Epic Memories and Philosophical Ruminations @BYOB Party in September (Part 1)

This time we chose a different venue for the BYOB Party. We co-hosted this quaint book party with Reading Hour and it took as an hour to get to the venue- a quiet house filled with the warmth of book loving souls Vaishali and Arun Khandekar.

indian-philosophy-volume-1-400x400-imad8zmdnhyxq4vuNilesh Trivedi has a penchant for challenging books in a previous BYOB Party. He found Indian Philosophy by S.Radhakrishnan quite riveting. Though the book is written in English for western readers, it is a starting point for a seeker of knowledge when it comes to such an inaccessible subject like philosophy. While Bertrand Russell and Will Durant have succeeded in making the  polarities of Western philosophies far more accessible, S. Radhakrishnan has veered away from the mystical and provided a serious analysis of Indian philosophy, of which there are several parts.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer’s dictum of never reading commentaries was a strong motivator for Nilesh to chose this book. Summaries may seem appalling to a fiction lover like Vaishali (how can you read a summary of a fiction?) but reading summaries is one way of tackling the mountainous number of non-fiction books out there.

As is the case with book parties, one reader is magically connected to the next by an invisible thread called taste. Arun Khandekar spoke at great length about his experiences reading the philosophical works of Swami Vivekanada and Ramakrishna Paramahmsa.

“It is strange how Vivekananda uttered such difficult truths in his time. He believed in the agency of the mind and finding things out on your own.”  Arun believes that this freedom of thought and expression seems to be a thing of the past.

The Great Indian Novel“In fact The Great Indian Novel  written by Shashi Tharoor and published in the 90’s interprets the Mahabharata in a way that can not be envisioned being done now.”

Arun told us how Tharoor eloquently clothed epic characters in contemporary light, reflecting the Indian public’s fascination with this story.  Abhaya confessed to his addiction of the Mahabharata series that he watched on YouTube several times over and Arun spoke of the pre-internet, pre-TV days when he relied heavily on Amar Chitra Katha to feed his Mahabharata compulsions.

“In hindsight, in post independence India, it was stories like Harishchandra that got more leeway and now we see a renewed interest in the epics,” Arun mused.

Even if you did not know the nitty-gritty of the epic, the rivalry between the righteous Pandavas and the tainted Kauravas have lodged themselves in the Indian psyche.

“There is a Shakuni in every household,” Veena Prasad, a writer, summed it up nicely.

DuryodhanaThe mythical theme continued in Veena’s description of her co-writer Raghunathan’s book called Duryodhana, a book she confessed to reading in one sitting. “It’s a book from the villain’s point of view. Only here, the villain questions the reader. He speaks from the other side and his monologues are a social commentary on hypocrisies and double standards that existed in Hastinapur.”

The defining line from the book Veena cites is when Duryodhana says, “I had evil thoughts, and so have they”. The story of the Mahabharata never runs dry, does it?

More coming up…in 2,3,4, and 5….

Turing, History and Philosophy @ the BYOB Party in June (Part 3)

Towards the end of the BYOB Party (read Part 1 and 2 if you haven’t already), things started getting very serious indeed, what with mathematics, history and philosophy on the cards.
An outline of philosophy

Nilesh Trivedi, an engineer specializing in web and mobile software, got An Outline of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, which he highly recommends for its topical approach. “Although there has been a lot of path breaking development in cognitive sciences, this book is a good starting point. It can get dry in parts, but Russell is the clearest thinker who put his thoughts on paper, and a courageous writer too.”

It must have been the idea of Russell, but suddenly the BYOB party was a buzz with a flurry of mathematics and its personification- Alan Turing. Incidentally, Turing was also a pioneer in the field of Theoretical Biology, Aditya Sengupta, the biologist, reminded us.

India- a history

Sameer Shisodia, Founder and CEO at Linger Leisure, was bowled over by the extremely fast paced history book called India – A History by John Keay. “It doesn’t feel like a history one bit,” he said. Abhaya incidentally picked up a Keay novel called To Cherish and Conserve: The Early Years of Archaeological Survey of India.  John Keay brought them to the conclusion that history was more like putting pieces of a puzzle together. “There’s a lot of guesswork when it comes to creating history. You could be off by a thousand years, but that’s the beauty of it,” said Sameer.

There’s no verity in the past- the maps are mostly untrue. Even Kings had no exact approach about where their empires ended. There was genereal consensus about how history lessons in school never sparked this kind of excitement. “Who cares what year King so and so was born?” asked Nilesh.

gunsgermssteel

Maybe a book called Guns, Germs and Steel is what every history hater should read,  Abhaya said. Like Napolean’s Buttons that Sudharsan Narayanan talked about, this book too deals with how certain factors changed the course of events. “Environmental determinism takes away a lot of the blame of what happened in the name of colonialism, even then this book is charmingly written.”

