Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reflections: The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Whales endlessly fascinate me. They have a strange allure on me, causing a curious mix of fear, wonder, and an eagerness to know more. I have heard several personal stories from colleagues and friends from the Pacific coast on how pods of humpback whales have swum inches by their little rafts, making sure that not a drop of water splashed on them while they gracefully rose and dove at just the right intervals to avoid the rafts. Such consideration and compassion is so moving! I regard whales as truly gentle beasts of the sea with so much enigma around them. So, this acclaimed book was an apt gift from my husband who is fascinated with me being fascinated with whale watching.

Anyway, I was quite excited to read the book. I expected it to be a glorious book on whales - expounding on their behaviors, biology, habitat, and a little history rendered through a literary style of writing. However, this turned out to be mostly history - specifically the history of whaling and the misconceptions and metaphors surrounding whales before science clarified and debunked almost all of them. Being a fan of Moby Dick, the author frames most of the book using Moby Dick as his muse. I definitely enjoyed most of the book, but those parts of Moby Dick that were not captivating to me, specifically about the history of whaling, were present in this book too. So, I generously skimmed those pages/chapters.

But what I really loved about this book was my connection with the author's palpable enthusiasm, excitement, and wide-eyed fascination with whales! It was a wonderful resonance! If I had heard him talk in person, I think all my hair would have stood on end with excitement! All those elusive words that I have grappled with to articulate why I am so moved by whales are present bountifully in this book. And what beautiful words and apt sentences are spilled through this book! The writing is truly beautiful and literary. So, my heart raced, my head was nodding and my lips were breaking into a smile as I read through passages glorifying this magnificent beast. I particularly enjoyed reading about all the myths surrounding whales - the beasts of the sea that no one could see before the advent of aquariums and documentaries.

One aspect that clawed at me was my guilt at understanding how whales are (or used to be) transported to aquariums for public viewing. I don't think I will ever see beluga whales at an aquarium with the same mirth.  Side note: aren't beluga whales awesome? Such cheery, calming creatures. The author briefly discusses the costs and benefits (if at all) of bringing these animals to captive habitats - even if the habitat is set up with good intentions.

If there's one thing I would wish about this book, it would be to cut short on the historical aspects and concentrate more on the behavior and biology of whales. I guess, that means I should just walk into a library and pick a biology book. But if only biology books were as well written as this one!

The historical aspects of whaling do have a lot of social and environmental relevance today, so I appreciate that. However, more on the whales themselves would have been fantastic.

To wrap up, this is a wonderful, well written book that idealizes and empathizes with whales. The book engulfs whales with so much romanticism and glory. History buffs with interest in marine creatures or fishing will appreciate this book all the more.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Being the Best

I realized something valuable about pushing oneself to be better, to be the best. The realization is not ground-breaking, but it's something that I need to understand and internalize. And I internalize best by talking and writing about it.

I think it's natural for everyone to want to push ahead of the crowd. This spark of ambition is required for survival, and it fosters healthy competition. However, over the years, I have come to resent this urge within me that constantly nags me to get ahead and be better, because I've been losing inner peace and failing to realize a feeling of contentment despite anything I do. There's always a voice within me that says, "It's still not the best". Previously, I used to be perpetually flustered that I was lagging behind, not doing the best, and therefore thought I was failing. I wanted to be perfect at everything. As everyone knows, perfectionism is the evil that puts an end to every dream and attempt. I was afraid to try anything because I was discontent that I was not doing the "best". So I did what I always do best - retreat inside myself. Opportunities passed by me, and I was safely cocooned inside telling myself I would anyway not be the best, so why even try? I realized that my very ambition came back to hurt me, and I ended up doing the exact opposite - not nurturing an ambition at all to save myself from the fear of competing and excelling and being the best. 

Now, after lessons learned, I have tried to strike a balance between ambition and perfectionism. But only very recently, did I realize something significant that altered the way I was dealing with perfectionism, and being and doing the best. 

There's a difference between being "THE best" and being "MY best". MY best might still not be THE best ever, it might not even be someone's idea of being "acceptable", but it is the best I can be. And I have finally understood this and embraced this. I'm now trying to accept it at every phase of my life. I now know when I did my very best, and when I did not. Some self reflection has taught me my own limits, and that no matter how hard I push, after a point, I am who I am, and my improvements in certain areas can only be a minor increment that perhaps will not count in the grand scheme of things. However, realizing and filling in the gaps within yourself to be your very best is the most rewarding form of self-actualization.

