Friday, July 27, 2012

Reflections: Half a Life

This is the first book of Naipaul's that I managed to finish. I don't understand why his writings and books are so highly acclaimed. I have started and abandoned his books, hoping that one day I will grow smart enough to finish one. Having finished this book, I still struggle to understand what makes this author so special. 

The protagonist is an Indian who, like several others, is unsure of what he wants from life. His cowardly and weak father is of little inspiration to him. He sees the nascent independent India as a lowly, frustrating place to live in, and aspires to get to the west and cultivate himself into a cultured, modern westerner. But he fails, or at the very least, grapples. He is yet again unsure of who he is and what he wants. He realizes that survival is hard, and just like his father, tries to take the easiest path that life offers to meander through his existence. This is a slim story of a man who fritters away half of his life - his prime, his youth - just because of sluggishness, laziness, cowardice, and a lack of substance or self-awareness. Upon entering a life of hedonism and comfort, he sails through life and time without a goal or purpose. One fine day, he reaches the peak of his wastefulness, and upon satiation, moves on to (hopefully) do something more with his life. 

This is what I got out of the book. Naipaul's tone is wry and dry throughout the book. He touches upon colonial hangover, the prejudices of the Indian caste-system and other related social mores, and the hunger that consumes most Indians to migrate to, and ape the west. Once in the West, we struggle with a dichotomous identity, neither fitting in nor standing out. We have read these themes in hundreds of books, so what makes this particular book special? I don't know. 

The story of how a man thoughtlessly and mindlessly squandered away half of his life by leeching onto someone is neither interesting nor inspiring. What did Naipaul hope to convey through this story (if it can be called that), I have no clue. The writing was insipid and boring, none of the characters were remotely likeable nor worthy of empathy, and the plot was completely flat. There was not a single thread of anything likeable. 

This is the account of a man who does nothing in life - hiding behind the shadows and indulging in the pleasures of the senses. Perhaps it's a subtle pointer at how most of us lead similar aimless lives? That even slothfulness satiates after a certain point? That we humans can't escape from dealing with self-awareness? Smart people should be kind enough to hammer into my pea-brain the reason and deeper significance of why this book and the author is so acclaimed. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Reflections: The Diary of Anne Frank

I had a slim opportunity to visit Amsterdam recently. Just the mention of the syllables that make "Amsterdam" bring to mind two dominant memories - one is a fleeting visit with my parents when I was barely old enough to register more sophisticated memories than feelings of "cold" and "new", and the other is of course, Anne Frank. Anne Frank was in my thoughts almost all the time, so I decided to reread her poignant diary. I was mildly interested to know if the diary read differently to me, now that I am much more older than I first read it. But surprisingly, I could relate to it much more this time.

There are no words to describe the mix of emotions I went through while reading the diary as it slowly progressed and matured. The ramblings and rantings in my own journal have the same quality of alternating despair and enthusiasm as hers, except Anne matured and grew up so very beautifully and wisely, and her writings have such heart-breaking insights that the words twist my heart every time I read them. Her experiences highlight, yet again, the stark extremes of humanity - touching kindness and ruthless cruelty; petty materialism and progressive open-mindedness; steely determination and fragile will-power.  Anne's witty and clever observations keep ringing in my head. I believe that it was her undying hope and positivity that eventually brought a sliver of her dreams to fruition. Her determination to be a successful writer who would be fondly remembered, has indeed come true.

How wise was she to have written such touchingly beautiful thoughts at an age when my diary was filled with narcissistic angst -

"At such moments I don't think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: "Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you're not part of it." My advice is: "Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy."
"I don't think Mother's advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You'd be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who's happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!"

One can only hope that her bright and positive attitude helped her get through her harrowing times at the concentration camp. It's a good lesson and reminder to stay happy and discover beauty at all times.

If you haven't read her diary, I would urge you to read it. Yes, it's sad and tragic, but also immeasurably inspiring and touching.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reflections: Mockingjay

This is the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. I really liked the final book. The first and second books were mostly suspenseful and disturbing, but the third one really delivered the characters and storyline. The rebellion is in full-swing. The rebels congregate and strengthen the unit in District 13 and are ready to overthrow the Capitol. Katniss represents the symbol of the rebellion - the Mockingjay. Katniss supports the rebellion in principle, but she can’t reconcile the death and ravage it is bringing about. Is it worth any cause to sacrifice the lives of the innocent? The question harangues her and consumes her, but she resolves to kill President Snow, if that’s the last thing she does. Can she save Peeta from the tortuous clutches of the Capitol? Can human-beings ever be able to sustain life after the horrific war? Can she ever lead a normal life after all this? These are the questions that plague the reader as much as Katniss as they race through the book.

