Author Update: Seeing beauty in old structures

The Hindu talks about Meera’s untiring efforts to sensitise to their heritage.

In her eight years with INTACH, she has spearheaded several activities of public interest that have helped in sensitising people to the city’s disappearing heritage. One of her success stories is the Heritage Walks targeted at Bengalureans for familiarising them with aspects unique to the city’s cultural and historical fabric. “Over the years, this has helped build a group of people who gradually became our heritage ambassadors,” says Meera.

Read the complete article on The Hindu.

Short Book Review: The Folded Earth by Anuradha Rao

The Folded EarthSBR: The descriptions are charming in The Folded Earth and the emotions draw you in. But the secrets revealed towards the end are predictable and the climax doesn’t work for me. The creation of the villain in the story is forced. It’s narrative one-sided, but conclusive. The attempt at non-linear narrative once in a while is jarring and doesn’t make sense.
To read or not to read: The author’s first book An Atlas of Impossible Longing was praise more equivocally. I think I should have read that book first. That’s what I’d recommend doing. Then, if you really like the writer, you can read this one as well.

Short Book Review: Solo by Rana Dasgupta

SoloSBR: One one hand there are the books like Doctor Zhivago or Half of a Yellow Sun. While reading them, I almost lived the lives of the protagonists through some historical moments. For me those moments will never again be what history books or wikipedia articles dryly tell me they are. They are now defined by the individual, human experiences the books me experience.

On the other hand there is a book like The Orphan Master’s Son. While reading it I was constantly frustrated by the feeling that it is an outsider imagining the story and I am not hearing the genuine voice of the characters, much less live their lives.
The experience of reading the first part of Solo falls somewhere in between. It feels real enough, not artificial. But it gives only a bird’s eye view of the protagonist’s erratic life as well as Bulgaria’s chequered history. You don’t really feel the moments. It is not a shortcoming of the book though. Because the story is in the form of reminiscences of an almost centenarian man (who has lived in Bulgaria through the upheavals of 20th century). When you are recalling people and events from long back, you do tend to remember things as blocks of time, not individual moments. It happens to our own memory too. We often have an overall feeling about our stay at a certain place, or the years spent in a particular school, and an overall story to go with it, which started with situation A and ended with situation B with xyz feeling in between. That’s what those reminiscences read like. I think it is captured very well in the book.
The second part of the book is what makes it strange, as even Salman Rushdie’s blurb call it. It starts off like a different story, and then inexplicable parallels with the first story start surfacing. Ultimately the parallels are explained well enough. But the story of the second part doesn’t feel right after that explanation.
To read or not to read:  It might not leave you awed, but it is a good experimental read.

Short Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son
SBR: One would pick this book up simply because how often you get the opportunity to put real human faces on those mythical people living in North Korea? Unfortunately, the book ends up putting an American’s words into North Korean mouths. Irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with what those words imply, the sentiment isn’t authentic.
Admittedly, the author didn’t have it easy. I read an interview with the author, where he described how difficult it was for a foreigner to get access to a common man living in North Korea (we only hear those who fled). So, he tried his best. But didn’t succeed.
To read or not to read: Skip unless you are really running out of reading material. If you are curious about North Korea, look elsewhere, probably in non-fiction.

Book Recommendation: India Discovered by John Keay

India Discovered
India Discovered by John Keay

Sometime in fourteenth century, the then Sultan of Delhi Feroz Shah cited a curious column in a village near Khizrabad (modern Haryana). Something was inscribed on it, but it was in a script he didn’t understand. He was quite taken by it though, and decided to move it to his capital Firozabad. It took efforts of thousands of men, but Sultan was committed and it got done. Then he sent for learned men, including many Brahmins and Hindu Devotees, and asked them to decipher the inscription. None of them succeeded.

Brahmi script was already forgotten by fourteenth century. Nobody knew of the now-famous Ashokan inscriptions that were strewn all over the country. And yet, today, in twenty-first century, we know all about them. We know exactly what they say. We also know enough about Ashoka’s life to make a daily serial out of it (not to take away the credit from amazing fiction writers involved with our television industry!!).

How did we figure all that out?

Did you curse under your breath in your History lessons that the founders of two different empires, separated by centuries (and birth of Jesus Christ), should both be called Chandragupta and try you in your exams? Take heart; the Chandraguptas confounded people who tried to piece together our history too.

