Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Merciless or Manly

November 14, 2013

Self_coverIn the Sunday talk on Subhashitamala (literally, garland of proverbs) Swamiji mentioned the book, Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. The next Sunday I was early to the Math and looked up the library for this book.  It is an old book; a 1859 publication.  I flipped open the book for cursory reading and the words India, uprising and Nicholson caught my eye.  It was the chapter entitled Energy and Courage.  I had just finished reading The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple, which was full of details on the 1857 uprising, alternately called the Sepoy mutiny, and my memory was fresh.

I found the description of Brigadier General John Nicholson in The Last Mughal and  at contrast.  John Nicholson played an important, possibly crucial role in subduing the Sepoy mutiny in Delhi.  Samuel Smiles is all praise for John Nicholson.  He is described as the finest, manliest and noblest of men.  He is among the modern heroes of India with no precedence and quotes Montalambert (a contemporary of Smiles) that they ‘do honour to the human race’.  As an illustration of his sustained energy and persistency, Smiles cites his pursuit of the mutineers: ‘when he was in the saddle for twenty consecutive hours, and travelled more than 70 miles.’TheLastMughal

On the other hand, Darlymple introduces Nicholson as one who had personally decapitated a local robber chieftain and then kept the man’s head on his desk.  He was something of a legend among the British during the uprising because among other ‘manly’ qualities he had a merciless capacity of extreme brutality.  There were few among the British troops ‘who remained immune to the hero-worship of this great imperial psychopath.’

 War times change the definition of qualities.  Do they? A soldier could be described as merciless or manly depending on the side one takes: the winners’ side or the losers’.

Rafi’s songs in the ‘Last Mughal’ by Darlymple

October 28, 2013

TheLastMughal  The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple is an empathetically written book about Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi and the 1857 mutiny.  In this wonderfully thorough book Dalrymple also mentions two popular poems attributed to Zafar. These were set to tune and used in the movie Lal Qila. (Darlymple mentions the movie  and also the singer Mohammad Rafi). I could not resist looking up tube for the songs and to my delight found them. Here are the youtube links:

1. Lagta Nahin Hai Dil Mera

2. Na Kisi Ki Ankh Ka Noor Hoon


Wonderful songs.  However, the spoiler comes from the experts! Apparently, there is not enough evidence to suggest that these were indeed written by Zafar.  The available book of poems by Zafar does not have these two.  One wonders why would it get into the public psyche that the poems were by Zafar if they were not by him.  After all he never did propaganda for his poems.  He died the death of a common man, unknown to anyone.

Becoming a Writer

December 27, 2012
Becoming A Writer

Becoming A Writer

Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande, is for all aspiring writers, authors who think they have lost the spark  after their first book and authors who tend to take long intermissions during their writing! It does not teach how to write fiction or the techniques of story writing. Instead it tells us how to condition ourselves on the way to writing fiction. The author dismisses the notion that one has to be genius  to be an author. She believes that every person has a spark within that can be tapped to make him/her the ‘genius’. Towards this end, in chapter after chapter she analyses what we mean by genius and narrows it down in to specific traits. She then gives us a step by step procedure that will lead us to the writer within us. She gives exercises to test and mold ourselves into the stuff that authors are made of.

Among the first things, she strongly recommends that we inculcate a practice of writing in longhand as soon as we get up in the morning. This has to be done strictly before we color the mind with news from the newspaper or any other sources of information; do not even talk. We are to write whatever comes to our mind. These pages may later, when we have followed through the exercises and are ready to write, give us an idea for the story we want to write.  This is then to be followed by doubling our writing output, writing at a fixed time during the day and then by writing at different times through the day. She believes that what we have written in these pages is the material that is genuinely ours and therefore will guard us from imitating our favorite authors. These pages in fact can give us clues as to the writing vocation that naturally suits us.

…the pupil who sets down the night’s dream in Morning Pages or the recasts the day before into ideal form has a chance of become a short story writer.
…A subtler analysis of characters, a consideration of motives, acute self -examination, the contrasting of different characters faced by the same dilemma most often indicate the novelist
A kind of musing introspection or of speculation only sketched in is found in the essay writer‘s notebook….

