Friday, November 11, 2011

From "Good" to "Best"

This is not much of an “eye-opening” post. All of us are aware of the thoughts I’ve put down, but still, this is one of those times when I have been able to relate to these aspects in a compelling, overwhelming manner. And I wish to record them.

I’m comparing myself, and my little bubble of upbringing, schooling, and life in the context of this post. My examples are from my personal experiences.

I’ve realized (quite strongly) that the “secret” to exceptional performance, success, growth, and innovation are:
  1. Never ever settle for “good enough”. The bar is realistically set at the very highest point. To do so, one needs to have an excellent (and objective) grasp on one’s abilities, and that of the team. If planned correctly, and if every-one's skills are utilized to the best, the goal is realizable. And it stays realizable.
  1. Innovation and exceptional performance has little to do with competition, and more to do with the inner-drive to deliver the best service/product for oneself (Hello again, Ayn Rand!). I’ve realized that it has more to do with treating ourselves as the consumer/audience, and creating experiences/end-products that we would genuinely appreciate. I know this was Steve Job’s motto as well, but only recently did I fully relate to this. From where I come from, there is a demarcation made between what “we” get and what “others” get. If we are not direct consumers of something, we compromise and settle on it (Example: even thank-you gifts handed to wedding attendees). The worst part is that people willingly, voluntarily put in their least efforts in instances like this, thereby bringing down the overall quality of an event or product. It’s not about money or the monetary worth of such things - no one expects a gold statue, but it’s about the thought that goes into the usability and quality. A $1 nice-looking, usable gift is more valuable than a $10 crude, unusable, ugly gift, thrown at you for the sake of it.
  1. Following the previous point, the devil lies in the details. I used to be extremely annoyed and skeptical about this, but yes, the details are reflections of effort, thought, and dedication. Perfection drives everyone crazy, but attending to relevant details that play into the big picture of the overall experience is incredibly important. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer to understand which details are important, and which ones are unnecessary hair-splitting ventures. Another example from my upbringing - (not sure why I’m using wedding examples; perhaps because I just came out of an event planning experience). Parents and wedding caterers spend enormous amounts of money on different kinds of exotic food. But the tables (and chairs) that are put out even in well-trimmed, pricey lawns get very little attention, when they are extremely important for a satisfying dining experience. Expensive silk may get caught in unsightly splinters, kids would not be able to reach their food or injure themselves on rusty screws, the serving plastic cups will be of inferior quality, resulting in leaks etc. It’s sometimes not even a matter of money to correct these little things, but the focus is never on them, and people settle. We assume that others can “adjust”, although the solutions are quite simple and cost-effective. That’s why, on a bigger scale, even inter-state highways have appalling sights such as overflowing trash, mail-boxes never close, gate hinges always give away, the seats on air-conditioned buses rattle, the packaging on expensive medications are either hard to open, or half-open etc. These little things do add up in creating a negative, frustrating experience. There is a simple Tamil expression that goes - Whatever you do, do it well. Even if you’re serving only one simple dish, cook it well and serve it well. Dedicate your time and attention to it. Sloppiness is even more aggravating, glaring, and impossible to tolerate if it’s capped on an expensive product/service.
  1. Nothing is totally impossible. There is always a solution, if we decide to take the extra mile. This is how innovation is born. From where I come from, change is unpleasant. People are more comfortable doing things the same old way than attempting them differently. Fine, tradition is a murky topic to explore. But, what I find unacceptable is that people choose to do things in a lackluster manner to simply avoid more work! If something requires a little more work, more effort, more thought, we are ready to fall back on what is nearest and most available and easy. Our cost-benefit analysis is often skewed - we underestimate the benefits, and overestimate the costs. As my father keeps ranting, the expression that we seem to hear the most is, “No, it cannot be done”, rather than, “Yes, we will try.”
Maybe all of this is just a reflection of different management styles? Perhaps. But a huge part of it is attributed to the individual’s drive and motivation to do their best. And I hope everyone, including me, tries to adhere to these values.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections: Les Miserables

After serving his time in prison for stealing bread, Jean Valjean steps out in anticipation of freedom and a new life, but what he is met with is repugnance, hatred and prejudice in 19th century France. Thanks to Providence, with a touch of kindness and a determined steely will he rises up in life, but only to be hounded by the beast of justice that steadfastly remains blinded to the purity of his conscience. Amid haranguing circumstances, Jean Valjean continues to orient the purpose of his life to serving those in need, and in remaining immaculately clean in spirit. He leads his entire life being morally and spiritually pure. Les Miserables is a moving, immortal classic that explores deep social and philosophical questions on our existence.

Although I’ve read only two books of Victor Hugo’s so far, he is one author whose prose is so emotionally intense and powerful, it affects me deeply. There is so much wisdom, insight, truth, beauty, and simplicity to his writing. His use of metaphors is astounding. Every sentence is loaded with them in unimaginably articulate ways. As if to prove the point, I randomly opened a page from this 600-paged book, glanced at a paragraph and reread this:
“It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts.”

In a nutshell, it describes one of the themes of the book. Society drives misery to breed and mutate with man-made rules that are often divorced from humanity or compassion. How does one escape the vicious cycle of poverty and misery if there is no way to break out of it? How is morality serving its purpose if it only results in the oppression of the already downtrodden and abused section?

The themes intersect with my most favorite and insistent thoughts on morality. Hugo brilliantly addresses the philosophy of morality (and justice) through the moral dilemmas that Jean Valjean struggles to resolve. Almost always, the question of what is good is murky. There are no clear, straight answers. The deed alone doesn’t explain the answer. The intention and consequences complete the picture. One needs a higher faculty of thought and emotion to truly comprehend good from wrong. And sometimes, one requires a deeper realization to understand when and whom to forgive. Hugo convincingly stresses on the immense power of mercy, empathy, and compassion.

