Friday, March 02, 2018

February Lites

The month of February went by like a bullet. It was a really hectic period at office and involved some travel. In anticipation of this, I had picked really light books for reading in February. 

Light books for me are those books, which have less than 300 pages and are neatly divided into small chapters. Preferably, fiction. Also, for such busy periods, I prefer subjects that I am familiar with. Not requiring a dictionary while reading is another criterion. 

The three books I read in February and my views on the same follow. Some intellectuals may bash me for some of my choices. And for a change, I would agree to them.

Book 1: Sita - Warrior Of Mithila by Amish

This is Amish's second book in Ram Chandra Series, which is a re-telling of the Ramayana. If you are familiar with his past work, especially the Shiva Trilogy, you would be aware that he modernizes many incidents and concepts from our mythology in his stories, by making his woman characters stronger and men more liberal. Another facet is his strong sense of nationalism in his writings. The concept of modern nation-state India is relevant even in his stories from thousands of years ago. Also, he strongly relies on scientific and technological explanations for, what we assume to be miracles in our mythology. That makes the Gods in his books more human. He continues to do so in Sita, follow up to Scion of Ikshvaku. I believe it is a worthy follow-up.

While the scene setting in the book is laborious, but overall narrative is full of intrigue and politics of that time. Thus, making it a gripping read. I look forward to part 3.

Book 2: Immortal India : Young Country, Timeless Civilization by Amish

This one is Amish's first non fiction book. It is a collection of his writings and talks across several publications and forums. I must commend that Amish comes across as well read and his writings are well researched and backed by data. As you move ahead in the book, it becomes repetitive though. But his core concepts on religion and Indian politics really bring to fore an alternative narrative. His ability to see things from multiple perspectives seem inspired by several other authors, he has read over the years. I find his writings truly liberal and rooted unlike those of many self-proclaimed intellectuals.

His one particular essay on why he writes, was really heartfelt and I identified with it.

But I would prefer his fiction over this book, any day.

Book 3: Making India Awesome : New Essays and Columns by Chetan Bhagat                                                                              

I have always liked Chetan Bhagat's fiction books. I know many of you don't like him as an author and may be as a person. I also am aware of, and have often noticed, the mistakes he makes in his books. But then, so do I, when I write. But one thing which I appreciate about his books is, that he is a master story teller. His slice of life stories are simple and identifiable.

But picking Making India Awesome was a big mistake. He writes about well known problems in India and gives over simplistic solutions. The book is written with very little or very poor research. I didn't expect this from an IIT-IIM alumnus. Also, he looks down upon the readers and sounds highly patronizing throughout the book.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Two Tough Books

Normally, I am able to read a book, the moment I get my hands on it. Also, if I start reading one, I would finish it start to end without reading any other book during that period. This period normally would be few hours to few days, depending on length and genre of the book and the time I have for reading. 

Few books were exceptions - I gave 6 months each to Ayn Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I was in my twenties then, and I was so overwhelmed by them, that I kept reading few paragraphs and pages again and again. These were the books, where more than what lies ahead, what I just read excited me. There was another book titled White Mughals by William Dalrymple which took me almost 6 months to complete. This one was really challenging. It was thick and it was history. History, the way I perceived it then was a boring school subject. And even after completing this book with great difficulty, my perception didn't change. Then there is this one book, which I haven't completed in last 15 years. It was Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I left it incomplete after the third habit and have hated the self-help genre since then. I had mentioned about this in one of my earlier posts on books here.

In this post, I am going to talk about two books, which kept lying on my bookshelf for more than a year, before I could muster the courage to pick them up and read. And, I must say it has been a rewarding experience both the times.

The first one was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and the second one was Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Shantaram was so thick, that I just got scared looking at it. Since I completed it in 2016, I have been less scared of thick books. And the word 'History' in the title of book Sapiens, sounded repulsive. Since I completed it, recently, I have a new found love for history.

Producing below, my views on both the books.

Shantaram  - An Epic Journey

(Reproduced from my LinkedIn article dated 25th March 2016)

First of all, it is a tough and difficult book to read. I started it first two years a
go but abandoned it after reading 100 odd pages. I picked it up again few weeks back with strong determination to finish it, come what may. And I must say it was a wise decision. I realised why it was a difficult book to read. Because it is like no other book I have read before. It is not just a thriller as it is known popularly. It is very profound and delves into philosophy. It uses very difficult words but not for pretence. So when I picked it up this time I started slow and took 4 weeks to read first 300 odd pages with great pains and difficulty. I wasn't sure where the book was heading to. But one will have to make that investment to reap the big rewards in the remaining 633 pages.

Secondly, this is not just a chronicle of underworld or mafia in Mumbai. Yes, it is that too. But it is actually a journey of a man in the quest of truth. And it is an epic journey because it spans years and continents. It introduces us to several hundred characters in blood and flesh. And that is the winning ability of the author. The author is able to keep the reader interested as several questions get answered as you progress. 

Many subplots if narrated without the context may sound incredulous. But as the author humanised these stories and subplots and peppered them with enough realism, he is able to make its readers believe in the credibility of the going ons. 