As i read through the book the image of Dorothea (the author) in my mind took the form of the strict but well intentioned school teacher. She gives stern, potentially discouraging warnings for those who do not follow the exercises recommended by her. For instance:

 If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.

She does of course take the effort to point out the ways in which the mind may trick us into failing our resolution to write. She also shows how to trick the mind into sticking to the resolutions. For coffee addicts she suggest not to waste time in the morning but have the coffee ready at night in  a flask. so one will not have to postpone work for the stimulant. This book has many more helpful suggestions to train ourselves into becoming a writer. A very useful book and concise too-173 pages.

I got to know of this book from the ‘suggested reading’ of Julia Cameron’s book The Artists Way. Julia comments that its the best book on writing. Those who aware of the Artist’s Way and its popularity will know that Morning Pages (writing in the morning) is the major suggestion by Julia Cameron. Becoming a Writer predates Artists Way by decades-it was first published in 1938-so it is likely that Julia got the idea of Morning Pages from Dorothea. However, while Dorothea is talking only for the writer, Julia has extended it to encompass all artists.

I must mention here that though i picked up this book with great enthusiasm, I dragged myself through the first few chapters hoping to get hooked but in vain. So I skipped to the chapter that would interest me the most-all chapters have catchy titles-and it saved the book. I read the chapter ‘reading as a writer’. I eventually read and re-read the book. Now, I like the book more and think it is worth the effort. I think I struggled through the reading partly because the first few chapters made sense only after I got an idea as to what the book is about. And partly because of the excessively long sentences that Dorothea uses to convey her point. For instance, she has this to say as to who the book is meant for:

So I am going to write this book for those who are fully in earnest,trusting to their intelligence and their good sense to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation to their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken (and are still taking) every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing, and that they have set up and exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.

Here is another jumbo sentence about the usefulness of writing in the morning:

You will discover that now you have a tendency to cast the day’s experience into words,to foresee the use that you will make of an anecdote or episode that has come your way, to transform the rough material of life into fictional shape, more consistently that you did when writing was a sporadic, capricious occupation which broke out from time to time unaccountably , or was undertaken only when you felt that you had a story firmly within your own grasp.

But the long sentences not withstanding this is a useful book, a manual on becoming a writer.
I found, by chance, that this book is available free for download on this website. It is a more recent edition than the one i read. However, I am not sure of the website’s legality. Enjoy!

Does He Know a Mother’s Heart

November 20, 2012

I casually walked into a bookstore and this book caught my eye. Arun Shourie, the author, is a famous name and i have read his book and even attended his lecture long ago.  His lecture was simple but scholarly just as this book, honest, direct and humble. I picked it up wondering who the HE was in the title Does He Know A MOther’s Heart. I read the back cover but was not totally sure that he literally meant GOD. And if so do i want to read it. And it is more than 400 pages! I opened the book to do some random reading and I found Ramana Maharshi being quoted! I am well aware of Ramana Maharshi literature. This book had to be philosophical to quote him. I was hooked. I went to the library and borrowed it.

Shourie’s son cannot walk or stand. He can only see to his left. He can speak but only syllable by syllable. There is no cure. It can only get worse. When a school for spastic children is opened they get him admitted. When his mom is driving him to school they meet with an accident. Both are unhurt but she starts getting tremors and is diagnosed of Parkinson’s disease. Struck by calamities one after another  it is natural to ask ‘why is all this happening to me?’ We resort to God; more so when the situation is entirely helpless like in Shourie’s case. Some look for answers in religious scriptures, become philosophical. Arun Shourie goes through all the scriptures and teachings of saints, philosophers, poets and even scientists and everything that he can lay hands on and looks for answers. Asks more questions; all the questions that any one of us is despair would ask questions like: is God just? If he is then why is there so much suffering? Why has God created wicked people? If Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa were indeed great yogi’s then why didn’t they cure themselves? and so on…

Shourie finds the ‘answers’  and translates them in plain language for the ordinary reader without compromising on the depth.  Through the teachings of the scriptures and of Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whom he interestingly calls saints who are so unlike-God, he points out how both of them endorsed Prarabdha Karma and Rebirth. But ascribing suffering to the deeds in previous life is an argument difficult to digest. Ironically, both Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa went through excruciating pain prior to their death. Ramana because of skin cancer and Ramakrishan because of throat cancer. They suffered but did not let their pain affect their work and continued to attend to devotees. They were evolved beings who had stopped identifying theirselves with the body. However, how about ordinary human beings what should we do. Let alone continuing the work we cant get over the pain.