Watching the Winter Olympics taught me this. I had never paid so much attention to the Olympics ever before. But this year, as my own insecurities, anxieties, and uncertainties were whirling inside me, I have been observing people all the more. I was more interested in the hundreds of people that did not win anything at the Olympics. Seeing all the athletes that dedicated their lives to being their very best at a sport lose the medal over fractions of a second or a few seconds, tore my heart. I marveled at their spirit, for trying and continuing to work hard despite knowing the incredible competition they faced, despite realizing the possibility that they would not win. They did not do what I would have done - throw down the towel and say, "What's the use? Why bother? I am not the best anyway". However, they still pushed themselves, they still vowed to dedicate four more years of their lives to grueling training even if it meant they might never win.  It warmed my heart to see the genuine smiles and happiness on the faces of those athletes that did not win, but were proud that they showcased their personal best at the Olympics. What makes them do it? Passion, a realization for what they can do, actualizing the best they can ever be?

We cannot all be winners or the world's best at everything we do. The world is large, and the talented people in it are astounding. Even if we are not the ultimate best at what we do, it does not mean we are worthless. It's only realistic to aim for our personal best and to keep improving ourselves in areas where we recognize room for growth within ourselves; this room should not be measured against everyone in the world or the best in the world. Such a gap is far too huge to close by everyone. Besides, is it even possible to truly quantify "best" in the world?  It is also just as important to realize when we have hit our limits and to accept them. No use banging on an iron door with no key or tools. A sloth can dream and train and practice and work hard, but he will never be a leopard. We are who we are. Cultivate those aspects where your limits stretch out far and beyond. You may still not be the absolute best at it, but make use of the skills you have to try and push the fringes of the limits as much as you can.

Now that I have realized my limits, I need to make sure every work that I do is taken right up to the frontiers of my limits, of my own very best. That's the best that I can ever do. Then, I should sit back and let the Universe take its course. Whatever is the outcome, I should have the magnanimity and equanimity to accept it and be content with the knowledge that I did my best. And bask in the contentment of actualizing the best in me.

It's great to strive to be the best you can be, for yourself.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflections: We Need New Names

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and garnering some prestigious literary awards, this is a powerful and raw debut novel that candidly addresses the inter-tangled issues of immigration, identity, and coming of age. Darling is a young ten year old girl in the poverty-striken, ravaged land of Zimbabwe. She and her friends live through their family's despair by playing simple games through which they try to live their fantasies of living a better life; a life in the precious country of United States, a life where they can wear good clothes, eat decent food, go to good schools, and lead a dignified life. Darling's aunt lives in the United States, so Darling nurtures the strong hope that she would one day leave her wretched country and her bitter memories, and start a new life in America. One day, she manages to go to the U.S. But reality is different.

In the U.S, her aunt lives in a different kind of poverty and desperation. Darling sees her aunt working round the clock to send money and materials to the hungry family in Zimbabwe that assumes that everyone in the U.S lives a wealthy, comfortable life. The family back home appears parasitic to Darling. Amidst all the changes, confusions, and bitterness, Darling grows into a teenager who realizes she is now in no-man's land. She does not have enough money to go back home, nor a valid visa status to legally study or work in the U.S. Her only option is to work for low wages, be in constant hiding from the authorities, and make ends meet in a foreign land that does not offer any of the things she was hoping for. She has to face the heart twisting reality of probably never seeing her mom, her friends, or feel the familiarity of her land again.

When I read the book last November, I did not think much of it. It seemed like yet another book on immigration concerning a lost African child. What did strike me was how confident the writing was, and how un-apologetically raw, sharp and honest everything about it was. It has a rather abrupt ending, but rightfully so, because such stories have no ending in real life. Such real life stories are left hanging, just like the people that are hanging onto fragments of their past and present in hopes of making something of a future. I have realized that the more I let a book live with me in my thoughts, the more I learn about it, the more honed and mature my opinions of it are. After all these months, thinking about this book has made me revise my initial neutrality towards it. All the scenarios described in the book are coming back to me with rich, vivid frames that will always stay in my memory when I think about immigrants that have left their lands to barely make ends meet. And I think such strong recollections of key scenarios and characters of the book are marks of a good book. I can forget the story and the details, but I will never forget Darling's emotions and that of her aunt's. I may even forget Darling's name, but not some of the core scenes.

There is one scene in specific that clinched the book's essence. It's something I will always remember. Darling's aunt who is making her living in the U.S. decides to phone-order something for herself from Victoria's Secret. Her conversation with the sales representative from Victoria's Secret was so poignant and evocative of all her internal struggles and sadness that I will never forget the emotions that transpired. Her struggle to make herself understood to a foreign representative, her adamance to not change her accent because it is who she is, and her attempt at convincing herself and the girl on the line that she can, she ought to, and she deserves to order an expensive inner garment for herself said it all about the illegal immigrant experience.

Zimbabwe's socio-political scene is extremely complicated and riddled with historic legacies of racism. Bulawayo doesn't go into details, but merely outlines crucial aspects of it through the observations of a child's eye. This makes it all the more tragic.

In all, this is a strong and impressive debut novel that seems to require some time and reflection for the raw sadness to settle in. Although the book is short and the writing is simple, the writing evokes scenes and characters in a unique way, making the book memorable and powerful. I am looking forward to more of Bulawayo's books!