Similar to books of those times (such as Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov), the human conscience is treated as the voice of God, or higher awakening. When words, thoughts, and rationality fail to provide us with answers, the conscience does.

I relished every bit of the book. I could read Victor Hugo’s words a million times and emerge with a new insight every single time. The only part of the book that detracted my interest was the description of the internal rebellion in Paris. But through the civil war, Hugo indicates both internal and external awakening of a change, of a reformation, of a struggle for equality, and of a perception of higher truths.

It’s a beautiful and powerful book that both satisfies the idealistic and pragmatic viewpoints on morality.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reflections: The Broken Wings

The book is Gibran’s novella on a sad and tragic story of unrealized love. Selma is a wealthy, kind, wise, and beautiful woman in Lebanon. Her dad is as benevolent and humble despite his wealth. Selma and the protagonist fall in love but are forced to go different ways due to the archaic rules that society and religion impose.

I originally assumed this book was autobiographical, but it isn’t so. The story has been translated from Arabic, so the prose betrays a few hints of that. The writing is as lyrical and poetic as any of Gibran’s works. In a few short pages, he plunges into the characters’ psyche and describes their soul. The story is a bitter reminder of the stifling rules that women had to, and continue to suffer from. It also speaks of the prejudices man adopts in the name of religion and laws. As rules and rituals build over time, the underneath symbolism, principles, and meaning get buried, only to be replaced by skewed, irrelevant, irrational models that restrict progress of the spirit and the mind. 

Overall, I was as usual impressed by Gibran’s writing, but the story itself has been heard enough number of times.

How could I end this without a quote. Of the several I marked, here is one:

"Limited love asks for possession of the beloved, but the unlimited asks only for itself. Love that comes between the naiveté and awakening of youth satisfies itself with possessing, and grows with embraces. But Love which is born in the firmament’s lap and has descended with the night’s secrets is not contended with anything but Eternity and immortality; it does not stand reverently before anything except deity. " 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


When is criticism acceptable? The answer is: when it is constructive. But then, when is constructive criticism accepted?

When it is worded and packaged rightly?
When concrete solutions/suggestions are provided for our benefit and improvement, instead of highly abstracted views?
When it doesn’t directly or indirectly question our core competence, even while suggesting avenues for improvement?
When it doesn’t question or touch on sensitive issues on our beliefs, faiths, and principles?
When it doesn't veer off into territories that are impertinent to the work?

Does the critic matter? Is it accepted when...
It comes from people whom we trust, regard, and respect?
It comes from experts?
It comes from a higher authority that demands respect?

Or maybe, most importantly, the criticism is accepted when we accept that there is always room for improvement and learning?

How a person reacts to criticism is a good test of their maturity and personality. Their own books and writings would preach and preach and preach (endlessly) on the magnanimity of acceptance, the need for humility, the necessity to step out of insecurities, the “evils” of ego, and yet, they would tweet, and rant, and protest, and scathe if God forbid, they receive one unpalatable “constructive criticism” :).

Anyway, the objective is not to discuss such people. But this person’s childish rants made me consider when constructive criticism could go awry. It is indeed easy to meticulously pick apart someone’s hard work in the name of providing constructive criticism. And yes, I’ve been there. I have encountered reviewers who mean well, but needlessly nit-pick, make assertions on subject areas that they know little about, jump to conclusions, and make assumptions on things that were not even specified. True, it’s harrowing to reason with such critics who are not open-minded themselves to reassess their statements, even when clarifications are made and evidences to the contrary are presented. On the other hand, there are those who suggest the same things, but word it in a manner that minimizes confrontation and expresses genuineness to clarify and improvise.

So, agreed, the critic’s language, intention, and open-mindedness are surely important factors. Knowing who the critic is might also bias our perceptions on whether the person is “qualified” to offer criticism, advice, or suggestions. But, I will reiterate the most important factor - it is your ability to be open-minded and critical with yourself. If you believe that there is always more to learn, if you desire to keep improving, if you respect or acknowledge the fact that others are entitled to their opinions and views, and if you’re secure within yourself, you’d be more accepting of criticism in general, constructive or not. Consequently, I believe you’d also develop the courage and wisdom to parse through it all, and objectively filter out the ones that don’t help you improve or grow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Memorable Books: Ramayana

Aparna, who blogs at Musings shares her thoughts on one of her memorable books! I'm thrilled that she graciously made time to participate in this feature. Aparna is my friend, cousin, and aunt, all rolled into one :). Since we've bonded as both friends and family, it is suffice to say we share a huge subset of common interests and personality traits. Hence, her word is as good as mine! She loves reading as well, and recently, she has been taking an active interest in Mythology. Her writings have started to inspire me to learn more about our rich heritage!  
Ramayana is a mythological story which has been close to my heart since I was a little child. Along with my grandparents, I used to sit eagerly waiting for the Sunday morning telecast of the Ramayana on Doordarshan (the only Indian television channel around the 1980’s). My grandfather used to start watching sitting on the sofa which was a little away from the television, and then as the story unfolded, he would slowly get off the sofa, and move closer and closer to the Television, until he was right under it. Though the language in which the series was telecast was something that he could not easily comprehend (it was telecast in Hindi, and we speak Tamil), that did not deter him, and at the end of the hour's telecast, he would be in tears. Every Sunday!

I have read Ramayana written by various authors. The ones that I remember are C.Rajagopalachari's version of Ramayana, and of course the Ramayana re-told for children in the Amar Chitra Katha series. However, I have never read a Ramayana quite like what Ashok K. Banker has written. It's a series of seven books with the seventh one just released. I am on the third book now and every time I pick it up, I read with bated breath to know what is in store.

