Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reflections: Under the Lilacs

Bab and Betty are busy setting up a doll-party under the shade of the lilacs. Their mom even prepared a yummy cake for the party. But little did the girls know what a pleasant surprise was awaiting them and a new set of friends they were going to win at the end of the party. They meet an adorable poodle quite dexterous in the multiple impressive feats he could perform, and Ben his master. Ben is a lost young boy, who ran away from the circus to escape his mean old boss, Mr. Smithers. Moved by the boy’s state Mrs. Moss (the girl’s mom) takes him in and helps him find a job. Having lived in the circus, Ben knows his way around animals, and possesses the expert skill of intuitively understanding them. Soon, the lovely Miss. Celia engages him under her employment to take care of her horse and give company to her pompous brother. The young children form a wonderful bond of friendship as they help each other out of scrapes and help Ben make a home in their quaint town.

It goes without saying that a children’s book by Louisa May Alcott has to be endearing. The characters and their little adventures evoke wonderful childhood emotions. Wrapped in the story, children can find many a little lesson on friendship, trust, kindness and humanness. It is a world painted with innocence and purity that one would wistfully wish all grown-ups in the real world would be as sensible and kind as in the story. It’s almost a mini-utopia. Stories set almost a century back show the value of a close-knit community, and the symbiotic relationship that prevailed among the people. Everyone knew each other, and were almost one big dependable family. Of course, the skeptical part of me was on the verge of being tired of the over-the-top sweetness of the story, but in the end, my love for such warm and cozy tales won over.

The writing is beautiful - any adult can read this book just for the good writing, even if they don’t care much for a children’s story. This is yet another book that young children (or young adults) would delight in reading.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reflections: Design Meets Disability

This is one of the most enjoyable, out-of-the-box, unique books I’ve read for my academics. I couldn’t wait to share my thoughts on it, and yet, when the moment has arrived, I find myself at a loss for the right words and sentences to describe and do justice to this book! Anyone with a passing interest in design, engineering, interaction design, disability, art or even fashion would benefit from reading this book, or at least parts of it. It puts a completely different perspective into you, that you will start finding innovative approaches to intermingling disciplines that you thought should never ever be put together! I mean, engineering plus fashion?! Art plus disability?! Of course, the underlying thread here is that the reader should be able to empathize with (if not be impassioned about) helping to remove the stigma associated with the physically (and cognitively) challenged people in our society.

To start with, our notions of what constitutes as disability is very skewed. The World Health Organization has put forth that people cannot be categorically segmented into disabled and “abled”. Disability is a continuum like most variables and factors in our life. And almost all of us have varying levels of disability - in terms of our vision, hearing, and other bodily functions. We have our own medications and aids to resort to, our own difficulties and nagging complaints.

Put in such a light, it seems unfair that a person who has lost one limb, should be segregated from the rest with a stringent stamp of disability - right from the clothes they can wear, to the prosthesis they are given, with the attitude - “make the best use of what is given to you, and don’t expect more, for your condition cannot be ameliorated”. We don’t see that kind of culture prevailing in clinics and “shops” that give us a plethora of options to select the design, the color, the look and feel of the frames for our spectacles (now called as eye-wear), when wearing corrective lenses is one form of an augmentation similar to prostheses? I remember years before when wearing glasses to correct one’s vision was a stigma by itself!! Back in the day, the stigma was only further perpetuated through the glasses people had to wear. Glasses were only available in gargantuan, awkward square-shaped, thick black frames that hid half the face. The psychological scarring from this cannot be trivialized! Many women had to even compromise on who they could marry because of this stigma. Slowly, the infusion of a little bit of fashion, art and thoughtful design have resulted in sleeker frames, that complement people’s faces! Some people still choose to wear glasses over wearing contact-lenses. The point in case is that - people have options and have choices, respecting their preferences, and allowing them to express themselves. Eye-wear has become almost a fashion accessory. This has completely erased the stigma, the wearer’s lack of confidence, and the cultural and social issues surrounding it. It doesn’t seem ludicrous to aim for such a change in the culture of design of hearing aids, wheel-chairs, communication aids, speech-synthesizers, crutches and prosthesis, does it?