Due to all the introspection that the protagonist goes through, much of the heavier themes are suitably addressed in the final book. True, the themes have not been delved into their true, fathomless depths, but it’s a good exploration for a young-adults' book. The writing never came to the forefront of my reading experience until this book. The writing tackles the moral and ethical dilemmas of war, conflict, and revenge, in a manner that both teenagers and adults can feel the severity and weight of the issues. The climax is particularly well-written. Katniss’s growth is tragically and sensitively fleshed out, and real emotions of pain, despair, and agony scream across the pages. True, this book is also heartrendingly painful to read, but everything is conveyed much better than in its prequels. The brutality of the situations is tempered with a certain quality of philosophical irony, and balanced with a good measure of human goodness.

No doubt, this is yet another violent book. I went through similar nightmares as Katniss, just by reading the book. Katniss’s and Peeta’s psychological states were also realistically written.

The main thing the book misses on is the political shift (if any) that happens at the end. What happens to the political situation? What are the new credos? The political manifesto? Will there still be a Capitol and subordinate districts? How would they all operate? Etc.. It’s not clear if democracy is set. Not that it matters to Katniss at this juncture, but the book would have been more powerful if it had at least grazed these questions.

The book ends on the major note that it is important for people to always pay attention to the political scenarios and not remain selfishly complacent with their comfortable outward existence. Each of us plays a role in the political beliefs held by our community as a whole. It’s a nice message for teenagers to think beyond their bubble of entertainment and romance. Political responsibility is indeed important for all of us to cultivate, no matter our age or status.

I think the series works best as a whole, and not necessarily as individual books. Taken together, there is a surprising level of progress in writing, story-telling, and the characters with each book in the series. The entire series proved to be an interesting, if disturbing, read for me.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reflections: Catching Fire

Catching fire is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. I originally wanted to write a combined post on all three books, but realized that I had different things to write about each book, so here are my thoughts on the second book.

I definitely preferred the second book to the first book, probably because the gravity of the premise had finally sunk into me, or perhaps it was because of the progression of events in this book. The plot in this book deals with the possibility of a rebellion against the Capitol. It shows that even the supposedly mindless people of the Capitol still retained some humanity to feel compassion, sorrow, and intolerance towards callous cruelty. It was also a little relieving that there wasn’t as much violence as in the first book. Again, I could predict what the Quarter Quell had in store for Katniss, but I didn’t expect Katniss to be raised to such a high pedestal by the helpless people of the districts. Seeds are sown and the fire of rebellion slowly spreads. The first half of the book sets the stage.

And of course, some shape is given to the romance-triangle that seems to be the formula of every successful teen book - two incredibly awesome, perfect young men hopelessly in love with a confused, headstrong young woman. In addition to all the devastation that the girl witnesses and goes through, she is subject to yet another painful consideration to sort out her emotions and feelings. An ironic tragedy mixed with fairytale romance. This is another ultimate teenage fantasy. It sometimes gets saccharine to repeatedly read of how self-effacing and immaculately noble the men are, and how imperfect and volatile Katniss is, but, it makes for good dreaming. After all, good romance manipulates everyone - even the people of the Capitol.

Katniss and Peeta find themselves in yet another round of The Hunger Games and are thrown into a monstrous arena. Not knowing whom to trust and whom not to, the pair tries to survive for each other, but little do they know that the Game Planner and others have a bigger agenda in mind. The book ends with a completely disorienting suspense, making the third book in the series extremely sought after.

There is a lot of character development in this book, and the writing is as gripping as the first book. Hope and suspense mix into each other, making the second one a thrilling prelude to the final book.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reflections: The Hunger Games

After much hype and recommendations, I finally finished the popular Hunger Games trilogy. I’m sure everybody knows what the series is about, but just to continue the tradition of this blog, I will follow the usual format.

This is a dystopian novel set in futuristic North America. The human species has managed to destroy much of civilization and democracy, and now all that remains is the country of Panem. Panem has a dictatorial capital - The Capitol, surrounding which are 12 Districts, each of which specializes in manufacturing a specific class of commodity. Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl from District 12, the Mining District. Katniss’s life is as gray and sooty as her district. She is the only bread-winner of her small family. Life is pretty much reduced to basic survival for most people in the Districts, whereas the privileged people in the Capitol lavish and waste themselves with excesses that others in the Districts would die for. In order to cruelly stamp its power and dictatorship over the oppressed people of Panem, it is the Capitol’s tradition to host The Hunger Games every year. Two tributes - a girl and a boy (below 18 years) are randomly chosen from each district to compete in the deadly, Hunger Games - a fight to death until one survivor emerges. The Hunger Games are televised as reality entertainment for all people, but only the citizens of the Capitol derive any measure of entertainment from them. Young Katniss finds herself as a participant in the games. The other tribute from her district is the kind boy, Peeta, who harbors feelings for Katniss. Pitted against each other in an unimaginably cruel circumstance, Katniss and Peeta struggle to save each other, their friends, their family, but most of all their self and their mind, before the Capitol robs them of everything they ever were.