The books in the series are – 1) Prince of Ayodhya, 2) Siege of Mithila, 3) Demons of Chitrakut, 4) Armies of Hanuman, 5) Bridge of Rama, 6) King of Ayodhya, and 7) Vengeance of Ravana

Ashok Banker has written the book more for today's generation. Imagine Rama working his way through the demons and Ravana similar to the way Harry Potter would try his magic on Voldemort and his other enemies. It is a sure shot candidate for a movie series :). It is not a pure English novel per se, and is interweaved with words from Sanskrit and Hindi, and tries to reach the common man thus.

Every event that has happened through the epic is described in detail, and at the same time, the author is able to maintain a fast paced recital (Well, at least the first 3 books do seem pretty fast paced, but the Husband begs to differ here, saying it does get slower as one goes on to the fourth or fifth book :)). As I read about the fight between the demoness Tataka and the Rama - Lakshmana duo, I was at the edge of my seat, waiting to know the fate of Lakshmana and the demoness.

Every character in the book has been created with a great amount of imagination and patience, all the while keeping in mind the basic personalities of each of them from the original Ramayana. For e.g., the character of Kaikeyi's help - Manthara - has been so created that the character exudes bitterness from all angles. The famous hunchback, with her secret chamber where she performs yagnas and the conversations she has with Ravana, are so realistic, that you end up detesting this lady from the bottom of your heart! Each form of demon is given a name like pisacas, rksas etc and they are described in detail as to how they differ from each other. The encounters between the various strong characters of the epic are depicted beautifully. Geographically, the places that the characters travel through, and the rivers and mountains they traverse are very clearly explained, and we can almost link it to today's structure of India.

I am absolutely enjoying this series since this is one Ramayana to which I am able to relate to better. The characters seem more lively and clearer. Each of the events, like the killing of the demon Tataka, Rama breaking Shiva's Bow to win over Sita, Rama defeating Parashurama, etc., left a lasting impression on my mind.  Although sometimes there is a feeling that the purity/sanctity of the original Ramayana is lost in the process, Ashok Banker's Ramayana captures the reader's interest in its own way.

Thanks for the lovely review, Aparna! The story of Ramayana evokes a lot of childhood memories of me intently hanging onto every word of my learned grandfather's discourses. Every single night, my grandfather used to regale me with a certain branch of the story, the hidden symbolism, the not-so-well-known interpretations, and stories-within-stories of other epics. And to this day, Ramayana has remained a favorite classic. It contains rich morals that children (and adults) benefit from. It is wonderful that contemporary authors have started humanizing these epics and the characters so that they are more personable and interesting to the younger generation.

If you would like to contribute to this feature (details here), please leave me a comment stating your interest. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Touched am I

When someone chooses to remember me 
When someone chooses to think of me
When someone chooses to extend some kindness towards me
When someone chooses to take that extra step to deliver that kindness to me
When someone chooses to participate in the kindness, even if they didn't know me
When someone chooses to expect virtually nothing in return for their spontaneous act 

She saw, she remembered, she gave - even from the other side of the world. The sheer spontaneity and simplicity of that deep gesture of care and friendship goes a long, long way in brightening up my day. 

Thanks, my friend!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Morally Lucky

Joan’s husband Paul decided to leave her and the kids to realize his inner-self. Since he made the “brave” decision of “following his muse” and not remaining entrapped in the mechanics of worldly life, he expected his wife to take him back with open arms when he realized his pursuit led him nowhere. Joan asks, “You want to come back into our lives. But how can we do that when you are not even ready to acknowledge that you were in the wrong when you left us?”. Paul confidently says, “In my heart I know I wasn’t wrong. I followed my calling. You have praised great souls who renounced their family to achieve a greater purpose, haven’t you?”. To this, Joan retorts, “But you are not a great soul. You came back because you didn’t have it in you to realize what they could.” 
“But none of them would have become great had they not taken the first bold step. I wasn’t aware that I would fail. What matters is that I tried. Would my action be morally acceptable had I succeeded? Am I called a betrayer only because I failed?”
Is Paul’s decision morally acceptable? Or does luck play a role in differentiating right from wrong when one takes a chance?
(Original Source: The eponymous essay from Moral Luck by Bernard Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1981)

I have pretty strong opinions on situations like the one described. I have seen families being neglected by flighty, eccentric husbands who take impulsive, idealistic decisions to serve themselves. There was one man who used to spend his time and meager savings on religious rituals, bhajans and the like, while his family used to struggle to make ends meet. When asked of his responsibility towards his family, he used to take Saint Thyagaraja’s famous words - “Rama will provide. He is the cause of everything, even this desire in me to serve Him all the time  is all His doing.” No, Rama does not provide to such families by magically dropping gold coins from the ceiling. The man is accountable for the misfortunes of his family, not Rama. Another extreme is the man/woman who orients their time and energy on higher, nobler causes such as serving humanity and people in need, not thinking twice about the welfare of their own kids or spouse

I am going to make a rather blasphemous assertion here. I’m sorry if this offends anyone. The famous Tamil poet and freedom fighter, Bharathiyar is still remembered and praised for his progressive attitude, his fierce patriotism, his spiritualism, and scholarly verses. I deeply respect him for being ahead of his times and for imparting rich, wholesome knowledge. But, I find it unacceptable that he didn’t fulfil his basic role and responsibilities as a father and provider. He followed his idealistic principles and didn’t conform to conventional work. What little he got, he is known to have freely distributed to animals and others in need, when his own family would go hungry. While many applaud him for his generosity, I can’t help but pity his poor wife. Back then, women like his wife didn’t even have the resources and means to earn a living by herself. She was completely dependent on a man who put the needs of the country before his promise and responsibility towards her; That to me, is morally wrong in a sense. The pain and anguish his wife went through is very similar to what the women in the above two examples went through.