Medical and rehabilitation engineers often fail to factor in the cultural and social implications of giving people prostheses that are rigidly functional, but not aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, there is no choice in what they get. Engineers are prone to say - Why on earth should a prosthetic limb be aesthetic? Isn’t it a waste of time? Wrong. This dismissal that everything related to aesthetics, and look and feel is just too superfluous and cosmetic, is a very narrow perspective. It might help if we stretched our boundaries and considered aesthetics, design and fashion with a tolerant attitude. It’s not always shallow - our body is essential in defining our identity. What we wear and how we present ourselves, is a projection of our self-expression and identity. Besides, it is highly emotional. This thought might be derided by spiritualists and philosophers, but if you are a realist, you would realize the psychological necessities for being comfortable in your body and in what you choose to wear. In our perfectionist society, I agree that an obsession with the perfect body and looks, seeps into materialism and consumerism, and is definitely not healthy. But, there are limits to the austerity that we can advocate. People with physical challenges already face an immense psychological trauma of grappling with the changes in their life - if their challenges are exacerbated through “assisitive” augmentations that just widen the gulf between them and their social and cultural identities, it is extremely emotionally damaging. As one designer put it - if we can invest research and time into designing so many variants and flavors of toothpaste and toothbrushes to please a wide audience, shouldn’t we attempt to provide at least half as many choices in the design of assistive products that directly impact lives?

Graham Pullin powerfully makes the case for considering the social and cultural aspects of disability, rather than stereotyping and homogenizing an entire population’s “needs”. Designers and engineers must acknowledge that there is bound to be a diversity of needs and preferences. And the part of the book that I liked the best was Pullin’s suggestion to designers to look for commonality of needs across people. Regardless of whether one has hearing aids, wears glasses, or wears a prosthetic leg, there are bound to be some needs that overlap across the boundaries. Tap on these “resonant needs” to design products that are both accessible, aesthetic and functional to the majority of the population - so there is no label that Watch X is worn by the visually impaired versus Watch Y is worn by the hearing impaired etc... This is the sort of concept behind “Universal Design”, but Pullin takes it up by a notch through his examples that adopt a minimalistic and aesthetic approach, instead of trying to clutter the product with features and functionality  to accommodate a wide group of people. As Google and Apple have demonstrated - good design is simplicity personified in elegance and functionality. The design examples in the book are awe-inspiring (at least to someone from within the field!), and really broadens our thinking horizons.

Pullin encourages an inter-disciplinary approach towards designing products, technology and assistive devices for the physically and cognitively challenged. Engineers are rigorously trained to view everything as a problem that needs to be solved. The human elements are often lost in the solutions. Sometimes what is required is not a solution - but merely a different perspective, attuning oneself to a novel idea. Why not playfully explore solutions, or seek to redesign with the attitude of that of an eccentric fashion-designer or a furniture designer who think beyond norms to innovate a skirt or a chair? Put engineers, designers and people from fashion and art together in the same room - wouldn’t the outcomes be phenomenally creative, functional and aesthetic? Each discipline has something valuable to learn from the other and contribute to each others' way of thinking. While it might seem impossible to work together, the common cause should carry enough momentum to deliver sensitive, elegant and intelligent designs.

The book teems with inspirational design ideas that put a spin on one’s imagination and creativity. True to Pullin’s repeated assertion - his ideas really do make design for disability turn on its head. A brilliant read.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reflections: The Power of Darkness

The Power of Darkness is one of Tolstoy’s plays. As the name suggests, the plot deals with the complete moral disintegration of a Russian man, his lover and his mother. The play was instantly banned in Russia when it was fist published. And even to this day, some scenes are enacted slightly differently to attempt to shield audiences from its morbidity.

Nikita is a philanderer, infamous for the number of maidens he has despoiled. He engages in a stint of romance with a rich farm-owner’s wife, starting a string of misdeeds. The farmer’s wife is infatuated with Nikita, and bemoans her miserable life with the grumpy old farmer. Along with Nikita’s mom as accomplice, she poisons her husband and weds Nikita, who turns into a wealthy farm owner. When life should have been blissful after the sin of murder, it sadly does not. Nikita can’t stop his old habits, and he indulges in drinking, debauchery and indolence. As his mother and wife try to erase and cover up his sins by committing even more atrocious sins, Nikita’s conscience eventually awakens and he struggles to redeem what is left of his life.