The younger particiapants talked about other media– R. Sundararajan talked about a 26 episode documentary series called ‘The World at War’  based on the Second World War.

MAUS

Srishti talked about a graphic novel called MAUS by Art Spiegelman. Only an illustrator can make sense out of the incomprehensible and Spiegelman does this by turning the Jews into Mice and the Nazis into cats. Conversation went around to what the ordinary German made of the entire scenario. “In all likelihood, war is not what people want; they just want a good harvest and a safe place for their babies,” Jaya said as she reflected on the war strewn atmosphere of G.R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. “The highlight of  MAUS for me was when an African American faced racism by the same Jew who suffered in the Holocaust,” Srishti said. Spiegelman says so much in this book, it is worth a read.

It was not just books in English that were part of the conversation. Abhaya talked about a Hindi book calledAapki Bunti by Mannu Bhandari, acclaimed writer and wife of the famous Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav. It’s about the kind of impact a divorce could have on a child. “There are so many menaingful books in Hindi but the question really is where do we find them?” Shalini asked.

A few book stores were mentioned, but strangely enough there are not too many venues to buy Indian Language books from. A lot has to do with the mentality of publishers and the complete absence of marketing. Support from publishers is rare and except for a few instances of authors who are enterprising enough to promote their books on media like Whatsapp, there seems to be no vision. The general consensus is that people  want to read books in all languages; however readers are also the problem.  Here’s an instance of reader apathy that was shared. A writer once put up a chapter of his book on his blog. He was congratulated by his readers but all of them wanted a free copy. That’s the plight of the author, and so the publishing industry suffers as does the writer.

On the whole, the BYOB Party was a thought provoking exercise and it’s something  that should be hosted in more and more places so that the love of books and cake and conversation overtakes everything else in the world!

Join us the next time…

Buttons and Robots @ the BYOB Party in June (Part 2)

In the first session of the BYOB Party, we had talked about myth and its role in Indian writing, not just in the past but more so now when there is so much room for retelling and reinterpretation.

Post myth, the world turns into a very pragmatic place.

Manish  Mittal, who works in the finance sector, had read a very different kind of book. All fairy tales were fractured at the The Art of Thinking Clearlymention of the book that he had picked up when he was in Berlin. The Art of Thinking Clearly is a massively popular book in a practical country like ours. I had tried reading it but it was a book that saddened me as synchronicity was redefined as delusion. It worked for Manish. “Many of us hold on to irrational decisions for the simple reason that we made those decisions. It’s best to stop before it is too late.”

Being pragmatic is a good thing but sometimes ignorance is bliss. “One good advice in this book is to stop reading the paper,” Abhaya said. “Or stop watching Goswami,” someone added ironically, referring to the angry iconic newreader on TV Channel Times Now.

Shraddha U, a layout engineer with KarMic, talked about Good Omens– there’s a whiff of the weird and the humourous again when Terry Pratchett teams up with guess who? Neil Gaiman. It’s a humorous twist of the Apocalypse. Looks like contemporary writing is about fracturing the norm and literature is seen as a threat by some, mainly because of the subversive trait that reversing plot is.

Napolean's ButtonsSudharsan Narayanan, who works as Partnerships Head at Vantage Circle, has read the entire Discworld series, “Pratchett writes science fiction in ways that no one else does.” He had got a very different kind of book called Napolean’s Buttons: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History— a book for all lovers of interesting trivia. Take the case of tin. It is said that the tin buttons that fell off of coats during the Russian winter may have just cost Napolean the war. Not to forget the spice economy that changed the course of history. “These are the kinds of books that I love,” said Sudharsan, “Like Bryson’s books- have you read Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything?”


em-and-the-big-hoomShruti Garodia, a Content Writer, plunged into author Jerry Pinto’s world.  Em and the Big Hoom is a book that has received much appreciation and is an autobiographical story of building a life when your mother is mentally ill.  Shruti has attended Pinto’s workshops and is a fan of his engaging writing style. “The amazing thing about the book is that it takes a dark subject and fills it with triumph. The book could be very depressing, with its mention of medicine and disease, but you don’t get bogged down by it all.”

Shalini Nahata is the founder of Baltendu Educations and also does reading parties for children. She recommended a book something-happened-on-the-way-to-heaven-700x700-imae2ttnzjejczgfedited by Sudha Murthy called Something Happened on the Way to Heaven. “Many people shared their stories for a contest run by Penguin,” said Shalini, “Sudha Murthy handpicked the stories from thousands of entries. You should read this book as all the stories are about loving life, very uplifting.”

