Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reflections: Moby-Dick

On the surface, Moby Dick has all the elements that appeal to me - a whale as the primary character, an adventure in the sea, a literary classic, an allegory of good and evil, and the uncontrollable forces of Nature. No wonder I’d wanted to read this book for so long. I chose to ignore reviews that groaned it was a tedious read, and set out to conquer the book with the same ferocity as the sailors who hunted Moby Dick. But I have to resign and admit that this book was surely one of my most challenging reads. I nearly gave up on it on multiple occasions, but I guess it was the same ambition of wanting to conquer that which is beyond our reach, which drove me to labour through it.

Ishmael, the narrator is part of the crew aboard the Pequod, a whaling ship headed by the tyrannical captain Ahab. Ahab is obsessed with avenging the gargantuan white sperm-whale, Moby-Dick, which on a certain vicious encounter had bitten off Ahab’s leg. Armed with his ivory leg, and steely will, Ahab runs a tight ship in search of the elusive Moby-Dick. Ishmael narrates the slow and seductive spell the whale and its pursuit casts on the crew. Their ambition and greed lustfully increases till it takes over their mind and possesses them to the point where they are ready to abandon everything - at that point, the whale and the purpose itself is lost, but it’s the enticing sense of pursuing the unconquerable, and the thrill of wanting to control and vanquish something larger than life itself, which fuels the men. This is likened to our pursuit of all that is elusive and mystical in our lives. Our ambitions are always aimed at what cannot be controlled. It may seem like we are after bigger houses, luxurious cars and exotic vacations - but underneath all the materialism and greed, there is a constant quest towards grasping the unreachable, to better understand Life itself. The mundane aspects of life then dissolve. Perhaps that's the reason why we are running after the toughest chase - to escape the mundane and nagging issues of life.

The whale is transfigured as a demonic creature, and man’s battle with it is seen as a fight of good against evil. But the notions of good and evil, and who is on which side, quickly disappear as the fight thickens. Environmentalists today can easily argue that man is on the evil side. But the book doesn’t allow you to make that conclusion that easily.

The hunt for a monstrous, magnificent, immortal creature that seems to rule the seas was almost an impossible feat to accomplish in the late 19th century. Therefore, the whale itself was glorified and celebrated because of the mysteries it held to these men. The bulk of the book is a detailed repository of the biology of whales, the different religious and spiritual metaphors of whales in different cultures, their behavior and psychology, and the history of whaling, its beauty and mechanics. The book includes a wonderful encyclopedia of whales and whaling, all of which are wrapped in extremely lyrical and beautiful prose. But the prose is so beautiful, the lines are loaded with so many levels of metaphors, that it takes time (and effort) to parse through the paragraphs and swipe all the literary merit. The lack of a structured plot and the many hundreds of pages of whaling facts were what made this book a tiresome read. If the 600 odd pages were shrunk to about 300, this would have been my instant favorite.

I’m sure I didn’t glean all the information and the scores of subtle philosophical asides spattered through the book. There are so many levels of meaning stacked within each paragraph, that I gave up on unfurling it all. But a shallow reading doesn’t do justice to the book. I wold recommend reading this book with a friend or along a book-club to spark discussions and to truly appreciate the literary symbolism.

In my humble opinion, this book is just the literary giant of  Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Hemingway explores the same (or similar) discussions on man’s maniacal obsession and determination to test his limits and reach for the toughest rope. But I liked it better because of how he ended his discussion - highlighting the spirit of the adventure/ambition to be greater than the material conquest.

Moby-Dick is indeed a whale of a read, and definitely stands apart from all the books I’ve read so far!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reflections: A Mind Apart

Susanne Antonetta has been living with bipolar disorder and manic depression ever since she was a child. Despite the misconceptions and lack of adequate understanding and empathy for her condition, she has carved a life for herself as a writer and a university professor. In this book, she explores her thoughts on her life and of Life in general, offering an expansive view of her mind, of her world, of the countless voices that speak to her and try to take charge of her. As she tries to place herself in the evolutionary map of our species, she wonders if her genes, which are brushed off as abnormal, do play some role in Darwin’s theory -  that biodiversity is just part of natural selection’s way of propagating our species. Is neuro-diversity any different? When we struggle to define and comprehend consciousness, who is to say what the limits are for a human mind? Within its dense and intricate network of neurons and arbitrariness, is there even a beginning and an end to the spaces it can conquer, the thoughts it can splutter? Perhaps neuro-atypical people like her, only stretch the potentials of the human mind, and may, if given some consideration, offer new forms of creativity and intelligence to our species? Maybe genetic engineering needs to pause at this conjecture?