The play is definitely disturbing as it illuminates the extents of moral degeneration mankind is capable of, to achieve petty selfish gains. I am sure such a theme would have appalled the Victorian society. It’s a surprise this play has sustained stiff criticism and opposition to be available in print today. However, most classic books of that era dealt with such drastic themes exploring the flip side of morality and virtuous living. They all seem to show that despite being pushed to the limits of darkness and being steeped in vices, something in us will cry out after a certain point. That voice inside of us can be attributed to our conscience, basic humanity (the "voice" of God), etc, but it acts as a safety net to guard us against total moral/ethical dystrophy, or at the very least from losing our humanity.

It’s therefore a “silver-lining” that the play ends on a note that shows hope for humanity, even if we are to fall prey to our darker instincts.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reflections: The Sea Fairies

Just as any little girl would be, Trot is immensely curious of mermaids. Her friend, the old Captain Bill, insists that mermaids are dangerously beautiful creatures who pull land-mortals deep into the ocean, with no hope of escape. No one who sees a mermaid, lives to tell the tale, he says. But the young girl isn’t convinced. She’s quite positive that lovely creatures like mermaids are incapable of any harm. She ardently wishes to see a mermaid and learn more about them. And lo! her wish comes true (much to the old Captain’s chagrin)! A couple of exquisitely beautiful mermaids grace a visit as the Captain and Trot are out boating. They invite the little girl to their magic palace under the deep sea to learn more about them and their ways of life. Using their magic, both Trot and the Captain are given elegant “fish-tails” to swim! Trot plunges into the deep sea to go through a magical adventure, where she learns about the mermaids, the sea creatures, and even braves a nasty encounter with Zog, the evil sea monster.

How I sorely wish I were Trot! Frank Baum is a popular children’s fantasy writer, most famous for his Oz series of books. Who doesn’t love the Oz series?! Combine such a well acclaimed writer, and a story about mermaids and adventure under the sea, and viola comes out a book whipped just for me :).

Baum crafts an endearing fantasy tale. There is magic, fantasy and adventure, with a liberal education on the habitats and behaviors of different creatures under the sea. It’s an adorable book for little girls like me (well I am one in spirit, of course!)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reflections: The Lost Prince

Stefan Loristan, his young son Marco Loristan, and their faithful assistant Lazarus live in the most poverty-ridden part of London. They have a secret mission of their own - they hail from Samavia (a fictional European country), and are planning to bring about a revolution to overthrow the existing dictatorial regime in their country and bring in the rightful heir to the throne. A few decades back, the noble prince of Samavia had been usurped. There were mixed stories about how the prince survived the cruel mutiny. If that were true, the benevolent prince must surely have tried to get his Kingdom back, or at least would have passed on his burning desire to his sons. Marco is optimistic that the lost Prince’s bloodline can be traced, and he is passionate about restoring Samavia to its rightful heir. Along with his street friend, The Rat, Marco embarks on an adventure across Europe to pass on the sign to all the secret members of the confederation, to set out a revolution.

This book is packed with beautiful themes on patriotism, friendship, resilience and righteousness. Marco’s good upbringing makes him wise, while still retaining his precociousness and innocence. Burnett yet again shows the power of the human mind. In this book, she brings in Buddhist philosophies, such as embracing the universe and all its creatures as one, deep meditation to distill your mind and seek out what you want, the power of prayers, peace, etc. to demonstrate Marco’s strength and maturity. Such elusive philosophies are broken down and shown in simple contexts to inspire young boys.

The little adventure, and the suspense of finding the Lost Prince will keep children engaged. But it unfortunately wasn’t enough to maintain my attention. I found the pace of the book a little slow and repetitive, and I struggled to stay focused. Perhaps this is a good enough hint that I have sadly grown up and should stop my current stint of indulgence. However, this is one of the first children’s book that I’ve read that deals with patriotism, and the attributes of being a noble and courageous leader. These aspects have been beautifully conveyed.

