Saturday, December 01, 2012

Life of Pi - The Movie

My thoughts on the book. 

After much apprehension and skepticism, I decided to watch Ang Lee's Life of Pi yesterday. I'm so glad I did!! It was easily one of my best movie experiences ever!

I remained skeptical of a movie/visual medium representing the weight, depth, and essence of the book - not to mention the horror and gore. But how wrong was I! The screenwriter and Ang Lee have masterfully done justice to the book! It's rare for me to rave about a movie made from a book that touched me. But this movie really shines on its own and complements the book beautifully! 

The only aspect that could have been better is the ending. It was a little rushed - I think a couple of visuals would have helped drive home the "other story".  If one hasn't read the book or isn't familiar with it, then it's possible to miss the most important part of the story. The other minor irksome part was Tabu's terrible terrible Tamizh. But for all the attention to detail the movie captured, one can easily look past it.  

Nevertheless, I was surprised that the movie touched me in the same manner as the book did. It truly is an awesome rendition of a heavy book. Everything was exactly as I had imagined.

Kudos to the entire team! Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel is fantastic. The music - awesome. And the direction and cinematography - just perfect!

If you liked the book, you surely would appreciate the movie. If you stopped reading the book because you were disturbed by the gore, then the movie will be a refreshing treat for you. But I do think you need to go to that terrible, harrowing place within your mind that grapples with the harsh realities of life and extreme human/animal nature to better grasp and appreciate the essence of the book. Otherwise the movie/book will not have the same punch.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reflections: Three Men in a Boat

Fans of P.G.Wodehouse have to read Jerome K. Jerome - especially this book. It is a witty account of the (mis) adventures of three men (and a dog) taking a two-week-long vacation riding on a boat. There isn't much of a plot, but that doesn't in anyway affect the reading experience! The narrator's reflections and ruminations  are laced with satire and wit. In fact, I found Jerome's satire to be even more sarcastic than Wodehouse's - and the contrast was good! Jerome's humorous anecdotes are often packed in wise words on human nature and life. So the book is more of a satirical social commentary on life and people of the 19th century. 

A couple of memorable quotes:

"Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing."

"How good one feels when one is full -- how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.

We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man."

 I loved the book and highly recommend it for a light, refreshing read!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Memorable Books: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I'm beyond happy and honored to be posting this marvelous review written by my talented friend, SS. To me, she is the glorious symbol of an elder sister I never had. Even before I think about standing up for myself, this affectionate powerhouse of energy and knowledge will enter the fray to defend, support, and fight for me :). I'm forever indebted to her for helping me pick up the pieces.  And when it comes to books, she knows them all - and I mean, all. It's a privilege to have her exquisitely poignant and beautiful words grace this space.  
There’s a familiar anxiety that comes with reading most good books, wanting to race to the finish and at the same time, stop and soak in the glorious words, savoring each sentence. This week for the first time ever, I encountered a book so good I pulled up short in my race to the finish, too out of breath to do anything but stop and breathe. And thus, this long overdue post for my friend’s blog:

“The spirit catches you and you fall down” by Anne Fadiman has been on my ‘to-read’ pile for almost a year now. It came highly recommended by a truly great writer, but the thought of reading about an epileptic child seemed too depressing. But this book is so much more.

It is the story of Lia, a child born with severe epilepsy. It is the story of her parents, refugees rooted in a different culture settled in Merced, in 1980s California. The story of so many good doctors who tried so hard to heal this sickness, with everything they knew and had. The story of traditional medicine systems that root society and healing and tradition so deeply in one another that there is no telling them apart. Of cultural assimilation. Of clinging to roots. Of racism. Of family. Of pain of every sort. Of language. Communication. Most of all, it is a story of love. Of love broken by physical torture and sickness, and the people who piece it together.

Lia’s parents are Hmong refugees, who have escaped, walked hundreds of miles through jungles, swam across rivers with children tied to their backs, lived in refugee camps and fought to make their way to the Central Valley, California. Like several Hmong refugees, they have likely lived through “fifteen major traumas, including watching a loved one tortured or dying”, as the medical terms for classifying post-traumatic stress phrase it. And yet, when their daughter is born with a rare, severe form of epilepsy that they must treat with Western medicine, her mother thinks this is the worst disaster of all. Lia’s doctors remember her case still, you can even find a review for the book by one of them on Amazon. The book is a clash of these colliding worlds, told in the manner of “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must start by creating the universe.” For to understand Lia’s illness you must understand first the story of Shee Yee, the shaman who conquered demons and the one who aids Hmong healers still. And to understand her doctors’ desire to heal her, you must remember also that Western medicine saves lives, even if it does not always listen to the soul.

The voice that twines these stories together speaks in many tones: quiet acceptance of the rhythms of a ritual drum beaten in the streets of Merced, wonder and rational skepticism when dealing with modern biomedicine and traditional healing. Anne Fadiman walks the fine line between being narrator and story, part of the whole and yet removed enough that at the end of the book, you are left with the voices of a multitude in the words of one woman.