The human mind is one of the most complicated and elusive mysteries. It fascinates me to no end because of its compelling mysteries. It’s whimsical to me that we use our own minds to understand them. The beauty of this exercise lies in the incremental exploration of our own limits - the more deeper and farther we stretch the limits, the more entangled we become with basic existential questions. Susanne, is no different. She tries to figure out who she is, and what controls her. She swims around in her chaotic and energetic hub of thoughts and consciousness, to relate to us how her mind and thoughts are different from the average human. It’s challenging to engage in such a dissection of one’s mind, especially when you are clinically diagnosed of depression, so I commend her on her quest towards self-realization.

It’s also equally challenging for the reader, a supposed “neuro-typical” person, to keep track of her thoughts, which resonate with her mood swings, and swing from one thought to another, one context to another, in such rapid succession like a skilled trapeze artist. It’s beautiful at times, and too abstract and wrapped in her own bubble of clarity at times. I found her mind to be bubbling with so many deep questions about our consciousness and “normalcy” of our minds, and her writing felt like I was being slowly immersed in that bubbling cauldron, to see and feel the colors, the nuances, texture, and spirit of all those questions floating inside her. I really could connect with the thoughts and questions, but I emerged, mostly confused, and with little clarity. The questions are all obviously too elusive for concrete answers, but I didn’t get a sense of her views - she was never bold or firm in her opinions - everything seemed slippery to grasp. Perhaps that wasn’t her aim - all she wanted was to share her thoughts, her questions and provoke new streams of thoughts.

I loved her discussions on what consciousness is. Is it the voice that speaks to you from deep within? When did it start existing in humans? What role does language play in cognition and consciousness? If you didn’t have language and its varied representational units, how would you make sense of the world inside you? How would your consciousness help you with getting that awareness - of yourself, the world around you and the interaction between the two? Her discussions were well researched (I happily recognized all the famous scientists in the field) and were lyrically expressed, taking the weight of academia from them. I strongly believe that language plays a fundamental role in cognition. It gives the ability to express and explore thoughts, ideas, views, hypotheses and mold them into something concrete and cogent - more tangible than a mere ephemeral feeling, to give structure and details. It is that which helps us store learning blocks within our memory. By language, I mean the symbolic, logical representations we all use within our heads, and which, in their own ways “speak” to us and emerge as language. And finally, this is the reason why we benefit from conversing with our thoughts, and the reason why I ramble so much.

The one aspect that I struggled to agree with her, was her plea to not alter the minds of neuro-atypical people to the state of normalcy, through drugs. While I understand, that to her, her mind is her definition of her self, and its uniqueness (however “abnormal” to us) is private to her, I focus on what this “uniqueness” of hers is doing to her and to her loved ones. To me, its an illness no different than physical illness. She has managed to come so far in her life, only through medication, but to argue that too much medication to alter her mind completely, is unacceptable, poses these questions - what is too much medication, when it goes towards helping the person live her life? What does it mean to not alter the mind “completely”, when the mind doesn’t give her peace? She clearly sounds traumatized by her bizarre experiences, but she holds onto them in defense of her sense of self that is projected from them, and tries to assert that she is not an aberration or abnormality, and it’s society which has stringent rules to define normality.

I do agree in part that our rules and expectations on normality may be too myopic and cloistered at times, but my argument is about what such different views of normality does to them, in being happy with themselves, regardless of what society impinges on them. Why compromise on one’s happiness and hurt oneself? Why remain rooted to a mind that “seems to be on fire”, that drives one to end their life and suffer knowingly from paranoia? I understand that these are just the workings of different parts of the mind, which are not objectively “wrong regions” and that their side-effects are out-of-the-box creativity and lateral thinking, but what are the costs to retaining these side-effects? And if scientists need to retain creativity and remove the harmful and dangerous roots, doesn’t it again result in a confused alteration of their mind?

This is where I am not as convinced that genetic engineering should step back and have faith that natural selection will take care of things it has designed, with the hope of reaping beneficial fruits from such people. As Susanne mentions cynically, our world is dominated by “unnatural selection” now, thanks to medical intervention and empathy. The proliferation of such conditions is very much the act of “unnatural” selection. How then, does the knowledge that in a decade, 1 of out every 10 Americans is likely to be autistic, offer any form of complacence?