Charity begins at home. Once we make promises and are responsible for the well-being of somebody who is dependent on that commitment, we can’t afford to forget our duty. I am not against following one’s heart, realizing deeper truths or standing to higher causes. My opinion is that it is wrong to overlook our primary duties in the pursuit of “higher” paths. Even the Hindu philosophy doesn’t talk of renunciation until the worldly/familial responsibilities are taken care of. I would be perfectly fine if the men in the above scenarios were single, or didn’t have any duties that they accepted onto themselves. Or better yet, there are always ways of leading a balanced life without vacillating between extremes of materialism and detachment. I realize that my take has tinges of the “selfish gene” theory. It’s perhaps true. The  "natural-selectionists" would argue that my instinct to perceive this situation as “wrong” or “unethical” arises because it is expected to nurture one’s own gene-pool before helping another set of genes. It's due to these instincts that serve our genes that humanity developed the concept of Morality. But we’ll leave this train of thought for now.

True to Paul’s question on whether luck/success plays a role in exonerating one’s morally dubious action, I am sure there are plenty of lesser-known, hidden “Bharathiyaars” in every town who pursue similar ideals, but are just not recognized, and are hence socially isolated and condemned for ignoring their family. Think about it. Granted, if someone really possesses the talent and innate ability, the likelihood of them being an undiscovered gem in a pile of rubble is low. But luck/chance does play a role in one’s life, doesn’t it? There are misguided idealists who attempt to rise to greatness (inwardly and outwardly), but are either not blessed with the capacity to do so, or are thrown around by fate till they sink into utter oblivion. Such unsuccessful attempts are indeed mocked at, frowned upon, and censured - specifically with the accusation of betraying, hurting and disappointing their family.

Such discrimination is definitely hypocritical to me. I think Paul’s decision to abandon his family to fulfill his muse or desire was indeed morally wrong, for he didn’t worry about breaking his promise to his wife or for overlooking his responsibility towards his children. My opinion will not falter even if he had been successful in his attempt.

One can argue that most moral actions are judged by the intention of the action and not through the consequences. The cliched example is using a knife to purposefully kill, versus using it to accidentally harm/kill someone. So although technically it wasn’t Paul’s intention to hurt or betray his family, he intended to leave them stranded, knowing that his actions will cause pain. It was an informed choice. Even if we are to consider the Utilitarian philosophy of weighing the consequences - Paul’s success will not outweigh the hurt and pain of his family, for he should have honored his commitment to his family. But then, measures of emotion and personal growth are subjective.

What do you think? Does luck/chance play a role in how morality is perceived?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Memorable Books: Heidi

As part of the new feature of this blog, here is a guest post from my sweet friend Anne, who blogs at Abstract Admissions. Anne is the first friend to kindly oblige my request for a guest post! She was diligent and enthusiastic in delivering her article to me, and therefore has totally pumped up my blogging (and reading) energy :). She is a wonderful writer and an ardent reader. So, I'm happy she could contribute! Please read on... 
Hi people! I’ve been hovering in the background of this blog for some time now but this is the first time that I’ve been placed under the spotlight! When Neeraja asked me if I was interested in writing a guest post on a book that has touched/moved/impressed me – I jumped at the chance. But I also knew that it would be quite a challenge. Firstly I read too much and easily muddle up and mix up stories and characters in my head, as I’ve mentioned before here.  But more importantly, The Mind’s Language, offers such deep and insightful thoughts on a range of fascinating books – that it is truly hard to live up to its standards. When one is posting on one’s own blog, we have every right to blabber whatever we want to – afterall it is our own blog. If someone does not like it, they are welcome to pack up and leave ;-) But while being a guest blogger, one needs to take into consideration the spirit of the host’s blog. And Neeraja being an avid reader herself as well as a self-confessed perfectionist (which frankly I am far from!), makes it all the more intimidating!

So I pondered long and hard about which book to choose and I realized that there aren’t many children’s books profiled here. If I vividly remember a book that I had read some 12-15 years back, then surely it must be one which has left a profound impact on me, right? One such classic, which pops into my mind, is Heidi by Johanna Spyri, published first in 1880.  According to Wiki, it is supposedly one of the best known works of Swiss literature – and I am not surprised. Although there are sequels and abridged versions of the original and movies as well as animated films, to me nothing can dilute the magic of the original novel. 

In case, anyone hasn’t come across Heidi as yet, the crux of the story is about the events that occur in the life of a young girl named Heidi, who is handed over to her curiously eccentric grandfather living in the Swiss Alps. The contrast in their personalities cannot be missed, as one is wizened and guarded against any intrusions in his life while the other is inquisitive, free and completely open to it.  The changes that the charming girl brings about in the old man are heart-warming.  She is like a whiff of fresh air in his secluded life and meanwhile also makes friends with others, the most notable being Peter the goat-herd. 

The book transported me to the beautiful mountains of the Alps. I could only imagine how peaceful and calm it would be to live nestled among the whistling conifers, one with nature amidst an oasis of serenity. The sparkling mountain air, the earthy and rustic food such as freshly baked bread and goat cheese and the no-fuss lifestyle, might be difficult to actually live through, what with all the modern comforts that I am used to now. But what more could a small girl ask for, than running gleefully down the hills barefooted with her best friend,  with the wind in her hair, the sun on her face and laughing with abandon? Untouched by vices, untroubled by worldly worries. In fact I can still recall the cozy descriptions of Heidi’s room, a loft smelling of fresh hay and with a tiny window looking out to the valley beyond. Sigh! 