For me there were several nuggets in the book that will stay with me for long. I liked the way author talks about love in all its forms. I understood how forgiving someone gives freedom. I realised the difference between honour and virtue. And finally I understood that one man's evil can be other man's good.

Sapiens - Humanising History

History has always given me jitters. History has always meant the following for me:

a. Dates and years, which I couldn't remember. Especially irksome was the AD / BC con
fusion. Or was it AB / CD?

b. Names of the places, kings, kingdoms, battles etc. which get mixed up in my mind. But I am still not sure who were real freedom fighters? The revolutionaries or the Dandi March ones? Who brought us freedom? Was it real freedom? The school history books never told us this.

c. Learn it by rote. Can you really blame me for being scared of History?

I bought Sapiens because it came highly recommended, but I started reading it only after it spent a historical time on my bookshelf, gathering the dust of the year gone by. 

And, I must say, I loved the book. If you can only read 10 books in your life, this should make to that list. And, I am saying this without reading hundreds of other books which are highly recommended.

This book has lot of dates, events and names. I finished the book yesterday and I must confess, I still don't remember most of these. But it doesn't matter. That is the key paradigm shift. While reading I didn't feel compelled to even remember these things. Still, I feel my perspective on our history is far richer. It is a clear win for the author, because his narrative style is fluid and full of examples and anecdotes which you can visualise. 

I recall from school history books, lot of wars and battles. And, they were always won by good people. Because victors had a self image that they are the right ones and they wrote the history.

But Sapiens doesn't take sides. It tells you history based on evidence. It tells you history like the way it happened or way it could have happened. It clearly brings to fore the possibilities where evidence is weak. It lets you as a reader to make your own conclusions. But most importantly, it makes you question everything you knew so far about yourself and your beliefs. It makes you uncomfortable at times. It makes you feel insignificant. It blurs the distinction between good and evil. It articulates our evolution as a species in a three act structure. And it makes history, interesting.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Screw New Year Resolutions

Let us first understand Newton's law of inertia. It states that, unless acted upon by an external, unbalanced force, an object at rest remains at rest, or if in motion, it continues to move in a straight line with constant speed.

New Year Resolutions work exactly the same way. 

You like to rest your body rather than exerting yourself. When you take a resolution every year in January to change this equation, you fail. Have you wondered why?  Because your own resolution is not an external force. Now imagine, a person of opposite sex is egging you on, your chances of going to a gym even after the new year is one month old, increase dramatically. If that person of opposite sex, who is egging you on, is highly attractive and promises you a date, the force on you is external as well as unbalanced. Now you will be seen working out in the gym, even in March. 

Then, how do you explain the behavior of people, on your facebook timeline, who regularly keep posting their Fitbit stats, or marathon pictures or their resolutions to run more this year, every year. I can offer two theories for them:

1. 'Invisible unbalanced, external force' theory: These buggers are only putting up posts related to  their resolutions, completely hiding from you the reason behind it. Their reason is more beautiful or smarter than yours. Don't fall for this trap.

2. 'State of motion' theory: They were already doing it. They are just flaunting it now. Their bodies are used to exertion and now an external, unbalanced force, say the most delicious cheesecake or a Netflix series can only bring them peace and their bodies to rest. 

Let us examine if these postulates, are equally applicable to other categories of New Year Resolutions. Then you will have a universal law, to screw the new year resolutions, on your side.

Given below is the list of 10 most popular new year resolutions, as per a poll I saw on internet:

1. Eat better
2. Exercise more
3. Spend less money
4. Self Care (i.e. get more sleep)
5. Read more books
6. Learn a new skill
7. Get a new job
8. Make new friends
9. Get a new hobby
10. Focus more on appearance

We have already discussed at length, the second one (Exercise more) and I believe 'Eat better' and 'Focus more on appearance' work exactly the same way. So they don't require a separate discussion.

I don't think 'Get a new job' and 'Make new Friends' are even resolutions. You either suck at what you do or you have bad body odour. Please work on the real issues rather than making stupid wishes.

Those who resolve to spend less money, have not much to start off with. Please don't read such blogs and save on your data costs.

'Get more sleep?' Come on. Be serious. How can this be a resolution?  Change your mattress or take a sleeping pill.

That leaves us with three real resolutions - Read more books, Learn a new skill and Get a new hobby.

Why would you read more books, when you don't already do it or learn a new skill? Definitely not for the enlightenment it provides. That is not an external force. You will always fail in your resolution, if you do something only for yourself. To ensure you stick to these resolutions, check with your boss, what books he will like you to read or skills he would like you to acquire. Do whatever he says. He will continuously breathe down your neck and that is the external force you were looking for. Ensure you keep giving him updates till your appraisals in March. After that you don't need these resolutions. 

Getting a new hobby just for the sake of getting a new hobby? It doesn't work like that. The reward or penalty of not doing it has to be greater. For example, if you want to do photography, buy a costlier camera first. Your spouse's regular barbs will act as an external force, more powerful than any other force known to human. The camera will automatically levitate into your hands every weekend.

Now you know the truth behind new year resolutions. Do you really need one?