To summarize, while I definitely agreed and appreciated that we need to respect and reach out towards understanding and empathizing with neuro-atypical people with a creative and different stream of consciousness, I gear towards being practical in how I weigh the costs and risks of these conditions against some benefits, most of which are currently speculative. I agree that the human race is dooming itself by homogenizing and artificially engineering our current views of perfection on our genome, but there has to be a balance. It’s necessary to recognize what forms of diversity, and what range of diversity is essential to the race, as well as to the individual.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Farmville In The Backyard

I know I have already gushed enough about the garden, and the wonderful flowers that cooperated to grow this summer, but the icing on the cake (with the cute cherry on top) is the success we had with growing vegetables! Last year was such a heart-breaking disaster, that this year we did more research, and were meticulous about every single step. And my, my! It was so much work for a teeny 15*10 feet space of vegetable patch! We empathized a lot with all the hard working farmers around the world who get cheated of their crops due to unpredictable weather, pests and animals. Admittedly, I hardly did any of the real back-bending labor. While I did all the fancy work of planning which vegetables to plant, deciding how many of each, buying the seeds, and sowing and tending the saplings indoors, the husband slaved outdoors, preparing the soil, tilling, weeding and re-weeding. And like a grand princess, I set foot on the patch to plant the saplings (which, by itself gave me sore legs and back for a week).

Paranoid about how many plants would eventually brave the weather, rabbits and our half-baked care, we planted 72 tomato plants (no kidding!), 30 bell pepper plants, 15 zucchinis and 15 cucumbers. I lost count of how many seeds we originally started with, but we roughly lost 10% of them when they turned saplings, and another 10% of them when they were planted outdoors. So, being cautious definitely paid off, but we need to learn to tone down a bit! The over-ambitious me had also purchased two packets of carrot seeds, but we were overwhelmed by all the work and decided to save them for next year. Besides, the garden could only hold so many plants without suffocating one another.

Weekends disappeared altogether in just trying to maintain this little space of land. Not sure how fertile this soil is for the plants themselves, but they are exceptionally fertile for weeds! Despite putting down weed-preventing rugs, and regularly weeding, the weeds somehow outlasted our efforts, every week. Gardening was starting to turn slightly sour for me, but it was just a brief phase. Seeing the plants’ slow but steady progress kept us going. 

And when we spotted the first sprout of flower on a tomato plant, we were pumped with so much motivation to keep doing our best. I think I should stop saying “we” this many times. The credit really goes to my husband and father-in-law for their constant vigilance and weeding, when I slumped down tired most of the time and consigned myself to “critiquing” the space... which wasn’t welcome, of course. 

But the immensely gratifying (and incredible) news is that this post has a happy ending! We harvested such a hardy crop, we could have cried! We still can’t believe that we got more than 70 tomatoes and bell peppers! And zucchinis the size of eggplants!! I have never seen a zucchini so huge, and it’s incredulous because we didn’t even use any fancy fertilizers!! The cucumbers are wonderful too - a little bitter sometime, but nice and juicy! It’s such a nice feeling of accomplishment knowing that we won the battle against the heat wave, the ridiculously ill-timed frosts, the swarming beetles, the nagging slugs... and most of all the dexterous bunnies, who always seem to find a way in! 
 It’s very satisfying to just scamper out into the garden to pick out a nice yield of vegetables for our meals, instead of worrying about grocery shopping! Plus it’s quite rewarding that they are organic and home-grown! But, are we tired of eating meals cooked out of these four main vegetables? Surprisingly no! Or not yet! I think we are much much kinder towards our own hard work :). We have never before relished these vegetables as much and have never looked up so many different and new recipes involving them!

The tomatoes are wilting and are in their last stages, but the bell peppers, zucchinis and cucumbers are still thriving. We hope they last for a month, but that may be wistful thinking!! And finally, most importantly, we need to thank Nature for humoring us!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Bygone Season of Colors

This post was deferred for long - primarily due to my laziness. But now that summer has graced us and tiptoed without a trace, it’s about time I recorded these moments of glory and joy for the sake of posterity, and well, just to vent out my happiness. It might surely seem like I’m tooting my own little horn without any shred of modesty or humility by writing such posts, but how else am I to share my happiness in this little space into which I pour out so many of my deepest thoughts and emotions?

This summer has been one of the most eventful periods of my life - marked especially by the bounty we reaped from our garden. It’s become an obsession of mine to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables. Regardless of whether I am successful or unsuccessful in some of these attempts, the whole process brings me indescribable contentment, and weirdly enough, some meaning to my summers.

Despite my raucous protests to plant more flowers this year, I was shushed and was asked to concentrate on growing some vegetables this year. I mulled this over and reluctantly agreed that it’s better to not bite off more than I could chew. Despite all the sense in that statement,  I couldn’t get by without planting any new flowers! Especially after dreaming of them! 

I literally dreamed of huge, merry sunflowers sprouting jubilantly from the front of the house, creeping and towering their way to the clouds,  and shining down at me so warmly, that I could feel myself melting under their benevolent gaze! I definitely  needed flowers that could cast such warmth and happiness! Although they took their time to open out, and the flowers themselves lasted for just a little more than a week, we immensely enjoyed the two varieties of sunflowers! 