I think that Heidi showed me that it is possible to find pleasure and happiness in the simple things of life. It taught me that there is absolutely no need to complicate my life and that the ways of providence is beneficial, if a tad mysterious – and that everything will work out in the end.  Heidi is an epitome of all that can be good in this world. She instills a sense of positivity, hope and childlike innocence in my heart. I have not reread the book as an adult – but I do plan to someday. And I have no doubt that I will continue to love and cherish her. She envelops me like the sweet, whimsical scent of a tender lily in a rain-drenched garden - reminding me that the beauty of life can be hidden away cleverly, in seemingly innocuous moments.

Wow, what a fitting start to this feature! Thank you for the beautiful post, Anne. And well, thanks for the generous words on this blog! This blog has survived solely because it is far removed from any standards of perfectionism :). 

I love children's classics and always look for opportunities to slip into the comforting world of childhood. Anne's words rekindle the significance of relishing the simple pleasures of life, and the magic behind keeping our energy levels running high - positivity! Heidi is a delightful classic that should stay memorable in all future generations to come. 

Memorable Books : A New Feature

I'm starting a new feature on this blog to record different people's perspectives on the memorable books they have read. This entails guest posts!


I have sensed that my reading phases go through dramatic extremes. I'm either eager and ravenously hungry to devour as many good books as possible, or I'm left with an inertia (perhaps due to drained energy), and struggle to read even those books that I enthusiastically picked up. And given the pressures of work, I realize that I need a very compelling force to make time to read good books. So, in order to give myself (and others) a refreshing boost of motivation and inspiration, I want to hear others' words and thoughts on one of the books that most moved them and touched them - emotionally/psychologically/intellectually. As one of my friends suggested, it could even be about a book that changed one's life for the better.

I'm aware that everyone has a list of such favorite books and it's almost impossible to pick one book. Yet, due to practical and selfish reasons, I want to build a tangible repository of good books that I (and others) can hopefully read within this lifetime. That being my goal, I want to coax out one's thoughts on just one of their most memorable books - "If you had to be cast away on an island", kind of deal :).

In order for this feature to survive (and grow), I have been requesting friends of mine to write guest posts. I am happy to say that the first post dutifully arrived this morning! The ensuing post will be of this guest blogger's, so stay tuned!

I heartily welcome contributions to this feature!

What I would like: Your thoughts on one book that is most memorable to you. I would like to know your reasons, perhaps even some personal anecdotes as to how and why this book moved/changed/affected you. I don't expect a review, so it's perfectly fine if you no longer remember the finer details of the story or the characters. I'm hoping to capture the strong feelings associated with the book, in the hopes that the words and emotions will touch the reader and fuel them to reach out to good, meaningful books. Your choice can be fiction or non-fiction (but hopefully not a specialized textbook :)). And, there is no word limit!

If you would like to contribute, please leave me a comment!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Garden Highlights

The garden is a big source of satisfaction and serenity to me. Some highlights of how it turned out this year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bullying in the Online World

It’s very hard for me to learn about kids that are driven to commit suicide due to unbearable bullying in school. Almost every month, I hear of some unfortunate story. There was a documentary I watched a while back that makes a strong case for recognizing bullying as a punishable offense by law. Some states have brought such laws into effect, but for the most part the debate continues on the ambiguity of what is bullying, when does it cross the line to turn into an offense, and who are responsible for it. 
Some amount of bullying is part of growing up in any animal society. It either makes one tougher, or affects one deeply as to stunt their confidence, self-esteem and psychological growth. Perhaps due to more awareness, wider news coverage, the power of social media, or the gradual changes in the personalities of the newer generations, it seems like there are more children who are drastically affected by bullying. Children - the very definition of innocence and goodness, also seem to bear a cruel streak. Even in kindergarten, there are those little bullies that don’t hesitate to tease, push, hit, and dominate over the docile ones. They are capable of being relentlessly merciless to kids that are different and “weaker” than them in any sense. Perhaps it’s the indelible animal instinct that wakes up and flares until it is tamed by discipline and social norms. Perhaps it can be attributed to genes and chemical imbalances in the brain. Or more regrettably, it’s due to parental negligence, resulting in low-self esteem and the need to assert one’s superiority and buried frustrations on the weaker ones. Whatever the reasons, it continues to shock and horrify me to encounter such kids. It surprises me even more that in this land of abounding school counselors and therapists, these kids still grow into hardened bullies, and the bullied kids receive inadequate reprieve or weak support systems to deal with the harassment. 
But according to me, there is one obvious factor that has pushed bullying to intolerable heights in today’s age. Thanks to the immense power of social media, one demeaning post, one embarrassing picture, or one painful video can go viral, reach out to thousands, and shatter the dignity and tender feelings of a bullied kid. It’s much more easier to tease, gossip, spread horrendous rumours, photoshop/morph photos, and engage in dark-humor with a wider audience of thousands and millions. I see kids under 10 years having their own facebook profiles because they simply entered a fake age to set up the account. In the hands of such kids who are unaware of the power and far-reaching impacts of the Internet and social media, the worst gets showcased. They have no understanding of privacy or security. A while back, online chat forums proved to be disastrous for kids, today it is the seemingly safe and “useful” world of  social networking. In addition to such forums depleting their precious time with aimless acitivites, they prove to be channels that unleash instincts that are carefully repressed in the real world. And it’s all done with impunity. This has been said numerous times before, but I feel the need to say it again. 
Of late, I have started to firmly believe that we need newer branches of the social sciences to study the evolution of human society as influenced and shaped by the Internet. There are numerous impacts that ripple out as the virtual and real worlds intersect. The dynamics of social interactions in online social forums and networks is vastly different from what we are used to in the real world. There are different rules, structures, and consequences. We need to understand how to reliably restrict access and control to this sphere, just as how we try to restrict access to books, movies, information, food, drinks, and environments in the physical space. The process gets more complicated and more ambiguous for sure. Freedom of expression takes a slightly different color in the virtual world. Boundaries are even more blurred and confusing. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re dealing with a whole new world. Nothing is solved by applying stop-gap solutions based on trial and error stemming from our basic comprehension of the real world dynamics. Everything cannot be extrapolated directly from the real world to the virtual world. More thoughtful research is necessary. 
In the meanwhile, perhaps we have some responsibility in speaking out to friends and family that naively encourage and or ignore their kids’ online activities.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections: The Thorn Birds

How do I start writing about this book or the epic tale. I waited long enough for words and the right thoughts, but I don’t think any words of mine will do justice to the book.

