a nice sturdy one to anchor myself to the tale and let the words guide my exploration. I’m not sure if my lack of historical knowledge or my needless pressure to find a profound theme has left me floundering in the depths of this book. Books dealing with magical realism tend to cause such a reaction in me - I’m never sure if I am reading too much, or too little into the tale, the symbolism, and the metaphors. I’m left nervous like a school kid trying to decipher a cryptic puzzle, which only the smart kids can solve. Surely, a Nobel Prize winning book has much more to say than humanity’s weird afflictions, and repeated patterns? It surely has so many more rich layers which have completely bounced off me? If I had induced myself to forget the book's phenomenal accreditation, I might have simplified the experience of reading this book, and maybe even unraveled more from the tale.

But these are just frustrations with myself, not necessarily with the book. The brilliance of the prose, the beautiful imagination, the creativity of the narration and its psychological preciseness leave one spellbound. The tale’s mysticism and eroticism are bewitching, making the reader hang on to hypnotic words which move in and out of the lulling mundanes of the tale.

Without the fear of being labeled a simpleton, I will venture to say that to me, the book spoke a lot about the significance of solitude (how easy, let me run with a theme that the book’s title has). Every character went through their lives with their flaws, acted rashly on instincts, fed their irrational fires, and kept occupying themselves with ignorance and the desire to evade their inner-self, until the ruins of old-age and loneliness left them to their own solitude. In solitude, understanding dawns, wisdom sprouts. It disconnects people from reality, but keeps them within a safe distance, to judiciously help them understand the boundaries of reality, and their place in it. When solitude is shared between two people, nothing gets them closer - emotionally and mentally. I truly believe that silence conveys more than words. Each character vacillated in and out of solitude, trying to grapple with the illusions in their life, and the realities of their existence. Some choose to stay in their world of illusions, for reality is far too boring and mundane, while others nourish their understanding of themselves by actively seeking solitude.

And while history definitely repeats itself in the Beundia household, so it does in the grand scheme of humanity. For centuries we have done the same things, acted on the same impulses, lost on the same instincts, won on the same shrewd  territorial games, disguised as higher, nobler causes. The cave man ate, drank, mated, reared children, brought home material, fought, made mistakes, and grew up in much the same way as the present generation does - the means maybe different and “sophisticated” now. But we are driven by the same forces, and we act on them just as our ancestors did, eons back. In that sense, what really is progress, from then to now? As the wheels of time circles on, where is the peak, the end? Do we ever break out of the cycle? How dramatic should a change be to reinvent the scales of progress, and the ways we lead our life?

The book has assuredly sparked such interesting questions, but for the most part I’m still disconcerted that I have missed plenty more. If you would care to enlighten me on other aspects of the book, I’ll be much obliged!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Reflections: Candide

Life is pockmarked with inexplicable turns of events, mind-boggling consequences to trivial occurrences, rude shifts in the currents that carry us, leaving us hapless as to the cause and the effects of being randomly flung hither and thither, despite working true to our heart and mind. As we lose ourselves in our aggressive demand for explanations, the best explanation ever concocted to assuage us is - “everything happens for the best.” We are consoled that there is a greater force, a much grander design in place, which channels the causes and effects, with the ultimate goal of working towards the greater good.

Are these explanations merely to placate us humans tormenting ourselves with the need for a reason behind our tragedies? We have the innate drive to uncover the cause, or the reason behind everything. I’m always reminded of this nice example from the book, Sophie’s World. When a cat sees a ball come rolling from behind it, it jumps instinctively at the ball and happily plays with it. But if a human child (or adult) sees a ball come rolling, the instinct is to immediately look back and discern the cause - from where is the ball coming, who rolled it, etc. We constantly fit jigsaws of cause-effect puzzles in our mind, and can’t let go if the puzzle is unsolvable or incomplete.

Candide is a satire that cynically scrutinizes the apparent randomness of our lives, and the die-hard conviction we hold, of faith and optimism, believing that everything happens for a reason, and that each of us will reap our share of good fortunes and lasting happiness.