You are left clutching this book with both hands as you stand on a crowded train, because you cannot stop reading even in this uncomfortable place, but it will shake you hard enough that you must stop reading, at least once. A rare book, that leaves you standing at a place where two cultures collide and intellect and soul clash, and still, turn this into a place not just of viewpoints, but one of acceptance of both science and faith, even when you don’t completely understand either. 
Fascinating! This is a review that is probably much better than the book itself! I am more than convinced of reading the book right away. The colliding space between Science and Faith is one of my consuming interests. I have had many enlightening discussions with SS on this topic. So her recommendation is golden to me in more than one regard! Thank you so much for obliging my request and presenting this gorgeous review, SS!

If you would like to contribute to this feature, please leave me a comment. I would love to post your thoughts on your memorable book/s.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Sometimes, it's much easier to find peace within ourselves when we find the means to silence the inner-voice's constant "Why?" questions.
Especially when there are no answers. At least, no apparent ones. 

It's better to accept that sometimes there are no reasons, no linear causal chains. 

Sometimes, things just happen. They just do. Just like that. 
Sometimes, you will be treated badly. Just so. 
Sometimes, people will not like you. Just so. 
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot change people or situations. Just because it's life.

Sometimes, there's no use in mounting frustrations and a hoarse, broken, and battered inner-voice that no longer has the strength to pick you up, let alone persist in asking questions that aspire to enlighten. No use. 

Sometimes, just silence, accept, swallow, digest, purge. Repeat the cycle until there is peace within you.

Sometimes, this is the only way to face your life and keep moving on.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reflections: Imagine

Human Imagination and the “spouts” of creativity hidden inside our complicated lobes is an utterly fascinating and endlessly humbling topic. What causes one to create something, to innovate something entirely original? The answers to these questions form the fundamental layer of human progress. I was eagerly waiting for this book to show up at bookstores. And when I spotted it, I grabbed and raced through it with my usual bouts of notes and questions. But then, here’s the disappointing news. The author, Jonah Lehrer, who was riding the wave as a celebrated science writer, has admitted to fabricating quotes of some of the celebrities he mentions in the book (specifically, Bob Dylan). This has resulted in the publisher recalling this book, and an army of self-righteous journalists and professors extensively reviewing all his essays and books.

That explains why I have been unusually silent since reading this book in July. I am just disappointed and baffled. How does one with a rigorous academic training and a journalistic training even think about fabricating quotes concerning someone like Dylan, AND confidently include them in a book that was expected to be a best-seller? It just boggles me. This is science writing 101. I cannot understand the motivation, the reason for shooting oneself in the foot in such a naive manner. I feel sorry that he has ruined his writing career with a needless sloppiness that has now cast a shadow on all his previous work.

His error aside, what bothers me more in the recent times, is how impossibly hypocritical and unforgivingly critical society is. We mindlessly celebrate someone one day, and the very next day the smallest flaw is exaggerated to horrendous proportions, and the celebrated person is mercilessly executed. Everyone feels entitled to comb through every little detail and relishes in nit-picking and speculating about even non-existent errors (“A sentence of his seems similar to mine in this article”). Well, if one rakes through thousands of sentences and compares them against hundreds of thousands of other sentences with beady eyes that want to find fault, I am sure everybody would find a “similar” sentence somewhere. I agree that what Lehrer did is categorically wrong, but what seems shocking is the unbalanced conservative stance on journalistic standards of right and wrong. One flaw makes people blind to the bigger picture of what Journalism represents; missing the forest for the trees. And honestly, I don’t really understand issues on “self-plagiarism” and “recycling of old content”. Countless academics would be guilty of recycling old content and plagiarizing their own work.

Well, that rant aside, I did like his book. I am sorry to say that a part of my mind is biased, though. So many harsh reviews (in the light of his admission) have made me question my initial impressions. A common criticism is that many of the concepts in the book are overly simplified. Yes, Lehrer explains theories in a simple manner, and I liked the fact that he could do so. People, such as my husband, shy away from anything that’s got to do with cognitive theories and “psycho-babble”. But he was riveted when I read out a section of the book that articulates the heavier theories through practical examples and relatable metaphors in the corporate world. However, someone that knows the subtleties of the theory might understandably find this unsatisfactory. And I could relate to that as well. For example, Lehrer’s explanation on some of the theories surrounding Working Memory and Attention made me cringe a little, because I am so used to them, and consequently quite fussy about the technicalities of the terms and the descriptors. But all that academic nit-picking aside, the point is, he conveys the essence, the big picture that one needs to know, remember, and apply. And he succeeds without compromising on the science.

Essentially, Creativity and new thoughts arise when our neurons make divergent associations and connections between seemingly unrelated or far-flung concepts. New neural connections between different ideas result in an innovation, a creative insight. This is vastly an unconscious process. We give our brains enough fodder and information and let it all stew and “incubate”. One fine moment, a “bulb glows” in our head. It is important to give the mind/brain the time and space to work out its connections and to sort out all the ideas. Rather than rigorously and consciously thinking about something, if we took breaks, relaxed ourselves, engaged in completely different activities, and provided the brain the meditative clarity of stillness of thoughts, the neurons are encouraged to form their connections and transmit insight. It makes sense. That’s why quieting one’s thoughts and mind is essential to gain peace and clarity. This outpouring of insight has been studied to arise from a lobe in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Another important element in Creativity is horizontal sharing of ideas - that is exposing oneself to different kinds of ideas in completely unrelated fields helps our brains to make these brand new connections between supposedly unconnected ideas. How were the Post-It notes invented? Lehrer shares wonderful stories behind brilliantly simple innovations that now seem intuitive and indispensable. These inventions were a result of an Engineer learning something from a Microbiologist, or a Chemist learning something from an Artist, and connecting the dots between a bunch of disconnected theories. The more we venture out of our comfort zone and familiar ideas, the more we are bombarded with different ways of thinking and fusing ideas. When Chemists had abandoned their quest to find a floor cleaning liquid that’s better than the current ones, a team of engineers thought of something entirely new. Upon seeing a woman casually clean coffee with a disposable napkin, the Swiffer was born. It helped to step out of the lab and chemical equations. Such products are an amalgamation of existing ideas with newer applications and effective design.

