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. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

If it isn't meant to be...

I look out the window and gasp. When did the sky turn dark and gloomy? Is it going to rain? Should I reach home before the rain? I can always continue working from home... 

And so I find myself at the building door, and then hear a loud, low rumble. I step out, and a lightning flashes at me - a sign of warning. For two seconds I debate - should I go in or continue heading out. As always, I pick the wrong choice. Five steps out the building, it begins to drizzle. Ten steps, and it is pouring. Recalling relative velocity and all that funda, I continue walking - hurriedly, if you will. Meanwhile, there are dramatic theatrics in the sky. The monstrous, crushing, booming thunder makes me want to crawl under the cars. The wrath of the lightning leaves me momentarily blind. By the time I reach my car, I am drenched - so much for that myth! I should have run. As I drive, the lashing rain viciously threatens to crumble the windshield to powdered glass. I can barely see beyond the car in front of me. A prayer on my lips, a curse on my decision, I continue slicing through the angry rain. I exhale as I wind towards my street. I pull into the garage, and God decides to turn off his faucet - the very second. Not a drop more. Even the sun decides to poke out of the cottony clouds.

Some things are just not meant to be!

Monday, July 04, 2011

I Succumbed...

I'm not exactly a foodie, but I like cooking. I feel good after a well created meal, and of the knowledge that I'm pleasing a few tummies. I know there are a TON of lovely and creative cooking blogs. But after much back and forth on the triteness of this venture, and on the added pressure of maintaining two blogs, I finally succumbed:

Please don't feel obligated to visit. But I thought I'd share all the same. And your words of wisdom are always appreciated!