This book is not for a young audience, for I myself didn’t find anything impressive enough to want to read it when I was young. The language seemed good, the plot was surely scandalous to tug you into reading it, but I didn’t find enough soul or substance in the book to finish it. But upon reading it now, my experience was totally different. And I can’t put that feeling down in words.

The plot is a family saga that spreads through three generations. The Cleary family is an eclectic mix. They relocate to Drogeda in the Australian outbacks upon the demand of their wealthy and embittered aunt, Mary Carson, who subtly starts training the Clearys to eventually take over the sprawling acres of Drogeda. Father Ralph de Bricassart is a charming and kind priest in Drogeda, working around the whims and fancies of Mary Carson. The priest’s benevolent heart is drawn towards the young and neglected Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of the Clearys. In his efforts to keep Meggie safe and happy, the priest pays special attention to the welfare of the rugged and good-natured Clearys, who generously reciprocate his kindness. But over the years, Ralph and Meggie’s affectionate bond grows into something poignantly powerful and inevitable. As the priest doggedly pursues his service and devotion to God, rising higher and higher in the Church, Meggie naively flounders in her life, falling and rising in her struggles to win what her heart desires.

This plot can be turned into something trite and shallow by an inexperienced writer. But Colleen McCollough captures the very depths of the soul and psyche of the characters through her wonderful, perceptive writing. McCollough is firstly a neuroscientist. That explains a lot, for her psychological definitions of the characters are brilliant. I have never before read a book that delves so expertly into all the characters’ psyche with such accuracy, insight, and beauty! Each and every character in this huge tale is developed so beautifully from their birth to their adulthood to the ways in which they grow, temper, and change over time and experience. When mortals like me struggle to understand the innate core of my personality and identity, here is an intelligent writer who sharply identifies the core of all her characters and retains the integrity of the core while masterfully describing the reasons for why some other characteristics evolve and harden over time.

And there is a reason why young readers may not see the beauty of such character development and transformation. We ourselves need to see and experience some of Life’s vagaries and ironies before appreciating the beauty of a writers’ expressions of them. For a naive idealist, everything about such books and characters may seem unnecessarily complicated. But having sensed that complexity within oneself and within the cycles of Life, it is moving to connect with such books and writing.

On the surface, it might seem like the book is making a statement against religion and its enforced rules and dogmatic stances. But that’s not all. It’s probably a secondary point. The primary point in this book is that some of us mortals are driven to rise above our nature and limitations to achieve a pinnacle of perfection that doesn’t exist. We force our way through Life trying to decline our basic instincts and necessities, viewing ourselves as special and capable of being different. But in all this struggle, it is essential to first acknowledge who we are in our unadulterated forms, to accept it, to be humble enough to see our faults and limitations before trying to perfect ourselves, however unrealistic the pursuit of perfection may be. Like thorn birds that look for thorns to impale themselves to sing the most beautiful song, we all hang on to difficult and torturous decisions, travel on roads less traveled, and choose to introduce challenges, for our Life takes on more meaning and depth when there is pain tingeing our pleasures - from motherhood to everything else.

In McCullough’s beautiful words - “The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters, there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breast, we know. We understand. And we still do it. We still do it.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Collage

With teeny tiny fingers wrapped tightly around a little cushion of fist, delicate feet twitching with bursts of energy, the cute button-like black eyes search around the room. There are yapping lips, lilting sounds mingling with sudden cacophony, colorful swirls of light dancing around, and a million different smells and sensations assaulting and confusing the wobbling little head.

“Oh he looks just like you!”, someone coos.
“No, look at his nose... just like daddy’s”, another one squeals.
“All of this doesn’t matter. He is sure to change in 3 months”, a wise voice remarks.
“Well, surely not his nose!”, the proud daddy interjects.

With every newborn that gets visited, the most assuredly pleasing and popular topic to dominate the conversation is - whom does the baby resemble? This topic of discussion continues forever, in every gathering, every occasion that brings together people after a long enough period of time. Even when you’re 60 and croon to your own grandchild, there will always be someone to wonder whom you look like, talk like, walk like, think like, cook like, eat like.

We seem to revel in immeasurable thrill and awe in finding traces of our genes manifested and taking life in other people. I can understand how amazing it is to look into eyes that mirror yours, to witness mannerisms that characterize your father, to hear the voice of your spouse, and to watch someone grow into a brand new person with a permutation and combination of traits that are intimate signatures of who you are, where you come from, and what you’re made of. It’s even more fascinating when a second aunt stumbles into a niece that has taken after her. An implicit bond blooms. The wonder of Nature at its best.

But, just like the newborn above who doesn’t grasp any of this, I’ve lived through most my life listening to people discuss about my appearance and characteristics with a glazed, disinterested look. As aunties stared and probed into my very soul trying to prove their point about my resemblance, I vacantly looked at their colorful silks and dissected their interesting, if quirky, behavior. It didn’t matter much to me whom I looked like. As a child, I always thought of myself as my own. Period. However, subconsciously, I seem to have been swayed by such talk. Popular opinions voiced by loud and opinionated aunties and uncles sunk into me, making me believe whom I’ve taken after, and whom I ought not to have taken after. Yeah, “ought not to”. It’s the perpetual maternal versus paternal clash. Maternal relatives stress you are an embodiment of them, while the paternal relatives put their foot down on such nonsense. In the end, the most loudest, emphatic statements win over.