Our social networks, the culture of our cities and schools, the kinds of interactions we have with colleagues and friends, everything helps us nurture newer ideas and thoughts. It’s not a strike of randomness that the Silicon Valley booms with a certain vibration of creativity. Something inherent to its culture is responsible for it. It all comes back to assimilation of different kinds of thoughts, and a culture that would foster a supposedly “unstructured”, out-of-the-box thinking  to form better neural connections - i.e., creativity. Letting go of inhibitions, not afraid to take the perspective of a reckless outsider (sometimes familiarity and expertise breeds rigidity), intermingling with different groups of people, and even being allowed to build on others' work without being restrained by extremely narrow stipulations on Intellectual Property is argued to engender creativity. And sometimes, Lehrer says creativity is just mundane practice and hard work. It’s all about focused attention on a problem until we slowly but steadily arrive at a good solution. I don’t particularly agree with the last part.
That’s just hard work and dedication to excellence and perfectionism towards the problem or task at hand. True, gradual increase in expertise and learning will lead to better understanding and insights, but that's not always Creativity.  The theories on learning, expertise, and problem solving are a little different from the ones on Creativity.

I think different people define “Creativity” in different ways. I am not sure what my definition would be, because it’s hard to verbalize it, but I did not agree with Lehrer’s discussions that treated Creativity and Problem Solving as almost the same thing. Problems can be creatively solved, but finding good solutions to problems is not always “being creative”.
This is just my quibble. Most of the times, problem solving is a heavily analytical activity, and creativity is argued to be a reprieve, an insight that leaps out when the analytical mind is hushed. So, the lines became blurred in some sections of the book.

But this is what I mostly liked. Lehrer explains that creativity is not just a burst of uncontrollable talent that involuntarily pours from the mind of a “gifted” person. He argues that creativity is like a latent bomb that lies hidden in every brain. And it can be ignited or cultivated if we trained our brain and ways of thinking. I really liked this positive approach. It makes us all believe that we can also be painters and inventors, if we worked at it, gave ourselves the opportunities to explore the area, exposed ourselves to different ways of thinking, and allowed ourselves to listen to the whispers of insight in our brain.

I can't rate this book because it is clouded with all the ethical implications. But I found it interesting. And I'm sorry that it is out of the market.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Youtube recommended this video to me...ha, go figure! And wow, I really did have an "Aha" moment! I don't know what prompted me to casually click the link to watch the video, but I'm so grateful to my impulse.

I obsess over this tussle between being true to myself whilst being altruistic and doing my duty to others around me. It means that I tend to put others in front of me, when duty and inner-need don't align together. I go back and forth on this topic, never really believing that it is indeed okay to put myself in front of others. But Iyanla explains it so beautifully. I like the way she puts it. Her metaphors bring balance and clarity, with or without the spiritual connotation. 

My favorite lines (if and when the video is removed some day):

"It's inauthentic that you always put other people before you.  How you treat yourself is how you treat God. So, you're putting God last. Because you are the representative of God in your life

In your life, you've got to be as good to you as you want to be to God, in order to be of service to others in the world. 

It's self-full (not selfish) to be first, to be as good as possible to you, to take care of you, to keep you whole and healthy. That doesn't mean that you disregard everything and everyone; but you want to come with your cup full. 

My cup runneth over. What comes out of the cup is for you all, what's in the cup is mine. But I got to keep my cup full.

So many of us think that we're going to get brownie points in heaven, like we're going to get to sit in the box-seats section if we just give and give and give and give. The course of miracle says, when you give to others to the degree that you sacrifice yourself, you make the other person a thief. When you start sacrificing yourself for other people, you make them a thief, because they are stealing from you what you need and they don't even know it."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reflections: The Last Letter from Your Lover

After a serious accident that leaves her amnesic,  Jennifer Stirling returns to an unfamiliar place that everybody calls “her home”, to a strange man that everyone calls “her husband”. As she pieces together her past life and identity, she comes across a passionate love letter that is addressed to her. Only hitch is - the author is clearly not her husband. With the letter as her guide, she is determined to reclaim fragments of her old life that promised happiness and love. Her struggle is presented through the lens of the austere Victorian morals that still gripped London in the 1960s. How does one assess and put into perspective personal freedom against moral responsibility? The book addresses some of these questions through Jennifer’s epic love story.

I had high expectations for this book. I read a couple of glowing reviews for it that made it seem like the book was profound in its discussion of heavier themes on morality. And as predictable as it can get, I was drawn to it like a moth to light. Well, the book attempts to be more than a sappy love story, but it didn’t hit all the points for me. It is very much reminiscent of Anna Karenina in its portrayal of infidelity. The plot seems to have a formulaic approach. Most of its structure is borrowed from popular culture, literature and movies, so everything about the story is trite and predictable. In addition, it leaps and shuffles across time periods without conveying anything much or adding any dimension to the narration. And, I found the book to be far too long for the content it holds.