This book as a whole has excellent morals to mold young minds.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reflections: The Scarlet Letter

Hester Pryne is accused of infidelity, which was considered an egregious sin among puritans who lived in New England in the late 19th century. Hester’s sin is just short of murder, or selling one’s soul to the evil and turning into a witch. She is sentenced to prison for a short-time, where she gives birth to her daughter - the baby crowns the glaring symbol of her misstep. The town and the chief priest decide to painfully reinforce the consequences of her sin to the public, to teach a lesson on morality. She is made to take a public stand with her baby and is condemned to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her chest for the rest of her life, to bear a constant symbol of reminder of her shame, her sin and her punishment. Despite her humiliation and cruel social-isolation and repugnance, Hester doesn’t reveal the name of the man who sinned with her, nor do the people of the town know who her husband is. As Hester bravely lives her life, trying to put away her sorrow and hurt, the men torment themselves - the husband hungry for revenge and the lover suffering with guilt. Hawthorne’s story discusses the prejudiced definition of “sin”, the different depths of morality, and the power of human conscience, while sensitively bringing out one woman’s resilience and agony.

This story and its themes are quite Crime and Punishment-esque, especially in the context of the slow and torturous ways in which the lover gets haunted and plagued with guilt. By following the lives of the condemned and the aggrieved, books such as these, offer a detailed and honest discussion of whether the original act can really be called a sin. And if the act were really a mistake, is the punishment justified in its severity? Is one single act enough to nullify all the other thousands of virtuous deeds and a righteous life led? In cases of infidelity, the lines are not quite clear as to who the victim and sinner are, and it was especially true in a cloistered era when individual feelings were brushed aside to doggedly conform to standards of societal-acceptance. All of these questions coalesce to get to the roots of the definition of morality itself.

Such stories also bring to light the dangers of a blind-folded view towards morality, right and wrong. Devoid of empathy, understanding and a basic touch of humanity, any framework of religion or morality is meaningless to the humankind. They don’t achieve their purpose of reformation - they only deepen the scars and extinguish the human spirit. Open-mindedness, rational thought and humane feelings need to be used as combined tools to assess a situation and think about reformation. In most cases, the “sinner” is usually the one with an unsoiled spirit and mind, and it’s the other officious judges of sins who lack integrity and purity of spirit.
Such books discuss my favorite themes on morality and I find that my views remain the same no matter how many different authors explore the topic. This book definitely deserves its stature as a literary classic.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Precious Preserves

It always happens every once in a while when we get immensely touched by a stranger or a casual acquaintance that we come across in an environment of necessity and chance. Their acts would themselves be simple, sometimes merely a call of duty, yet they would have emanated something profoundly humane and refreshing that makes you want to reach out and capture  those pristine moments that paint the world in beautiful colors, and present mankind in such an uplifting picture. These moments can’t be made to linger - they are far too evanescent and are perhaps made to shine only due to our lens intensely concentrating on the focal point of purity and goodness, magnifying its light in manifolds and drenching us for those few moments. We walk away holding onto these moments that sometimes could nearly veer our lives to a different lane.

Every time I slump down at humanity’s bitter and selfish charades, I force myself to remember these moments - a genuine smile and concern from a person who hardly knows you, a twinkling chuckle of good humor and optimism from a person who faces a tough battle against his body, a heartfelt note of gratitude and kindness from someone you considered grumpy and ill-tempered, flowers from someone you paid least attention to, an eager hand of help extended by those who need not have, the countless lovely and serendipitous gestures of affection and friendship from faceless people, and all the other hundreds of little bubbles of genuine benevolence floating around the spaces of memory and slowly dissipating as they wane with time.

How I wish I could bottle them all as a magic potion, a temporary panacea, all these dozens of tiny spangles of pixie-dust, harnessed to be blown out into the world and infect people with their warmth, or to be used as a roll-on analgesic to recharge oneself in its brief spells of solace. If only my memory could preserve them in such air proof containers. And if only I knew the spell to cast them like a charm whenever I wished...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reflections: The Land of the Blue Flower

I think I’m going to start sounding like an old broken record when I write about children’s classics. But I can’t help marveling at these authors and wish so dearly to go back in time and relive my childhood days with books such as these teaching me wonderful little principles of leading my life in such simple and enchanting ways.