Suffering is real. To urge anything that dismisses it as ‘unreal’ is to mock the pain of another. But it was The Buddha, as Shourie’s notes, who did not get into theorising about rebirth, finite or infinite nature of the universe….but taught how to deal with pain.

‘Whether the world is finite or infinite or both; whether it is with beginning and end or not; whether the Tathagtha survives after death or not…’there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.’They have to be dealt with, and it is the way to dealt with them that i have set out, the Buddha says.’

Shourie find’s the Buddha’s position the most helpful.  However, he does not discount others. ‘We do not have to take a final conclusive position on the matter’.  He recounts the two times that he met Satya Sai Baba. Once for his son, when his mother pleaded Sai Baba to cure him. The second time when he himself went to Puttaparti and earnestly asked Satya Sai Baba to do something special for Mita Nundy. Mita Nundy had set up the school for spastic children in Delhi. She had been diagnosed of a heart disease (cardiac amyloidosis) and the doctors had given her very little time. She was a devotee of Baba.  Sai Baba gave a shivalinga and said that it will be good for her if she poured water on it and drank the water. It is 25 years now (i.e. until the book was written) and where the doctors had given her little time, she is here. And her spirit is firm as ever.

After reading through the book I read back through parts of it by looking up the index. The index carries names with the context in which they appear. For instance:
Gandhi, Mahatma: on Bihar earthquake being Divine chastisement for sin of untouchability:135-52; on Hitler’s persecution of jews and counsel for jews: 159-86 ….
I liked doing the re-read. As a scientist, I liked the fact that whenever he was quoting be it from the bible or quran or Ramana or Gandhi he gave the appropriate reference.  This book is really one for reference; for your home collection.

The Habit of Loving

October 3, 2012

I like short novels-maximum 250 pages, with a reasonable font size. Short stories are more than welcome. I often read by the bed and with short stories i can hope to finish a story before i fall asleep! It also helps when i want a break between tasks on hand.  The Habit of Loving is a collection of 17 short stories by Doris Lessing and is also the title of the first story.  The stories mostly revolve around women. The men of course are there but at the end of each story they dont leave a trace in your mind. In almost all the stories the women, no matter their role, seem to be the ones steering the story. They are never helpless as the case would have been if it were a story set in India at least until a decade or two ago or possibly even now.

Sometimes when i curioisty got the better of me i skipped reading descriptions of the surroundings/localities and went straight to where the action was. And there is a lot of such description in the stories. Though at times the author does brutally cut the story short as in Getting Off The Altitude
 And so Mrs Slatter went on living. George Andrews bought his own farm and married  and the wedding was at     the Slatters’s. Later on Emmy Pritt got sick again and had another operation and died. It was cancer. Mr  Slatter was ill for the first time in his life from grief, and Mrs Slatter took him to the sea,by     themselves, leaving the children, because they were grown-up anyway. For this was years later, and Mrs  Slatter’s hair had grown grey and she was fat and old, as i had heard her say she wanted to be.

The story Plants and Girls is unusual, bordering between intriguing and disturbing.  Its set in central Africa. A boy is more in-sync with nature than with people. He grows up to love a tree!  He would stroke the tree curiously, learning it, thinking : under this roughness and hardness moves the sap, like rivers under. He would do the same to the first girl who took to him embracing her and murmuring words of love as he would to the tree. But the girl leaves him when she realizes that he would not marry. His father dies, mom dies, the tree is cut off and the girl is married and has children. He plants a sapling.  The girl’s younger sister takes to him and he explores her beside the young plant. Only this time his fingers literally probed her body digging into her flesh to feel the bone! And then he digs his teeth into her throat. The next morning people find him lying over the blooded and soiled body of the girl murmuring your hair your leaves your branches your rivers.