But there are certain interesting aspects. The author explores infidelity from multiple perspectives - the cheating husband, the cheated-on wife, the cheating wife, the cheated-on husband, and of course the unattached lover. Is it ever justifiable to have an affair? What about children? How important is one’s own personal freedom and happiness when it threatens to affect the happiness of others? Does morality and moral responsibility take different shades with the passage of time and evolution of society’s values? Heavy questions. But only a small portion of the book addresses the questions. For the most part, the story makes the questions seem black and white because it is narrowly presented through the specific contexts of the characters. The author tries to convince the reader that what A does is clearly wrong and what B is doing is clearly acceptable. One is bad and the other is good. The good is eventually favored in a grand twist of (too many) turns, and the bad gets burned. This approach was simplistic to me, and the themes fell apart as the rest of the book took the predictable journey that all romance novels take. Life is full of grey areas, not always happy endings, and serendipitous coming together of ideal circumstances. Although I’m not a hardened cynic that scoffs at happy endings, I do scoff at the heavily contrived ones. Many parts of the story didn't resonate with how reality works. It is just a feel-good, light read.

The book tries hard to make Jennifer’s story epic, but it did not touch me. I could definitely sympathize with some of the characters and I could surely understand Jennifer and her motivations, but the book didn’t leave a positive impression on me. 


Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections: The Stuff of Thought

This was my second audio-book. My experience with this one was actually markedly different from the first audio-book. I was more interested and invested in this book than the first one - the subject matter is inexplicably closer to my heart, so I was more riveted to the narration. Secondly, I heard it during a couple of terribly long flight journeys, so it was ideal to just plug my earphones, close my eyes and concentrate on the content. For me, audiobooks seem to work best while flying. I can take notes in a separate book, doze off for sometime, refresh myself, and continue listening. I’m glad to have discovered this.

The narration of this book could have been better. I expected Steven Pinker himself to have narrated it (since I love his presentations), but it was a disappointment that he didn’t. The narrator seemed hurried and rushed in the initial chapters. There wasn’t much emotion or even respect for punctuation, as he just droned on and on. But the style improved in the subsequent chapters - he was more patient, measured, and even entertaining in a few places.

Onto the book itself - Steven Pinker meticulously analyzes how Language and its constructs play a complex role in our understanding of reality. He starts by delving into the ambiguous process by which the human-brain conceptualizes language and puts together grammar and semantics to communicate, and make sense of the world. He demonstrates that our verbs and prepositions reflect the innate ways in which the human-brain is wired. The semantics (meanings and definitions) that we develop through language and consequently, our experiences, influence our perceptions of Reality. Grammar, Verbs, Conjugations, and all the tedious linguistic structures - in any language -  are formulated by the innate process by which we dissect the world into its particulates - its objects, geometry, space, dimensions, time, and action.
For example, it can be argued that both sentences below are theoretically grammatical:
A: Water is poured into the jug
B: The jug is poured with water

Yet, those who are fluent in English, would hardly use sentence B. People who might use B would most likely be native-speakers of another language, and they might be literally trying to translate the sentence from their language to English. This is because, innately, our mental imagery struggles to agree with a Jug - a geometrically stable and solid structure, being poured - an action that indicates fluidity and movement. The verb Pour, and the action Poured, are associated more with the Noun Water, than with Jug. The innate knowledge and understanding of Physics, objects, space, and actions, is the reason why one mental imagery agrees more than the other. Speakers of another language would surely have their semantics and grammar aligned accordingly in their native language, but translations might affect the representation of their actual imagery in a foreign language. One might be quick to therefore conclude that our language, or rather, semantics and grammar, determines the kinds of images we have in our heads. Not exactly, and not always.

This is popularly noted as the Whorfian Hypothesis which basically states that Language can influence cognitive processes, due to the ways in which the linguistic structures shape one’s understanding of the world. Steven Pinker vehemently argues against this hypothesis of Linguistic Determinism. Through multiple experimental results and cogent arguments, he attempts to debunk the notion that Language determines structure of thought. I was initially in disagreement with some of Pinker’s arguments, but in the end we converge on essentially similar ideas. Language might influence, but does not determine thoughts. I do believe Language is integral to Thinking and Reasoning. It does play a vital role. But, I have come to agree that a particular Language doesn’t completely determine one’s thoughts and ability to reason or form newer thoughts. One language isn’t better than the other to make sense of the world better. In our head, we don’t necessarily think grammatically. Our thoughts are not stored or formed through the words or linguistic structures of any particular language. As a bilingual person, I can attest that I don’t think in one language or two languages. I might reason on pen and paper in English, but I don’t believe my thoughts are framed in any particular language. Anyway, this is a highly debated topic amongst Linguists. According to Pinker, Words are represented as far more richer and abstract clusters of thought. When we try to define the Word -  the clusters of our Thought - through Language, the linguistic structures might limit or influence our articulation and the many interpretations we might have of the Word. But within our heads, Language doesn’t determine our core cognitive processes of thinking or reasoning.