At this stage in my life, when I’ve taken the interest and opportunity to get to know my maternal as well as paternal family, without the biases of one over the other, I eerily see myself in the most unexpected groups of people. For the first time, I see myself reflected in people beyond my parents. And it’s staggering to connect yourself with a wider circle of people who mostly remained strangers despite being family. It’s almost as if I’m rediscovering myself and my roots, and it’s humbling and eye-opening.

When people vote that you resemble one parent, you just go with it, even if you can’t see the resemblance for yourself that convincingly. But one fine day, you catch yourself in a picture and gasp, for today you can really see the uncanny resemblance, so much so that your heart skips a beat wondering if the camera and mirror can play such tricks. It’s a totally different feeling. My heart leaps as I see my mother’s smile in my eyes and lips, I see her insecurities and sensitive feelings rise in me, I sense her gait as I walk;  I see my father’s annoyed expression in my brows, his mammoth will in my glimmers of persistence, his perceptiveness in my occasional intuitions;  I see my aunt’s stoicism in my forehead and jaws, her stubborn introversion in my social anxieties, her words in my writing; I see my uncle’s absent-mindedness, his curiosities in my thoughts, his laid-back demeanor in my actions, and I no longer see me. I see them in me.

Every day, I come closer to the realization that I am indeed a collage of a gigantic picture of mankind. While earlier, this feeling of not just being “me” disconcerted me, now I find myself embracing it joyously. It is wondrous to say the least. For it is indeed true that despite the numerous traits and resemblances I’ve directly imbibed, how I choose (as I naively continue to believe) to act on these traits, in what circumstances and situations I display them, and how I learn to use and adapt them for my growth and to leverage my advantage, makes me “me”.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections: The Splendor of Silence

With this book, I can now say I have read all books written by Indu Sundaresan thus far. With most of her books, excepting her short-story collection, I’ve experienced a love-hate relationship. Hate is probably a harsh word... let’s call it frustration. But because of my adoration for her writing, I keep going back, and continue to alternate between two states of mind (and heart) as I read her book.

The Splendor of Silence had an enticing premise for me. In the pre-Independence times of India, when the Nationalist movements were simmering and bubbling, an intriguing and dashing American with a whole lot of secrets in his bag, enters Rudrakot and sweeps the heart of a well-educated, refined Indian woman. As he sets fire to a series of irrevocable events, hearts get shattered, peace gets violated, but romance lives on. Sorry for the cheesy introduction, but that’s how the book comes across - a little cheesy, but surely entertaining! I am a sucker for such romances no doubt, but there was a part of me that scoffed at the story, as much as another part of me got attached to the idealistic images. If I had written a novel when I was younger (and a romance novel at that), I would have likely written (or conceived) something exactly like this story. It has all the elements that point to the dreamy, naive, idealistic me. In that regard, I feel a special kinship with Indu! She thinks very similar to me, sets the stage and characters in a fashion almost identical to my imagination.... of a younger me.

But a few things didn’t come together to make this a cohesively compulsive and impressive book. The book contains plenty of rich history surrounding India’s independence struggle, the class discriminations of the snobbish British Raj compounded with the Indian caste system, and the acute identity crisis suffered by both Indians and British alike. Although this book is hence showcased as a historical fiction, it is basically a romantic story that is couched in a historical context. The background is historical, and some characters symbolize the different kinds of attitudes and mind-sets worn by people of that time. These aspects surely portray the political, social, and culture climate of India accurately, but they don’t weave into the story well. There are paragraphs and pages of narration and explantions on the history and social commentary, and they stand alone from the story and some of the characters. There are many “asides”, digressions, and tangents that delve into facts and history, while the character would have uttered just a sentence. So, it sort of became a frustrating mix of fiction and non-fiction. If there is one scene, one dialogue, it is then accompanied with two whole pages of factual writing, explaining the caste system, the characters’ history, past etc. In essence, most of the book was a narration, a commentary, and it kept switching from one character’s point of view to the next, most of which didn’t fit in line with how the story was delivered - as a letter from a character. So, while the main story did not leap to life until the last 75 pages of the book, the remainder of the book involved a very slow process of setting the stage and providing all the history. I would have preferred if the characters (and the story) related and portrayed the history, rather than it being delivered through detailed, explicit narration, which defeats the value of fiction.

Secondly, the characters, excepting one, were flat. I don’t have the faces of the two main characters in my head. I couldn’t imagine them all through the story - they were caricatures in my head, and did not bloom into personalities with a face and voice that I will remember for a while. Indu Sundaresan writes such gorgeous prose, but she somehow misses out on what details to give shape to, to bring her characters to life. A whole page of beautiful descriptions of the characters’ attire, or the chair in which they are seated does not help define the character. It makes the environment alive and vibrant, but not the core of the characters. Further, it was incongruous to hear all the characters speak the same, impeccable style of English as that of the narrator. How can all characters speak alike? That too speak in such good English all the time? True, people spoke much better elite English in the 1940s, but still! And like me, brevity is not Indu’s forte :). There are so many words, so many pages, tiny text crammed into 400 sheets of paper, but the volume does not indicate depth, unfortunately.

Digested Thoughts: Still, I enjoyed reading the book. I love reading about strong and refined women of the early times, especially one so strong as to break barriers and fall in love with an American. Although the protagonists’ courage seemed a notch too unrealistically scandalous and fickle at times, and the romance seemed amateurish, I still liked reading the book. The prejudices, insecurities, and confusions of the British and the Indians come at you strong. We still face the colonial hangover of those heady times. Although it has its flaws, I have to concede that this is not an easy subject to write about - India's history,  past, society, and culture is far too complex anyway. But more than anything, I loved savoring Indu Sundaresan’s writing and for mainly that reason, I give the book a high rating.