The highlight of the party was when Shalini’s son, Arhaan, read out his favorite book and as it is with children, when they say favorite, they mean it. Arhaan knows Ricky Ricotta’s Giant Robot by Dav Pilkey and he knows it verbatim.

giant robot

More BYOB Party conversations coming up in Part 3.

Myths and Fractured Fairytales @ the BYOB Party in June (Part 1)

At Worth A Read, we love books and what better way to celebrate than chat about books? The book scene in India is robust and bursting at the seams with possibilities and books are now a huge part of the Great Indian Conversation.

The idea behind the Bring Your Own Book(BYOB) party is to get people from various walks of life to talk about their favorite books. While last time round, we had a variety of books on various topics as diverse as shipping containers and historical fiction, this time we had a few binding threads. One was myth.

We’ve been talking about myth a great deal lately. The problem with myth is that it is prone to reinterpretation and is thereby  misunderstood. Aditi  Kulothungan, a children’s book specialist and a book marketing expert from Book Sense, believes that what is most important is that myths are taken in context, “There was magic in the lives of those people that is absent to day. This is the Kali Yuga! We have our god men, but I’m afraid the magic stops there.”

The word myth is a magic spell though- the discussion veered to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Business Sutras and Irawati Karwe’s yuganta-cYuganta. Aditya Sengupta, a biologist, who spoke about science the last time round was armed with his favorite epic interpretation. “The Mahabharata is one of those epics that you can’t really call heroic. Unlike the Ramayana, the characters are grey; no character is truly impeccable. In Yuganta, Irawati Karve treats the epic in a very non-religious way. She was a sociologist in Pune and the first edition of the book came out in the 1950s. Her daughter translated it in the 1960s but I must tell you that some of her observations would be unthinkable today. Most of the retellings that you hear about are from her observations- it is surprising how much of a  bedrock she is to Indian mythological retelling and how little acknowledgement she is given.”

sita-s-sister-400x400-imaefcmzkgctvhuxThere are many retellings indeed- Karna’s Wife and Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane were mentioned by software engineer Kanica Jindal.  These were similar to a book that Jaya talked about called Mahabharati- which is a Hindi retelling of Draupadi’s point of view. Now Draupadi is a representative of polyandry in a society. Though she was wedded to the five Panadava brothers because they had to share whatever they received as per their mother’s dictum, her heart was only with one man, Arjuna. “Incidentally Karwe talks about how Arjuna was more in love with himself, and the man who truly loved Draupadi was Bhima,” said Sengupta. This is in a nutshell the story of the acclaimed Malayalam classic Randammoozham by M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

Fairy tales did not fall far behind during the discussion. While once fairy tales summoned names like Grimm’s and Hans Sleeper-spindle-coverChristian Anderson, today the word fairy tale translates into Neil Gaiman. Aditi was spellbound by the twisted fairytale of Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty in the The Sleeper and the Spindle, and the characteristic metal ink illustrations by Chris Riddell. If you really want to start with Gaiman and you don’t know where to begin, Aditi advises to start with Corraline, of course the entire Sandman Series.

Fractured fairytales make interesting conversation. In a way the fairy tales started out as dark, I’m guessing they were scary tactics to get unruly kids to behave. Now fairy tales have been sanitized and you don’t want your children to be exposed to the horrid wolf or child molester in Little Red Riding Hood or the terrifying Baba Yaga of Russian folklore.  But reversing the story entirely by making the three little pigs evil and the wolf good or throwing the truth at the kids the way Lan Smith does in The Stinky Cheese Man is outright hilarious. Some fractured tales reviewed here.

Shruti Garodia, a content writer, had an interesting take on how to tell your children stories if you didn’t want to frighten them. “You could contextualize the stories and customize it depending on how old they are. So as they grow older, you keep twisting the tale. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are books that have dark echoes to them and they seemed so much more different when I read them when I was older.”

“I remember how upsetting the real version of the Little Match Girl was,” said Aditi,” but that’s the story I would want to share with my children. Children should know the truth as they are exposed to so much.”

And that’s the kind of story kids want to listen today. “Imagine a book like The Fault in our Stars. We have two dying protagonists,” said Aditi. There are many more where that came from- Dorothy must Die, Love Letters to the Dead, The Perks of being a Wallflower (which did you like-the movie or the book?)

Sick lit is the in-thing now, especially for the younger generation, while myth has floored older folk. Have you been reading anything on these lines this week? Tell us about it.