After much back and forth, though,  I still feel that there is some grain of intuitive truth to Linguistic Determinism. I’m not an extremist of the theory who would go all the way to state rigidly that one language might help in certain cognitive processes than the other... that German is a better language to learn math and science than another language etc. It’s not true in such specific, micro-level examples. Culture, environment, and so many other aspects might affect cognitive development in a certain country/place.  I believe that in the macro picture, the structure of a language does influence the abstract networks of thoughts we form. The imagery and metaphors in the language surely seem influential in how we interpret, imagine, and create newer thoughts. Speaking from the perspective of programming languages, I am aware of multiple experiments and studies that have evaluated the link between the syntax of the language and the eventual ways in which a programmer reasons to solve a problem or construct an algorithm through the language. The syntax and rules can sometimes inhibit certain kinds of thinking, and consequently affect the creative reasoning of a problem - it doesn’t affect one’s core intelligence or cognitive processes, but it does seem to be an agent in terms of how the processes are triggered. I know, this is also a hairy subject, so I will move onto another topic in the book.

Most of the book explicates each linguistic structure in detail - verbs, prepositions, tense, etc, to demonstrate that these structures were borne out of our mental conceptualization of Quantity, Amounts, Space, Geometry, Spatial relationships, Temporal relationships, and of course, Causality. Causality was an interesting chapter. In here, there are multiple examples of how a sentence structure can sway our logical perception of a situation (see, language does influence our logical thoughts). It’s all about how the situation is framed. It leads to multiple pitfalls in Logic and Fallacious interpretations.
* If widowhood follows marriage, then does marriage cause widowhood?

With so many variables abounding in every complex situation, navigating to the Cause from the Effect is tricky. It is even trickier when we begin to use Language, and its rules alone, to get to the Cause. This is probably why Lawyers make so much money on linguistic technicalities.

But then, I liked the part where Pinker shows that we are so inherently steeped with a moral sense that we can most often make our way out of ambiguous and sticky representations of a morally-dubious situation that’s cloaked in clever Linguistic acrobatics.

I also liked the chapter on Metaphors. There are many theories that Language by itself is a huge set of metaphors to our abstract thoughts. But that aside, metaphors and imagery help us grasp abstract concepts much better. Abstraction is diluted much better through relatable imageries and concepts. This is because the natural way of our thinking is through Metaphors - we constantly make connections of neural networks, relating one concept with the other. We therefore find it easier to imagine and relate.

Further, an entire chapter is dedicated on the subject of Social Niceties and Courteous Language. Why should we say “I was wondering if you could look at my document?”, instead of just saying, “Take a look at the document”, that’s precise and to the point. Language is to communicate direct requests and thoughts, after all. But all the hedging and polite rules are to conform to social protocol. It satisfies the bigger picture of basic human evolutionary requirement - communal cooperation. We insist on using euphemisms even when everybody understands the inferences, we force ourselves to be politically correct despite the other person being aware of it, etc. In the end, we feel far more worse, far more hurt, to hear the brutal truth, the callous sentences, than recognizing a forced-politeness. Most of us can deal with the latter better than the former brutality. We do appreciate the fact that the other person at least respects our feelings a tiny bit to frame their unpleasantness in a polite manner. And hence, we have devised language structures to suit this need - to maintain a measure of fragile harmony.

Finally, do names, even those without an actual meaning, evoke some abstract meaning in you? Does “Tom” conjure a different picture than “Jim”? Why are there trends in names? Why do some names sound older, newer, cooler, sweeter, bolder? Pinker goes into a whole chapter analyzing the motivations behind Names and parents’ naming ideologies. This wasn’t a very interesting chapter to me, but it served as a nice break from all the heavy academic content from the previous ones.

Well, truth be told, I was expecting some content on Language and its correlation with Personality and an Individual's Nature. Along the lines of addressing these questions - Do adjectives, sentence structures, noun phrases etc. reflect a person’s inherent personality or character traits? Can one’s nature influence how they use language while writing versus talking? Can the use of language predict a person's innate nature? Etc. See, the phrase “Window into Human Nature” (from the title of the book) had a whole slew of meaning to me, inside my head. The way I interpreted it, the way my thoughts came together to understand it, was different. Steven Pinker concentrates on the broader aspects of Human Nature and Cognition, and not on individual personality. And the book has helped me appreciate this much better.

To summarize this rambling post, this was an interesting and educative read on linguistics and psycholinguistics. The human brain is far too complicated to arrive at definitive and conclusive facts about how exactly language and thoughts interweave and influence each other. But the book provides ample arguments and scientific experiments to help the reader slowly make sense of at least a part of the puzzle. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

Julia wakes up one day to find that her father, a renowned Wall-Street lawyer, has disappeared. Just like that.  Rigorous detective traces lead her father’s journey until Bangkok, and then there’s nothing. After a few years of grappling with this mystery, Julia comes across an old unsent letter that her father had penned to a woman in Kalaw, Burma, before marrying her mother. Hanging onto the few details of the letter, Julia finds herself in Kalaw, eager to find answers. In the little mountain-village of Kalaw, she learns about her father’s deepest secrets. Her father’s story awes and comforts her, helping her make peace and gain some insight into the Eastern philosophies of life. 

It is the notion of most spiritualists that the intellect is far more superior to the senses. Debates rage in the scientific and spiritual community over which is better. The most common answer is – both. One leads and informs the other. The intellect cannot develop without the senses, and the senses are empty without a processor. Although the bulk of the book is about a poignant, tender, idealistic romance, the aspect that elevated the book was the portrayal of the development of some of our basic senses to reach deep within one’s heart and soul. A nuanced sensory skill does enhance the intellect or one’s intuition – provided, the body and mind are in-sync. This insight gives one the clarity to understand the world, and everything and everybody on it, a little better. 