King Amor’s father was a selfish and greedy ruler of his beautiful land. His foul temperament reflected on his people too, for a shaky, ruthless governance leads to conflicts within locals. When Amor was born, his father got killed in a battle, and  his mother, the Queen didn’t wish her son to grow up in a place filled with hatred and vengeance. She handed him over to a wise old man who lived in the nearby mountains. She asked him to raise him well and bring him to his rightful throne when he was old enough to be King. The old man took the child to a serene palace up on the mountains, and taught the child how to commune with Nature, and to regard every animal and plant as his own kin. The child was infused only with good and positive thoughts and energy, that he never experienced any negative emotion such as hatred, anger or pain. When Amor grew up, he was as peaceful and wise as the old man himself. The tale is all about how this young prince goes to his kingdom and reforms his land and people - using his refreshingly positive attitude and clean and peaceful spirit.

If you’ve read Burnett’s The Secret Garden, you must be familiar with the themes she teaches kids. This tale has the same themes, but is conveyed through a slightly different story. She warns kids against harboring negative thoughts, gently showing that negativity only depletes our energy and prevents us from doing anything constructive. If we focus on creating something beautiful, and put our heart and energy into it with an open and positive spirit, we can create magic.

Burnett loves gardening and growing flowers (my kindred spirit!). So she uses the same example to show us the world of good that can come out of going out in the Sun and interacting with Nature. If we truly appreciated Nature and lived one with it, Nature and her children will reciprocate our kindness. And the best way to reform people is through kindness and compassion. 

Can a children’s book that covers themes on peace, the importance of respecting Nature and our environment, the power of positivity and the human will, and the futility and risk of negative thoughts, get any better? Plus, it’s all spiced up in a cute fantasy story that flows with Burnett’s wonderful prose. Children should not miss this book.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Reflections: The Stolen White Elephant

This story is my formal introduction to Mark Twain - I may have read some random short stories while growing up, but I haven’t registered any of them to form impressions. This “book” is more like a short-story, but one with a lot of punch. The narrator encounters an Indian man on a train journey. The Indian shares a very weird and interesting story of his involving the missing case of a white elephant from Siam.

To placate the English monarchs, the King of Siam gifts a unique and magnificent white elephant, born and bred in Siam, to exclusively serve the royals. The Indian was in the civil services serving the Indian government which at that time was part of the British rule. He was assigned to hand over the elephant to the Queen of London. On their way to London en-route the US, the elephant gets stolen in New Jersey, despite the heavy security and the apparent conspicuousness of it being a giant white elephant.

The story is a satire of the police force and its band of detectives as they scurry around trying to recover the elephant. Portions of the book are hilarious and make you chuckle, while other portions are full of dark humor reflecting the inefficiency and cunning under-hand strategies of the police department. I had to snicker here - if Twain could poke fun and ridicule at the seemingly efficient and vigilant police force in the US, it’s sad to think of the mockery that the Indian police force receives everyday.

It was an interesting and short read, delivering sharp sarcasm and wit. The plot is also delivered through a series of news paper headlines and the detectives snippets of telegrams, making the structure of the writing quite novel and interesting.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Reflections: The Velveteen Rabbit

I clearly alternate between pacifying the child in me and the nagging “adult” in me. The grown-up me disapproves of my affinity towards fantasy and the innocence of childhood. She tries to slap me hard to wake up and be alert to reality, and stop slipping into an escapist world. But  the voice of “reason” in me (boy, I have so many voices and people in me!) sagely argues that I deserve some reprieve every now and then - for every ten spoons of the reality medicine, I’m allowed one sip of the fantasy elixir. It recharges me completely and sends in a volley of optimism to course through my veins and neurons. So, after such monologues I read this adorable book which I’d been wanting to read for years now, but was censured by you know who.

The velveteen rabbit is a toy stuffed with sawdust, and with black beads to mark its eyes. It wonders whether toys are real, and if they will ever become as real as the Real people outside the nursery. A wise old horse says it rests on how much the child loves a toy. The more the child loves his toy, the more shabby it becomes with playing and cuddling, the more real it becomes. The adorable little book tells the story of the velveteen rabbit’s encounter with the magic of love.

I’ve made a decision after reading this book. This will be the first story that I will tell my child, and the first book that I will gift. To most, this might sound silly after reading the book. There isn’t anything so profound in this that a child absolutely should learn. It’s all fantasy and cute, but really nothing educative. I quip, “So what?”. It teaches a child how to treat his/her toys. It helps them associate some value to them, rather than take them for granted as their replaceable treats. It also teaches them about the magic of love and genuine affection.