Monday, July 25, 2011

The Rapture of Life

Something stirred in me and found some much needed understanding and peace from this:

"The mind has to do with meaning. What's the meaning of a flower? There's a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called "the one thus come". There's no meaning. What's the meaning of the Universe? What's the meaning of a flea? It's just there. That's it. And your own meaning is that you're there. We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being, is what it's all about."
-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It's been an interesting read so far... quite different from what I originally anticipated. It's forcing me to think a little differently on many things. Not sure if I'll abandon my hardened ways of thinking, questioning, and analyzing, but it's helpful to tuck in such different points of view into one's thought process.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reflections: The Origins of Virtue

It seems like a long time since I started reading this book. It’s been sitting around me for months together, getting shunned every now and then for another interesting and far more gripping book. And now that I have finally finished it, it feels like I have taken forever to write about it. It’s got to do with two reasons. Ever since I started my other blog on cooking, the novelty of it has been quite compelling. I am fueled to write posts there. Besides, writing out a recipe is far far simpler and easier than all the work required to think and assimilate my thoughts to churn out a post here. Secondly, I started reading this book fully aware that I may not learn anything significantly new. Yet, when it comes to morality, society, and the definitions of virtue, I am willing to read as many repetitive (and non-repetitive) books as possible, in the hopes that I may stumble upon some, novel, interesting trains of thought that would help me internalize and understand these concepts much better.

The basic questions addressed in the book are - When and why did virtues like cooperation and altruism emerge among us?, Are these virtues wired-instincts, or are they nurtured traits?, What is the fine-line between cooperation and competition, between altruism and self-interest? How do virtues serve the interests of the individual, as much as they help our species to survive? So, is man inherently good or bad?

The short answer for why morality, altruism, and cooperation are exalted as virtues is because we need to adopt and embrace these traits for ensuring our survival, and the survival of our genes, and our species. Mankind has achieved so much and has progressed to such heights because our species knows how to cooperate, reciprocate, trade, and divide labor among specialized people. The point is, each virtue serves a selfish purpose - to us and to our species. Reciprocation is our incentive. If there were no reciprocation, we limit the altruistic deeds we do for others. In our scriptures it is called Karma - you receive what you give. So be good, and reap the benefits. We form friendships, enter into marriage, are cordial and helpful to neighbors, family and other smaller circles of our community, in order to reap the benefits of reciprocation and division of labor. We have the ingrained need to be an accepted part of a community, because when hardships strike, we have people to fall back on and help us. But in order to expect such help, we need to offer help as well. And so on... the gregarious, well-connected, socially active person is the most effective survivor. And consider this paradox - when you gift someone, you subconsciously expect something in return at some point. Then, is the person who refuses to accept any gift from friends or family, the most selfish person? For he realizes the debt he incurs by accepting the gift, and hence refuses to accept such burden of reciprocation?

It leads to another paradox. Despite the accepted rationality of practicing virtuous behavior, human-beings are still territorial, and fiercely compete with one another. Why so? It is natural selection’s way of ensuring the fittest, and only the most competent survive. At a micro-level, our genes are selfish. They cause us to fight for them, stand up for them - to ensure their propagation over other kinds of genes. This is one explanation for racial and territorial conflicts. But one can’t afford to be too aggressive to too many people, and too very often. We have the seen the fall of capitalistic giants who have been so caught up with greed and aggression.

We flounder while trying to establish a balance between competition and cooperation. Is tit-for-tat always a good strategy? We need to know when to forgive and when not to. It’s imperative that we don’t get pushed and trampled upon in our effusive need to always do good to others and never expect anything in return. For when we resort to the latter “selfless” mode, we as individuals perish, although we may help to sustain the growth of our species. Basically, it is not “rational” when one chooses to neglect the self.

For most people, selfishness is a negative trait. With that conditioning, sometimes we make decisions that are detrimental to the self. When my good friend told me that I had to do things for “self-preservation”, the whole term was new to me. When we have been taught to ignore the self, to not expect anything in return for our moral duties, it is a radical perspective to pause and consider that everything that has been established, including religion and morality, are essentially to serve a “selfish” purpose - be it from the standpoint of the community or the individual. Survival, is basically selfish. There is no escaping from it. If you have just one serving of food, and you see a hungry, wailing child of a strangers’, and a hungry child of yours, you will invariably choose to give the food to your child. Nature has wired our instincts to first help our blood and genes. If resources are in surplus, then we have the luxury of sharing a small piece of ours with others’, even without expecting anything in return right-away. We have emotions such as guilt, to make us help other non-related members of our species every now and then, because without our community, we are nothing.

But my objective is this - at some point, if I have a child, I want to be able to teach him/her when to be selfish, and when not to be. I want to help him/her understand that self-preservation is as much important as compassion and empathy for others - that one needs to  know when to draw the line and say - “no, I won’t be nice to you”. And I want to make him/her realize when to forgive and when not to forgive.

Our scriptures speak a slightly different language that seems to urge the individual to always help the betterment of the species, while completely ignoring the self. I need more time and wisdom to understand why that is so. Maybe the bigger perspective of propagating our species is much more important than preserving the needs of the individual. But if every individual loses their need or drive to do something for themselves, and have no pressing instinct to preserve the self, won’t the progress of the species grind to a halt as well? How, you ask? Here is Matt Ridley’s talk on his recent book, which touches upon my question.

Digested Thoughts: A thought-provoking book on the rationality and practicality of morality and virtues. There are many more interesting thoughts, such as on the benefits of privatization of property, and the necessity for governments to govern and control our societies.