It is an interesting set of stories indeed! If I had to pick one it would be The Words He Said.

R.D. Burman and Aung San Suu Kyi

August 25, 2012

The talent show Indian Idol in a recent episode had the top 10 (or was it top 7) candidates sing the songs composed by the great music director R.D. Burman. It was a treat. But my mind distracted to wonder which part of India did the Burman’s come from. I had the impression that he was a Bengali but then i had also heard that his father S.D. Burman, another great music director, was from Manipur. I didn’t bother to give that more thought and left it at that like we normally do for the millions of thoughts that cross our minds.

Incidentally, I picked up the book ‘Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma‘ by Amitav Ghosh from the Eloor library.  It is a very interesting anthology which has a combination of history, travel and journalism. In the piece, ‘At Large in Burma’ i got to know that Burma (now known as Myanmar) consists of many ethnic groups: Burmese, Karen, Rakine, Shan, Mon, and many smaller groups. The Burmese i.e. the Burmans  are the largest of them. General Aung San, a Burman, played a major role in securing independence from the Japanese and the allied forces  and was head of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League that emerged victorious in the elections held in 1947. He was widely believed to take over Burma’s leadership from the British in 1948. However, this did not happen because of his assassination.  The well known pro-democracy leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter. She was 2 when he was assassinated.

So it is likely that R.D. Burman’s forefathers might have come from Burma.  After all Burma shares a border with India and as the author mentions elsewhere Calcutta is closer to cities in Burma: Rangoon or Mandalay, than to Delhi.

Hsuen Tsang’s route to India

August 6, 2012

Most of us are taught in school about the seventh century Chinese Buddhist monk who came to India. Many of us even recollect the name but i wonder if we ever gave thought to the route he took to India. Until i read this fascinating travelogue i always assumed that he would have come across the Himalaya. After all didn’t the Dalai lama cross the Himalaya to come to India?! Well, it turns out that Hsuen Tsang took the much longer route:

China (from Xian)-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India.

In India he went up to Kanchipuram in the south and Assam in the north east! On his way back he went from Afghanistan directly to China skirting Tajikistan and skipping Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. The map below clearly shows the short cut he took on his way back.

I initially thought i would look up the places that Hsuen Tsang visited and make a route map in google however i found that it has been already done in great detail and is available here.

As i went through the book i found that even the author wondered why Hsuen Tsang took this rather long route.  We get to know the possible reason from the author’s companion in Uzbekistan, a Ukrainian Archaeologist Leonid Sverchov.  Famous translators of Buddhist texts were from  Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and so Hsuen Tsang must have thought the region to be rich in Buddhism. He came to look at Buddhism in all these regions in Central Asia.

Another way to live

June 11, 2011

The picture of a sadhu, with ash smeared face and a large naamam (a U with a line bisecting it arising from the center) on the forehead, on the front cover got my attention to this book.  It is an account of Professor/Dr. Kapur’s experience with yoga and yogi’s. I use the word yogi here synonymously with sadhus swamis and sanyasis. There are extracts and summaries of several of his interviews with yogis. However, in all his travails Dr. Kapur never came across a yogi with powers (siddhis). So there are no stories about magical/supernatural powers or even mind reading. The one sadhu who was shown to him to be a realised soul Dr. Kapur suspects to be schizophrenic! In his interviews he asked the sadhus  why they chose the path.   The answers are varied ranging from “i was on the path from childhood” to “i took it to avoid misfortune” and “it was a way to meet the challenges of old age”!  There are detailed accounts of some of them and they form interesting reading.

Dr. Kapur also joined as an apprentice with a Guru to learn yoga. He narrates his experience during training and also the effects after continuing it when he was back home. These chapters make interesting reading. There is also an account on changes in his behavior at home after and before yoga in his wife’s words.  To quote her ” Having observed my husband’s practice for an year, i came to the conclusion that regular practice of yoga enhanced the positive aspects of his personality and reduced the negative aspects. However, interrupted practice proved to be  more harmful than not practicing at all”.