When I was growing up as an only (introverted, shy) specimen, toys and dolls were my world of comfort and companionship. I truly believed they were real. I treated them with such care, assumed they were capable of feeling pain and hurt, and winced and threw a fit if someone lifted them upside down or yanked them by dragging their ears. For some reason, I believe all of those silly sentiments did help me foster feelings such as compassion and affection, even if I didn’t interact enough with the outside world.

Theories on Play Therapy demonstrate the significance of play-time. The kinds of interactions a child has with his/her toys speak volumes about their inner growth. Children learn subtle values and lessons, they bond, release their stress and find solace in the nature of their play things. And stories such as this (and movies such as Toy Story), however romantic and fantastical they maybe, still carry endearing messages to children - even if it’s just to smear a bit more innocence on them. And I think kids these days really need to be made to retain their innocence a bit longer!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Reflections: Siddhartha

Siddhartha is a classic book that needs little introduction. This book has been recommended to me countless times, but I got around to reading it only now. Siddhartha is a young precocious Brahmin, astute in his knowledge of the vedic scriptures. He is deeply driven by the spiritual quest to comprehend the Atman - the soul and the definition of Life that exists in every species and unites them all in the causal sphere of the Cosmos. He hence leaves home to be trained by the Samanas, the ascetics who wander in the forests trying to conquer their minds and their Self through rigorous meditative techniques. But his sharp intellect still doesn’t derive any answers. He encounters Buddha, but he argues against the idea of following a set of teachings to reach the path of enlightenment, and so he sets out on his own journey led by his inner voice. He sinks himself in the material world (Samsara), allows his senses to take control over his body, experiences a rich array of emotions, and finally realizes for himself the design of all living species, and the answers to his questions.

I’m sure each person who reads this book will have something different to take away from it. To me, the book was a beautiful synthesis of the Eastern and Western philosophical ideals. The eastern philosophy preaches that one should suppress their sensory indulgences (for they are transitory experiences, often leading to discontentment) and focus on refining their intellect and gaining mastery over their minds. It prescribes detachment from materialistic pleasures to realize the Self - the Atman. To me, this has always sounded a bit extreme. I could never understand how the intellect could develop holistically, completely devoid of our senses. I understand that over-indulgence in our sensory experiences is shallow, but our senses do contribute to the growth of our intellect. I think this aspect is brought out well by Hesse. If someone who has never tasted or experienced the feeling of sweetness is stipulated against eating anything sweet because too much sweetness results in cloying nausea and bad teeth, the person’s limited experience and knowledge of sweetness bars his mind from understanding the complete meaning behind satiation or feeling repulsed. And it’s unrealistic for a teacher to translate the experience of sweetness or feeling cloyed through words and preachings. This is especially  true for something as abstract as spiritual awareness and realization, which are exceptionally hard to convey through words. It is for us to experience. The western ideology lets us wander, choose our experiences, and then judge for ourselves through our mistakes and lessons. The lessons learned, the “awakening” of wisdom then is much higher, profound and complete. Buddha himself was born in materialistic luxury and having indulged in them and realizing the shallowness and illusion of it all, he relinquished his ties to the material world with a deeper consciousness and awareness.

Our journey and different experiences help us grow. Most of the time, our focus is too narrowed in on the goal itself, that we miss experiencing the journey. The more value we derive out of the journey, the more we benefit. As an ascetic, Siddhartha was looking at the world and his questions through a narrow peep-hole, heavily constrained and tightened by his austere teachings. When he learned to see the world as is, without any filter, he appreciated it more and grew.

Another concept that Hesse brings out is the totality and constancy of everything around us. Just as how the concept of temperature cannot exist without the two extremes - hot and cold, good and bad, sorrow and pleasure, joy and pain exist with one another. Our universe is tightly coupled because of opposite polarities. It makes everything complete and unified.

Finally, I liked how he brings in the theory that we are all bundles of energy that neither get created nor destroyed but only get constantly transformed from one form to another. The whole universe exists due to this delicate chain of energy transfer. We are all then part of the whole. Self-realization should lead to this all encompassing feeling of unison with the world.

