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!