Candide is a young German man who was brought up by a wealthy Baron. When Candide and the Baron’s daughter are caught stealing a kiss, Candide is kicked out of the palace. This little unfortunate incident is the impetus that drives Candide to face a string of gruesome tragedies; his life was haphazardly catapulted from one misfortune to another, with interludes of kindness from beneficiaries who also invariably suffer. With the words of his wise master and philosopher, Pangloss, who reiterates that the Universe is the best possible design, and that every human misery and tragedy is for a greater reason to ultimately result in the best, he survives each hardship to attain his ultimate goal of rescuing and marrying his fair lady - Cunegonde (the Baron’s daughter). As much as hopes to find lasting happiness, his other philosopher-friend, Martin, argues that nobody in this world is truly happy, and that everyone in their heart will believe themselves to be wretched victims of the Universe tossed about in its random cruelty. Martin’s views are antithetical to Pangloss’s, as he proclaims there is no cause, effect, rhyme or reason for the journeys we take, and that there is nothing inherently “good” nor is there any “design” to the Universe. In a battle between these two opposing views, Candide represents the image of Innocence and Optimism, only to be progressively tarnished.

The whole book is a parody of our lives, the medieval times, and its antiquated and barbaric social systems. While this book promises to be rich in philosophical debates, there are hardly any profound ones, for it’s after all a satire. The debates rage only within our mind, with the characters subtly stoking the embers. These debates have existed for centuries, but the answers lie only within our individual comprehension of the Universe and its ways. I only know that I hold onto the laws of cause and effect, for it helps me create meaning for myself. Like the majority, I need to convince myself that I exist for a reason, for a purpose, and that my experiences are worth something in a mysterious, intricate tapestry.

Voltaire injects the notion, that regardless of there either being a grand design, or us being trapped in a storm of randomness, the quest for happiness is mostly an illusion, soon to fizzle away after achieving it. Ironically, no matter what our circumstances, we always seem to vacillate between feeling miserable for ourselves, or being bored with our event-less monotony. And the only way by which we engage ourselves to escape the strangles of boredom, desire and discontent is through channeling our energies and talents into hard-work. Rather than wonder what the Universe has in store for us, we contribute our share to the Universe, in our own little ways. This is Voltaire’s pragmatic “solution”, and I see a lot of truth to it. An idle mind is a devil’s workshop. An embittered mind, left to wander aimlessly is even greater a threat. This is the problem with most people these days. Their own minds are their demons.

Despite the remarkable writing, the wise hints on morality and free-will, I can’t say I enjoyed the book. The tone of the book, with its intense satire, cynicism and extremely lurid and morbid tragedies, fatigued me. It was a “comedy” of errors and mishaps. The misfortunes were needlessly grisly, overemphasizing the satire and poking fun at the conviction that everything happens for the best with a higher reason behind.

Man’s nature was shown in contrasts of good and evil - perhaps, a realistic version of our world spangled with virtues and vices in equal proportions, such that every act of good is nullified by an act of evil.. So where does that leave us? Just a little let down, but a little more accepting of reality, perhaps. This book is a tonic for the cynic, and a bitter dose of the reality pill for the idealist.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reflections: The Moral Animal

If I were a bee, this book would be my alluring pot of honey. Of course, I’m not a bee. However, I love to slurp down honey anytime, so I still made a beeline for it. Enough of the puns. In all seriousness, this book is packaged with all the questions I have been torturing myself with (and unfortunately, a few around me) for the last two years. Fortunately, I have been building myself to the “answers” or explanations provided in this book, so, although most of the material was not a drastic eye-opener per se, the discussions nonetheless are quite interesting (if cynical), thought-provoking and analytical. Besides, they form solid pillars in a not-so-robust shack of theories in my head.

Robert Wright’s fundamental assertion is that no field of human or social studies can even begin to understand the complexity of human beings - their nature, behavior and cognition, independent of the role played by evolution. He makes a fervent point that Evolutionary Psychology (or  Darwinism) is a pertinent field to explain how natural selection has molded the contours of our brain, our mind, our body and behavior. He brings in  the simple principles of natural selection to explain - the reason why we drifted into monogamy when every scientist emphasizes on the invariable male instinct to philander, the origins of morality and conscience, the reasoning behind our moral codes, the need for so many intricate emotions - guilt, compassion, empathy, happiness, sadness, jealousy, love, affection, friendship, the highly complex nature of our social interactions, the pressing need for societal acceptance, and the beauty of our intelligent and deceiving mind. At its core, the book emphasizes that we are animals wired and acting on base instincts instilled by Nature. But the instincts have been deftly crafted by the intelligence of “natural selection”, making us believe we are sophisticated and intellectual in the decisions that we take. As the book reiterates - natural selection did all the thinking for us, but deceives us into believing we are creatures of free-will, above and beyond the shackles of genetic/biological determinism. Natural selection's aim is to push its species into thriving and surviving, so that the precious genes can be propagated through generations. Everything that we do can be traced back to the roots of this simple, yet devious scheme. However, society would crumble if we were to offload all blame and attribute all our malevolent actions to the relentless program of natural selection. Hence, surfaces the practicality of “being good and moral.”