As with most books on spirituality, this has to be reread over the course of our life’s varied phases and experiences to extract our own nuggets of wisdom. I should add that the writing is simple and precise, making it conducive to ingest and mull on the heavy themes.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reflections: Testimony

Mike is the headmaster of the prestigious private school, Avery Academy, nestled in the beautiful state of Vermont. One evening, he receives a tape from his secretary and is grimly asked to view its contents. The tape turns out to be his worst nightmare as he sees three senior boys engaging in sexual activities with an underage girl. All four are from his school, with two of the boys being the cream of their graduating class and in Mike’s high regards. In Vermont, sex with a minor qualifies as sexual assault, a serious crime that would wipe out the boys’ futures. Even as Mike tries to contain the damage to within the school’s premises, and somehow salvage the school’s reputation and mitigate the boys’ punishment, the Internet is flooded with the video stream, leaving him little time to think and react. That evening, and that tape brings about an avalanche of irrecoverable havoc, ripping out people’s lives and dreams. Anita Shreve writes an emotionally powerful story that vividly captures the perspectives of all the different people involved in the scandal, and begs the question of the place and spirit of ethics in this whole episode.

I loved the depth and breadth of Shreve’ thorough and intense exploration of how one event - one impulsive event can cause a tornado of consequences and alter people’s lives forever. I often ponder on how fragile life is in the face of such little events. There are super-powers who coldly calculate people’s lives as pawns in their manipulative strategies to amass power and wealth and get by the scrutiny of laws and ethics. Such people thrive, and here were four teenagers who succumbed to their hormones and lost themselves for an hour of their lives, and yet, the law books are so stringent in their definitions of right and wrong, that the spirit of ethics gets grossly misplaced. All parties on the tape were partaking in consensual sex. While I’m not encouraging and looking past the consequences of teenage sex, especially with underage, vulnerable girls, I don’t advocate a punishment so severe that it obliterates people’s lives, leaving little room for holistic reformation. The trauma of the punishment outweighs the lesson learned, and it only worsens the problem. And the really gut-wrenching part is - it is the boys, the men who pay the price for the rest of their lives as this black-mark tags along with them. The final consequences of this episode were far more unethical and undeserved than the theoretical structures of the ethics behind why the act was wrong and censured.

The book is organized through the voices of the individuals caught in the scandal. No person meant to cause the catastrophe, yet each had their own private issues (who doesn’t?) and small events added up and magnified into a monster during that particular evening. And thanks to the scavenging media, everything was blown out of proportion, malignantly twisted and crumpled. Shreve’s ability to accurately get to the root of the psychological bent of mind of the characters, and to realistically portray their deepest thoughts and emotions is laudable. This story encompasses more than just the nature of teenage rebellion. It subtly teases out the questions of who are the real victims, who are the perpetrators, which event was the catalyst, and who mishandled the whole episode. In a tangled imbroglio like this, there are no concrete answers, yet, the mind can’t be mollified without tormenting itself for answers, and looping itself on the what-if questions. The tentacles of the fateful circumstance gripped so many more people than just the ones who committed the act, and deformed their lives in so many ways.

Despite the weight of the subject, the story is not depressing. It is thought provoking and ends on an optimistic note. It makes us the see the bigger picture in any dire scenario, and urges us to be humane at the right places, and at the right time. Without empathy, compassion and forgiveness, we can never hope to reform troubled individuals, and this statement comes out strong. Ethics and Laws are merely made of words that came out of our heads. Focusing on the technicality and linguistic nature of those sentences and missing the essence of the thoughts and concepts, is a crime in itself.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Reflections: The Introvert Advantage

I hail from a family of introverts. It’s quite normal and acceptable for us to live under the same roof and exchange only two sentences every eight hours and be perfectly content. We bond over silences while engaging in activities that do not involve the other person directly, but still warm up in our shared solitude. We prefer writing to talking, and can articulate ourselves much better through the pen. When we do talk, conversations last for hours. When we do open up, we bare out our heart, mind, and soul.

I was molded as an anti-extrovert, and then was let loose into a world of extroverts. When I fumbled and grieved, I was immediately asked to change, to revamp my whole temperament and learn to get under the spotlight, to self-promote, and push the envelope. This process of burying my true self was harrowing. I’d decided that I didn’t have enough in me to survive in this world where flamboyance is rewarded in every walk of life. Authenticity is ignored - if I don’t know how to grease the squeaky wheels, I suffer, and am misunderstood. In this exhausted and frustrated state I came across this book. A peek into the preface almost brought me to tears (as sappy as it sounds). I felt such a strong kinship with the author, that regardless of any other reason, I had to read this book written by a person who mirrored me.