The comments and guidance from his guru are listed as bullets in a couple of pages. They are real gems. I skipped the parts which dealt with the theory of yoga and details on psyco-analysis.  On the whole this book is a good read.

A.R. Rahman The musical storm

March 2, 2011

I like Rahman’s music, the oscar not withstanding. ‘The musical storm’ is a biography (the first?) of  Rahman by Kamini Mathai.  This book is the story of his musical life from working with music directors like illayaraj, composing jingles for advertisements, bands to becoming the big music director he is.  His personal life the little time he got to spend with his father, the influence of his mother, his friends and children and a little about his marriage and wife is also covered. The book is divided into 12 chapters with interesting titles that had me reading the book end to end in criss-cross manner.  Faith was the title of one of the chapters and i jumped to read that one first. It deals with why/how Rahman went from being Dileep to Rahman.  But wait a minute…its not like the author interviewed him specifically on this topic or for that matter on any of the topics/chapters in the book.   Rahman’s conversion to islam had a lot to do with his father’s illness and subsequent death. Sekhar, his father was suffering from an ailment which not treatment could cure. However, he did get relief for a while from a Sufi healer started treating him. The same Sufi healer however predicted that Sekhar wouldn’t last more than year.

I would recommend the chapter titled ‘wait’ to know how much Rahman means to the film industry.  Big film directors, lyricists and anyone who wants Rahman’s music has go wait in until his turn comes. Apparently there are different waiting rooms at Rahman’s studio and one would be allotted them based on their perceived importance! Mani Ratnam, Subhash Ghai, Shekhar Kapur, Javed Akhtar a budding singer all had to wait. The wait could be hours, weeks, months.  Rahman hates to say no to anyone and so the waiting.  But does he do that to everyone. No. Some know how to get around the wait. Director Ravikumar is one of them. He got the music for the Rajni film ‘Padayappa’ done by Rahman on time. Ravikumar could do that by taking Rahman away from Chennai to Cochin.  That is one of the ways that seems to work if one wants music on time. It worked with M.F Hussain who sent him to Prague for his film Meenaxi and with Rajiv Menon for Kandukondein. Javed Akhtar has even built a very interesting story around this phenomenon.

There are several other interesting things covered in this book.  Did you know that Rahman’s father Sekhar was the first one to buy the keyboard in the indian film industry and for that the company sent Sekhar on a free trip to Japan! Did Rahman get the training in western music? Is he comfortable with carnatic? What is his take on Illayaraja with whom he worked? What do big singers like SPB think about him? What if ever ruffles him  What are his idiosyncrasies and much more. I loved getting to know all this. There is a lot of stuff repeated in the book.  The book is based a lot on the  information from people who are close to him or have worked with him and a little on the author’s interviews with  Rahman. But its a must read for all those who are interested in knowing Rahman.

Sri Ramana Maharshi-The Supreme Guru

March 1, 2011

I prefer to read books on spirituality at the end of the day. I like if the books are thinner, the font size is big enough and space between the lines is reasonable. Ofcourse, the content should do justice to the main story. This biographical book on Sri Ramana Maharshi, by Alan Jacobs, is all the above and more. I had already read (a lot) about Maharshi and yet liked going through his life story. The story of Maharshi preparing his mother for self realisation, about his ability to attend to problems of animals, about the cow Laxmi, about the white peacock are covered.

Visits of westerners and their conversations with Maharshi are also there. I had known about Paul Brunton’s visit but had never read about Somerset Maugham’s visit.  This book recounts both their  experience and includes a question answer session between the former and Maharshi.  There is also a Q&A session between SivaPrakasam Pillai and Maharshi.   Apparently Maugham ‘attempted to ask questions but did not speak.  (to which) Maharshi said  “All finished. Heart talk is all talk. All talk must end in silence only.” ‘ Apparently, in the book ‘The Razor’s edge’ Maugham has modeled the fictional guru on Maharshi.

The book has got plenty of full page length pictures of Maharshi, his surroundings and people who flocked to him. On the whole i enjoyed reading this book. However, i must admit i skipped through the poem by the author and the english translation from the Sanskrit of  the 40 verses in praise of Ramana.


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