The story infuses basic Buddhist principles, most of which are widely accepted by most schools of thought. Seeing is not always believing. It is true that our senses, especially the sense of sight, often muddles our deeper visions. The superficial is more visible than the valuable truths that lie coiled inside layers of the superficial. It takes a special kind of training to tune the senses, to collaborate with all the other senses, to sensitize our probes, to penetrate through all the layers and uncover the essence of everything. Julia’s father learns to see right through to the essence. He uses his senses in the most optimal manner to enlighten his mind and travel to a different place. He shows that the art of intuitive perception can be honed with our army of limited senses. 

But this book is not overtly philosophical. The book’s essence is a beautiful love story. It speaks of a mystical, magical, transcendent love that doesn’t drain or inflict misery, despite any number of pangs and pains. It speaks of a completely unconditional love that only uplifts and multiplies true happiness. Is it possible for such unearthly love to exist between two people? Is it possible that the love that we dig deep within ourselves to enlighten and brighten our inner-selves, can be found through another individual? Could another individual truly complete us – down to our core? The tale says, yes. Once you perceive the essence of love – the true warmth and happiness that it provides, you don’t need to be bound to your rudimentary senses to remain happy. The happiness that you gain is permanent within you, radiating you with energy and good-will.  It is a love without strings attached, but with another kind of deeper, soulful attachment that doesn’t depend on the senses to be activated.  Although it is hard to achieve such a state in our worldly relationships, the story brought back my tucked-away idealism to the fore. And I reveled in it, at least briefly. 

The writing is simple and beautiful. It effortlessly streams with lucidity and insight. It gracefully paints the story and the settings. And the characters are surely memorable. But (there had to be a but), there are questions that are left unanswered, and the questions are significant enough to nag the reader. Why did Julia’s father decide to get married to her mother, is one such a question. Why did he not return to Burma earlier, if he had the clarity and courage to differentiate between social mores and the ways of Nature? Some things don’t add up, especially since the story is set in so much idealism. It taints Julia’s father in a shroud of tarnished uncertainty and cowardice, taking away some of the beauty of the story. 

Despite the nagging questions, I really liked the book. I really thought this would receive my highest rating, but a few things didn’t align themselves in the end.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reflections: The Help

Skeeter (as she is called) is an aspiring writer in the small town of Jackson, Mississippi. It is the early 1960s, a time of much social awakenings and upheaval in the United States. Skeeter agrees with the socialist movements, in principle. Everyday she witnesses her clique of snooty white friends settle deeper and deeper into their rigid and narrow ways - insulting, segregating, and oppressing their African-American maids, focusing their time and effort to scale social ladders through superficial parties, and perpetuating the notion that women, that too white women, are too precious to do any hard work. Skeeter finally picks up the courage and determination to write a book from the perspective of African-American maids, with the hope that the book shall bring to light the pitiable lives of such maids and the dynamics between them and the white families they serve. With sharp characters and engrossing writing, this is an honest, simple, and heart-warming story of racial prejudices and social pressures that affect sincere, innocent lives.

Racism is the main subject of exploration in the book. But the parallel exploration that interested me was the relationship dynamics between a maid and the family that she serves. Maids, or rather Domestic Helps, are still part of most households in India. In many families, the Help is an indispensable part of everyday functioning. From cleaning the house, to helping in the kitchen, to running errands, to taking care of children, they are part of all the core elements of the household. In my own family, our Help has been with us for close to 20 years. She has grown to be one of my mother’s closest friends and support systems. Having seen me grow, I am more like a granddaughter to her. Despite such heartwarming closeness, I am aware that there is still a boundary that is drawn on either sides - define it with whatever term, color it with whatever emotion - I can’t articulate the right words for it. The dynamics is dotted with hiccups - of social hierarchy, financial status, educational differences, and overall differences in lifestyle. Perhaps it is unrealistic, given natural work boundaries, for a Help to be fully integrated into a family, but the book makes you wonder and give it more thought. Why doesn’t she ever sit with you at the same table to share a meal - nobody prevents her, there are no official rules or contract - but an implicit set of antiquated rules always hangs in the air. It is sad that in many households this is still a matter of deep-seated prejudice - the rules are imbued very seriously, with the upholders presenting thin, but vehement justifications.

As much as I hate to say this, most times the justification is presented in the name of hygiene. The book brings up this same “justification” and revolves a story around it. It shows that such rationalization is a blow to basic dignity, especially in these times. The characters in the book make an appeal to adopt more progressive attitudes.

The characters themselves are starkly black or white - good or bad. Except for Skeeter’s mom, many of the characters lacked complexity - they were simple, but beautifully portrayed. Despite the wealth of characters, each has their unique voice. Sometimes, it is nice to read stories with such simple characters that tell a basic story of injustice; a refreshing break from the world of greys we live in. The bad pay their dues, the good get blessed with a break. But life is not an ideal fairy tale, even in the most simplest of stories. The characters’ lives fork, twist, and turn, and some renew their faith and goodness to carry on, while some contently resort to their old, rusty ways. In that sense, there is a lot of realism in the story.