It’s a classic extrovert joke that an introvert has to read a book on introversion to learn about herself better, to get comfortable in her own skin, and extend her temperament to its fullest potential. But well, going past it, the book sheds plenty of light on the physiological reasons behind introversion and extroversion, and provides practical suggestions on improving yourself, and your personal and professional relationships. Most of us grew up with a negative connotation associated with the term introversion. People diagnosed with it are urged to change and get out of their shells. From a practical stand point it makes complete sense. But one can't operationalize such a change just by “trying harder”.

Dr. Laney brings out the fundamental difference between the two temperaments in terms of how they derive their energy or “dopamine hits”. Introverts draw energy from within themselves, while extroverts derive their energy from outside them - by being around other people, the constant hustle and bustle of activities, and the outdoors. Research has shown that extroverts are born with a long D4DR gene (named as the “novelty-seeking” gene) and are less sensitive to dopamine, due to which they need to stimulate their energy levels by often engaging in activities that titillate their senses (neuro-transmitters). On the other end of the spectrum, introverts are born with a short D4DR gene and are highly sensitive to dopamine, easily leading to over-stimulation and information overload. Quite literally, we are wired differently. Our neurotransmitters are different, the neural pathway in our brains that process information is different, and our metabolism is different. Clearly, there’s no debate on which temperament is better - both just tap into different resources, creating individuals who are unique in some ways. This revelation was such a huge relief to me.

I have exhibited all the tell-tale signs of introversion - every time my brain blanks out, leaving me incapable of clever repartee or action, and I stand (virtually) like a petrified deer shocked by the glare of the oncoming head-lights, knowing very well that I’m going to be run over, but remain helplessly frozen, I feel immensely disappointed with myself, wondering why I’m such a dim-witted misfit. But when I realize that my thoughts go through a circuitous route through my brain, making processing time inevitably serial and time-consuming, I breathe. Since my thoughts take a hike on such a convoluted and deep trail, the outcome is (supposedly) more thorough and deep. This also translates to - faster rate of energy expenditure (combined with the increased rate of metabolism). We tire out soon, and our motivation to interact with people who don’t matter, and to put on a superficial exterior wears out thin. A weekend full of meaningless socializing is a nightmare. But we aren’t misanthropes. We do like people, want to be around them and socialize, and will even dedicate our life’s purpose to do human-centric research. But the effort expended to remain lively and bubbly all the time, outweighs the warmth. The book discusses how you can be yourself and still maintain a balance of extroverted activities along with the much coveted alone time with yourself. We sourly need that solitude to recharge ourselves.  

Another eye-opening point the book brings out is, being shy and inhibited is not the same as being introverted. Extroverts can be shy, and introverts can be uninhibited. Inhibition is an acquired personality trait, precipitated by fear of rejection, embarrassment, failure etc. While it’s possible to work on overcoming such fears, Dr. Laney argues that the core temperament itself cannot be changed. You simply work with who you are, accepting, acknowledging and taking “bite-sized” steps towards achieving what you want, despite who you are. It boils down to a blend of determination, and the open-mindedness to leave your comfort-zone at times, to achieve your ambitions. I really appreciated such a line of recommendation. It is empathetic and practical. The suggestions don’t push you over the edge; Dr. Laney insists that you pace yourself and set limits on how far, and how often you can stretch your limits.

I like plenty of whimsy in my life. I have a soft toy of a snail hanging from my car’s rear-view mirror, to both remind myself and the guy behind me, that I am unfortunately a slow-crawler with sub-par motor-coordination skills. Ever since that acknowledgment, I see that I forgive myself easier, and can shush that over-critical high-pitched voice in my head that puts me down. I substitute it with the image of a dorky snail and try to laugh about it. And this is the same remedy that Dr. Laney recommends to introverts nagged constantly by their inner voice.  

Enfolded in such humor, empathy and practicality, the book is sure to help both extroverts and introverts better understand themselves and cope with each other.