To contrast nicely with the bright yellows, I picked out purple morning glories, and baby-blue eyes. And I promptly fell in love with the baby-blue flowers!!
It was a little bit of a disappointment to me that  the morning glories quite faithfully bloomed bright  and early in the morning and wilted by noon (point in case - it shows how little attention I paid to the nature of the flowers, and how I was swept away by the beautiful pictures of them!). However, they re-blossomed every morning for about a month, so I shouldn’t be complaining much! I adored their deep rich purples with just the right strokes of yellow in their core! Nature is the best artist ever! While the baby-blues were extremely pleasing with their charming delicate blues, they were a tad too small to contrast the magnificent sun flowers. Still, I loved how they drooped in their delicate bunches, and continue to sustain even in September!

However, I failed at growing poppies and cone-flowers... not sure why, but they are definitely roll-over challenges for next year! Finally, marigolds  will surely be my indispensable flower every year!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflections: Collected Stories of Roald Dahl

Most of us in India grew up reading Roald Dahl's stories - either in our English classes, or from the dozens of collections littered in Indian libraries. The wit, sarcasm, humor and oddity of his tales stand apart. Over the years, my memory had dimmed out most of the stories. But thanks to my friend, who truly pampers me, I was gifted with this wonderful book containing most of Dahl's notable short stories.

Every story is uniquely crafted with Dahl's legendary stamp. I'm quite amazed at Dahl's breadth of knowledge - ranging from science to history to culture to psychology to philosophy. I especially enjoyed his stories with a science-fiction tinge to them - The story about a man who invents an automatic story-churning machine, a man so passionate about bees and apiculture that he finds an intriguing cure for his anorexic infant baby, the impish scientist who decides to rekindle man's ability to pick up on subtle female scents to turn him into a sex-charged caveman etc. The stories were down right hilarious, novel and informative, taking on the most perplexing and morbid twists and turns towards the end. Each story captures an eccentric human trait. Some stories, such as those concerning wars, were delicately philosophical and very sensitively portrayed.

Dahl's writing needs no more praise from me. His prose his impeccable and draws the reader completely into the characters and the setting. Establishing this sense of connection with the characters through just a short story is testament to his talent as a writer.

The whole chunk of the book is tireless entertainment and enjoyment. The book is surely a treasured possession.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Reflections: Watership Down

Rabbits are universally regarded as cute, cuddly creatures. Almost every little girl is drawn towards their soft fur, furtive little eyes, and adorable teeth that constantly nibble into something. It’s hard to imagine these creatures as being bothersome to anyone, until you try to put together a vegetable garden. And that’s when you realize the voracity of their appetite and how incredibly damaging it is to your puny little garden. Despite our attempts to thwart these creatures, we lost all our budding cauliflower and tomato plants last year. Now, every time we see a flash of brown and white, our hearts leap to our mouth, shrieking out exasperated warnings to save the plants. More sturdy fences have been erected, bunny-repelling plants have been grown and holes have been stuffed and covered. In essence, vigilance is strict this time. That’s when I was reminded of Watership Down. It’s a book that I have been wanting to read for a long time, because of my love for rabbits, and any book that deals with animals and their survival. And ever since we started our little battle against rabbits in our very own yard, the book has pressed itself on me as a must read.

In a nutshell, Watership Down is a classic portrayal of rabbits in the wild - their hierarchy, social structure, and survival mechanisms. A gang of rabbits vacate from their burrows to escape human encroachment, and are on the run to find a nice little place for themselves to settle down, far away from the nagging cruelty of humans and live in peace. Headed by brave rabbits, and by the timid and intelligent little Fiver, whose intuition and perspicacity helps the rabbits sniff out danger before it strikes them, they shuttle from one adventure to another in their stiff battle towards survival.

Throughout the story, Richard Adams infuses interludes of  interesting rabbit mythological tales and the rabbits’ beliefs of an omnipotent creator and his hand in their lives. While the tales were interesting asides in the beginning, they started to wear me down a little as the story progressed, because it gave the book a meandering feel and took my interest away from the story. And while the story itself was endearing, and the writing was quite beautiful, there wasn’t enough happening in the story to hold my interest through its 500 odd pages. Yet there was always a nervous edge to the story that piqued enough curiosity in me to persevere with the book till the end.

Despite anthropomorphizing the animals, Adams maintains an honest perspective of rabbit psychology and physiology, thus bringing us closer to understanding their ecology. However, Adams also subtly likens the similarity of our race for survival, with the rabbits’. In the end, all of God’s creations act and work on the same core instincts, hanging on to their own illusions and perceptions of the Universe and everything that is beyond their control.

Watership Down is quite worthy of its fame, although it might appeal better to young readers. And finally - Did the book make me cringe with guilt for shooing off the rabbits in our yard? Most definitely yes.