The wide array of memorable characters, the thread of suspense, the bristling injustices and prejudices, the rooting feminism and social liberation, make the book a straightforward success. I couldn’t put the book down, despite its length. No wonder a movie was promptly made!

Friday, August 10, 2012


We are each victims of Life. In our own little bubble, we are victimized by the world, by circumstances, by mean people. We cry out for justice, justify our anger and actions, and victimize someone else in the process. In this vicious cycle, it is easier to feel victimized at every turn, than to see ourselves as perpetrators. The cause is always something sinister that hounds us, that makes us fall prey every time.

So, if the whole world is a stage of victims, who are the perpetrators?

Sometimes it helps to stop perceiving oneself as just a hapless victim. It might help to understand that most often, both the perpetrator and the perpetratee are both victims. Victims of different demons, but victims nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Reflections: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

This is a saga of love, tragedy, and quite simply, life. I have been tapping my keyboard for 15 minutes wondering how to summarize the book and the tale. I don’t think I can satisfactorily do so. At the heart of it, it is an intense story of relentless love that two men have for the sensual, angelic singer, Vina Apsara. Ormus Cama is a musical genius, and Umeed Rai is a talented photojournalist. Both are friends, and both love the same woman, but she loves only one. Their lives are entwined from their young days in post-colonial Bombay, all the way to New York, where Ormus and Vina create a rock sensation of their own. The tale is about passion and the depths to which arts such as music and photography can sink into our soul and meld within us.

The novel is about so many things that surround a simple love story. Its about life’s hypocrisies, injustices, cruelties, and all the million ironies and unpredictabilities. Salman Rushdie writes evocatively and passionately. What impressed me the most was his insouciant and seamless style of loading a single sentence with so many divergent but related thoughts and topics. He spans a wide breadth of subjects with just a few casual sentences that are most of the time, deep and powerful. His details are sharp, almost pungent, and they kick and punch you with their vividness and imagery. The lines that stayed with me the most from the book are:

“A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second, or one sixteenth, or one hundred and twenty eighth. Snap your fingers; a snapshot’s faster. Halfway between your voyeur and witness, high artist and low scum, that’s where I’ve made my life, making my eye-blink choices.
Long ago I developed a knack for invisibility. It allowed me to go right up to the actors in the world’s drama, the sick, the dying, the crazed, the mourning, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the bereft, the angry, the murderous, the secretive, the bad, the children, the good, the newsworthy; to shimmy into their charmed space, into the midst of their rage or grief or transcendent arousal, to penetrate the defining instant of their being-in-the-world and get my f****** picture.”
“In the beginning was the tribe, clustering around a fire, a single multi-bodied collective entity standing back-to-back against the enemy, which was the rest of everything-that-was. Then for a little while we broke away, we got names and individuality and privacy and big ideas, and that started a wider fracturing, because if we could do it - us, the planet kings, the gobblers with the lock on the food chain, the guys in the catbird seat - if we could cut ourselves loose, then so could everything else, so could event and space and time and description and fact, so could reality itself. Well, we weren’t expecting to be followed, we didn’t realize we were starting anything, and it looks like it’s scared us so profoundly, this fracturing, this tumbling of walls, this forgodsake freedom, that at top speed we’re rushing back into our skins and war paint, postmodern into premodern, back to the future. That’s what I see when I’m a camera: the battle lines, the corrals, the stockades, the pales, the secret handshakes, the insignia, the uniforms, the lingo, the closing in, the shallow graves, the high priests, the non-negotiable currencies, the junk, the booze, the fifty year old ten year olds, the blood dimm’d tide, the slouching towards Bethlehem, the suspicion, the loathing, the closed shutters, the pre-judgments, the scorn, the hunger, the thirst, the cheap lives, the cheap shots, the anathemas, the minefields, the demons, the demonized, the fuhrers, the warriors, the veils, the mutilations, the no-man’s-land, the paranoias, the dead, the dead.”

There are better lines in the book, but I don’t know why these bleak, harsh, and strong words (or their essence) stayed with me. This is a long (575 pages long) book that tells a complicated, yet simple story. Too many references, mythical and real, are drawn from mythology, theology, the music industry, the rock movement, history and politics to weave this web of a saga. The one thing that I didn’t much understand the need for, was Rushdie’s typical inclusion of something absurd and fantastical, eerie and magical. The tale could have done without his touch of magical realism. I often don’t get it.

I should also mention something about the zillion characters that show up in this tale. I find it fascinating that Rushdie’s characters seem like caricatures on the surface - very little physical or outward descriptions, but the few descriptions that he gives are so potent that you instantly draw a sketch of them in your mind. With each character, he brings out a persona - a whole range of clustered mini-characters within one gigantic one. He gives the characters a cartoonish absurdity, but this ridiculous absurdity sticks and frames the characters. And of course, the dialogues and slangs and wordplays he incorporates through his characters, are witty and ring true. My favorite character (for his portrayal) is Piloo Doodhwala. His introduction sealed the character in my mind:

“On this golden afternoon or another, bronzer p.m., at this instant or that one, the celebrated Mr. Piloo Doodhwala and his famous “magnificentourage” marched forth on to Juhu’s sands. I was wholly ignorant of his growing citywide renown as a “character” and “coming man” and statewide purveyor of milk; I had no idea that his real name was Shetty-but nobody called him that anymore, because, as he himself liked to say, “milkman by fame, Milkman by name”; I had never heard of the term he had coined to describe the intimate clique of family members and servitors with which he liked to surround himself - a term gleefully taken up by the local rags and much satirised (“magnificentestine”, arrogantourage”, etc.); but Piloo Shetty alias Doodhwala was impervious to satire. I simply beheld a small, plump, white-kurta-pajamaed man in his middle twenties, a young man with so great a sense of his own value that he already looked middle-aged, a fellow with a strutting walk like a peacock’s and plentiful dark hair so sleekly plastered down with oil that it resembled a sleeping mongoose. He carried himself like a king, Caligula or Akbar, monarchs who entertained fantasies of being divine.”