The need for altruism, compassion and friendship has no real noble nature. They have been plugged into us, for without such a design we can’t hope for harmonious existence. And without the promise of some semblance of harmony, Nature dreads that we will bring about an apocalypse and destroy every shred of our gene prints. Wright defines Nature's plan as reciprocal altruism. Fundamentally, altruism exists and is glorified since we expect (at some sub-conscious, unconscious level), reciprocation of all the good deeds. In Hindu philosophy, this is termed as Karma. We are constantly reminded that good begets good, and bad begets bad, and are urged to do good. This is precisely what Nature believes in, but, in a more pragmatic manner. Our social structure couldn’t have grown to this state without this design. Without such a refined, moral social structure, our species couldn’t have progressed to this extent. Every single “good” intention and feeling programmed into us is for our own self-interest. Our ingrained sense of justice and retribution is to ensure that every set of genes has an “equal” or fair chance of survival. When we are twinged with hurt, its Nature’s way of reminding us that we need to step up, assert ourselves and work aggressively towards our interests. As a matter of fact, natural selection rarely urges us to forgive or forget. It mercilessly pushes us into the fray of intense competition for the proliferation of our genes.

One might wonder how philanthropy or working towards a successful and noble career would be marked with undertones of gene proliferation. But in a round-about way, it does, or at least that is Nature’s intention. Philanthropy helps revive gene-pools which are threatened to dwindle, and the moral reputation built from such deeds help us lead a better life (the boomerang of reciprocal altruism). Every noble ambition is tainted with self-serving needs, although not blatantly apparent.  In our current social structure, some instincts may not be as pertinent, yet, they exist, while successfully tricking us into thinking that our ambitions stem out of higher, and nobler, rational thought. This is beautifully compared with the Freudian theory of unconscious repression, and the role of the Id and Super-Ego in bolstering the Ego. The conscience, feelings of nobility and altruism would be our Super-ego, Id would  be the wrapped up version of natural selection’s instincts, both of which work in uncanny ways to serve the Ego.

The whole book is organized around Darwin’s own life, his decisions and thoughts. Darwin is celebrated as a man with high Victorian virtues, with a delicate conscience and sympathetic bent of mind. He is known for caring for every living creature around him, for his compassion, altruism and staunch principles. But Wright does a wonderful job of drawing parallels from this great man’s life to elucidate the underlying design of natural selection.

The discussions on the implications on morality are thoroughly researched and presented. Although it’s a little unsettling to ponder on the vacuousness of concepts such as “good”, “bad”, and morality, as standalone “truths”, it opens a new horizon of thinking, which is much more practical and utilitarian. The utilitarian maxim is to work towards maximizing “happiness” (overall “good”), in any situation that has a tussle between “right” and “wrong”. Wright expatiates upon Utilitarianism as being the most pertinent theory of morality to mesh with human nature, as well as with natural selection’s drive. Happiness is a frowned upon concept with austere religious doctrines. Although most religions seem to abhor the pursuit of happiness, they are in fact only propelling the notion of non-sensual bliss, not all sorts of happiness. Spirituality does prescribe the route to lasting happiness, devoid of sensory pleasures. This wisdom is in fact precisely the way out of natural selections clutches - of its continuous egging towards attaining one form of sensory pleasure or the other, only to leave us unsatisfied and in search for more pleasure. With more search for pleasure, there is an increased chance of proliferating our genes.

The book contains a wealth of enthralling discussions on humanity. It may get to a point of extreme cynicism, what with the revelation that the purpose of our lives is basically to procreate and successfully nurture the next generation to carry forth our genetic material, that notions of “true love” and monogamy have evolved only because human babies require enormous parental investment and resources from both parents for several years to be able to mature and survive. No wonder why even religion presses us towards the noble cause of raising our young. But, there are exceptions in our species - those who have gone beyond nature’s instincts to redefine altruism and morality. And it’s in our limited scope to aspire to fight against our instincts and rise above the rest.