The premise of the book is surely very very disturbing. I struggled to get past it, but couldn’t. The thing that disturbs me is not the author’s conceptualization of a cruelly twisted premise, but the knowledge that human-beings can indeed sink to such depths. We are aware of the absolute lows that humanity touched during the wars, so it perhaps is just a matter of more time and degradation of our civilization and humanity before the world comes down to such games. The possibility of this being true in a far away future, is the most scariest of all.

And of course, with America’s current obsession with reality TV, and a million cut-throat game-shows, this book surely (or hopefully) makes people think about drawing boundaries on what makes “entertainment”. The Hunger Games reminded me of shows such as the Bachelor and Bachelorette. Competitions and Games that directly affect people’s lives and emotions cannot ever be part of entertainment! See what I mean when I say this generation is not too far away from the era of the Hunger Games? In fact, the Capitol is the author’s metaphor for all the capitalist excesses and vices that represent America.

So, needless to state, this was a very addictive page-turner. Although some things are predictable, the gore, violence and cruelty really rattled me. I am definitely surprised that a young-adult book contains so much disturbing violence. I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading the book. And I would be loathe to say the book was “entertaining”.  But, it does provoke thoughts. I didn’t pay much attention to the writing because it tends to slip in the background with all the action grabbing one’s attention in the foreground. I’m glad the author addresses the inner-dilemmas of Katniss. Katniss seemed very real and believable (if not always likeable) and I appreciated how her thoughts change and mature over the course of the series. Peeta is extremely loveable. I had to remind myself that he is a fabricated character that came out of the author’s ideal fantasies!

I didn’t find the climax to be a total surprise. From the start of the book I was wondering as to why none of the contestants ever thought of rebelling in a similar way. But it is surprising that the author chose to use this climax as the catalyst for the rest of the series.

The stark realities of survival are harshly portrayed through this series. Well, hopefully teenagers who love the series look past the adrenaline boosting violence and romance, and pay some heed to the subtler warnings and messages the author weaves in.

Monday, July 09, 2012


Marriage seems to have given me a new perspective on several things, but most specifically, it has widened my understanding of family ties and dynamics. I now find myself perfectly comprehending the internal family dynamics that pushed and pulled and confused my own mother, way back in the past. Having begun to walk my own path in her shoes, I have a new sense of revelation of everything related to family. The shoes that I am walking in, are the shoes that every bride and wife walks in. But, a few years earlier, I would have never guessed that these shoes held so much in them to define my feelings towards family units.

They have taught me how immeasurably significant my own family clan is to me. Having taken my own family and extended family for granted for decades, I have now come to this place of such intense longing for my own people, that it surprises me immensely. A recent family reunion has left me homesick or rather family-sick, for perhaps the very first time. Even though my own parents were not part of the gathering, I felt, so very very much, at home. It felt so overwhelmingly good to BELONG, so very unconditionally, just implicitly. Despite the petty differences and the inevitable trivialities  simmering in the background, I reveled in the certainty that I am implicitly accepted for who I am, and just the way I am. I will remain inextricably a part of them, and the feeling was so heady, so comforting, so peaceful. The feeling screamed - "Your are one of the daughters of the clan". Period. I carry in my veins the unique legacy and history that everybody around me shares and identifies with. Uncles, aunts, and cousins mirror me - myself, something strong within my core. And that moves me, refreshes me, in a way I never imagined possible. I could grasp that common thread that binds us and that transmits love, no matter what. For it assures me that I don't have to guard myself every minute; that I don't have to think twice, thrice, before uttering every single sentence; that I don't have to replay my responses in my head and worry if I did alright; that I don't have to be cautious of my every action; that I don't have to EVER wonder if I'm being judged, evaluated, scanned, or scrutinized; that I don't have to fret over whether I'm being accepted, and if I would be allowed to belong.

It felt exhilarating to not wonder about my acceptance and place. Acceptance embraced me from every nook. The sense of belonging that pervaded me is a precious tonic, a loving shoulder to lean on. I have never smiled so much, and so openly and happily in a very long time. I never thought I would be moved by meeting second cousins for the very first time.

I'm grateful for these ties that always hold me tight, no matter where I go. And I'm grateful for the joy that my primordial sense of belonging gives me. I can now understand the fierce protectiveness that people cultivate towards their place of belonging. I know, it's the motivation of our selfish genes, but nonetheless, I am grateful.