This is an interesting, but a very long, dense, and powerful read. Parts of it are engaging and intense, but other parts are far too deep. Nothing propels you to pick it up and read it, but when you do start reading, Rushdie’s words pull you into his world until their power sucks your energy out. And then, you would put the book down and watch it gather some dust, until one fine day something in you (perhaps your library reminders) urges you to finish it. It took me 2 months to finish the last 100 pages, but a couple of days to finish the first 300. The book’s charm waxes and wanes, but in the end, it emerges as an interesting read. 


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Reflections: Death by Blackhole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

This was my first audiobook. My husband and I finally reached an equilibrium to engage in a shared activity during long road trips. Arguably, when it comes to books (as with anything else), our margins of intersection are pretty thin, but still, we optimistically settled on our common ground of Science, and downloaded this book. It is an achievement in and of itself that we both read/listened to the same book from beginning to end. Hopefully this isn’t the first and the last one!

The book is a compilation of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essays on Cosmology and Astrophysics. It covers a comprehensive breadth of fundamental topics in Physics, or rather Astrophysics. Most of the chapters were part of our high school textbooks, so in that sense, I don’t think I learned any brand new theories or concepts, but it was a good refresher that helped me internalize some of the harder concepts. I also enjoyed listening to some of the scientific studies that were conducted over the years. My favorite chapters were the initial and the final ones. Tyson knows how to engage his readers/listeners. His initial essays convincingly emphasize on the need for Scientific studies, analytical thinking, and rigorous reasoning to help us understand the unfathomable Universe. He instills the need to inculcate humility and acknowledge our limitations, and to be as open-minded as possible in our studies. The fact that Astrophysicists still haven’t deciphered a major chunk of the mysteries of the Universe is a telling sign of our limitations. But, that doesn’t mean we resign and give up, and attribute everything to something far too intelligent. The more humble and open-minded we are, the more analytical tools we employ, the more we advance in our quest to augment our knowledge and fill our ignorance. I appreciated this stance that threads through all his chapters. I expected a little more from his final chapters - especially the ones on Culture and Scientific Exploration, Science and Religion, but he merely scratches the surface of such topics.

Both my husband and I are interested in Cosmology - while I’m mostly curious of some of the fascinating theories and philosophical aspects of it, my husband is more interested in the mathematics and the hardcore physics behind it all. So, the impressive part of the book is that it managed to keep us both engaged due to the manner in which Tyson has framed the essays. Also, I’m a novice to Cosmology, and my knowledge of Physics is pretty basic, but my husband’s stronghold is Physics. So, it was interesting that the book appealed, in some respects, to both of us.

However, we both thought that there were too many repetitions of topics. Since these were formally essays, each one would work good as a standalone, but there were quite a few overlap between the essays, making the continuity of the overall book a little strained. Some of the essays didn’t flow together either. The repetitions also made our short attention spans drift off.

Now, onto my thoughts on the audio-format. Understandably, it was very hard to concentrate after a couple of hours of listening. We were distracted by the driving or would just nod off. And if there were parts of a paragraph that I didn’t quite understand, the rewinding feature didn’t help me much. I am used to mulling over difficult or thought-provoking sentences and concepts by either repeatedly reading through the words slowly, or writing/sketching something out, or by just referring to a previous chapter/page/paragraph and thinking over everything. I could have perhaps done all this with an audio book as well, had I been at home and next to a paper/pencil, and had the patience to rewind multiple times to get to a specific sentence. But while driving, if you miss something, or don’t understand a few sentences, it’s quite hard to retrace to a specific sentence or paragraph. I couldn’t underline, or highlight, so the interesting sentences and pages could not be marked, and consequently not remembered. These issues wouldn’t surface with Fiction. But with books dealing with more complicated concepts, audio-formats may not work well all the time.

In addition, the narrator plays a tremendous role in how well the book is assimilated. I loved the narration of the book! It was brilliant. Till the end, I thought the narrator was Tyson himself, for the voice betrayed the same baritone and clarity, but I was totally surprised when I heard it was Dion Graham! Wow, Dion Graham did a phenomenal job narrating the book. He captured the enthusiasm, the sarcasm, the wit, the humor, the excitement, the sophistication, the emotions, and the knowledge of the author. The narration made the book so many more times entertaining and engaging. One can just listen to the excellent voice and tune out everything else - which is what I did every time the 2 hour threshold hit!

Well, to summarize, this is a wonderful collection of essays that is sure to appeal to anyone who is interested in the basics of Astrophysics and the debates surrounding the concepts. Experts might enjoy Tyson’s way of elucidating the concepts, and of course, his wit and humor.