That the way History is taught in our schools is broken is a foregone conclusion. But even as adults, when we fight over history, we often forget to ask how we know. And how much can we know for sure. Is whatever we know set in stone (despite the inscriptions, pardon me!)? We forget that nobody was recording history for us as it happened, much less so in India, and go on to talk about events from centuries or millenniums ago with the confidence of an eye-witness. We try to settle the questions that would affect millions of people today with the “experience of thousands of years”. We do not realize that we really do not have the memory of those years preserved neatly somewhere.

It in such moments of complacence and superciliousness that a book like India Discovered can help us to humility. We can then start questioning history, and our knowledge of it, a bit more. The book is not about history of India, but about how it was pieced together, especially with almost complete absence of any accessible historical documents of pre-Mohammedan period. And the story is as fascinating as it is enlightening. People have spent their lives (often cut short by their inability to adjust to Indian climate) traveling across the length and breadth of India. They have worked their bodies and mind to exhaustion and madness trying to decipher the old scripts. Some of the most fascinating work has been done by people purely out of passion, with no official backing and with personal finances. It is the story of those people and their work.

The book mostly covers the work done by people from 18th century to 1930s. And it traces the discovery of India as it appeared to European eyes. This requires me to put up a few clarifications about the book:

  1. Given the political situation of the period, most of the work was indeed done by Europeans, especially the people of British Raj. So, we need to keep our nationalistic pride aside and accept that a large part of our past was indeed re-discovered by them.
  2. It does not mean that Indian past was necessarily discovered by unsympathetic eyes. Yes, there was often a tendency to attribute any astonishing Indian achievement uncovered by studies to outside influence. The Brahmi script was initially conjectured to be bastardized Greek and Ajanta cave paintings done by ancient Egyptians! But a large number of people working on ground had more scholarly and scientific sentiments than those who needed to push an inferior race agenda for political purposes. Then there were some who were such fierce India apologists that they may put our modern-day nationalists to shame. There were also biases against Indian art and architecture, because it refused to fit into anything the incumbent European sensibilities could appreciate. But the findings and increasing appreciation of Indian life and culture pushed through those biases and ultimately shone.
  3. Since the book is written for a non-Indian audience, its style can get jarring at times. For example:
    1. He draws parallel from European and Mediterranean history to explain the importance of something Indian. It probably does make the subject accessible to the book’s intended audience, but I often have to rush to Google or wikipedia to figure out how important was that finding with which he is comparing the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization.
    2. Then there are episodes where you wonder how it would look to an Indian eye. The discovery of Buddhism’s origin in Indian seems to be a big deal. I wonder if it was a big deal only to the Europeans or to the Indians too? What about the countries where Buddhism was being practiced. The temple at Bodhgaya was in the custody of Brahmins. They reported some foreigners coming there with an old prayer books and reciting unintelligible prayers. They turned out to be Burmese Buddhists. So, Burmese Buddhists definitely knew about Bodhgaya and even the exact temple supposedly erected at the site of Buddha’s enlightenment. It is implied that the Brahmins didn’t recognize the Buddhists. But Buddha had supposedly been assimilated as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Did they know about that Buddha? Was he in the Indian religion consciousness? As an Indian these are the questions I wanted the answer for, but they were not addressed in the book.
    3. There are tales of people who studied and wrote about specific Indian population and helped Europeans understand Indian better. Someone wrote about Rajputs, someone about Sikhs, and someone about tribals. Was their work important for Indians too? Had we also forgotten the history and resplendence of Rajputs? Or was its importance limited to making Europeans appreciate India in its own right?

It is clear from reading the book that 200 odd pages are not sufficient to capture the story of the discovery of Indian history. It is also likely that the contribution of non-English people have been overlooked (purely a conjecture – I don’t know.) Discovery of South Indian history has not been adequately covered.

Despite all that, it makes for a very readable book that keeps you interested chapter after chapter. I know that nobody is going to listen to my recommendation of including it in History curriculum at our schools. But as readers you have control over your destiny. So, pick up the book. It is totally worth a read.

If you need motivation, try answering this. How do we know that those inscriptions are Ashokan? None of them mention King Ashoka.

Aside

  • I wonder how the temple of Bodhgaya was wrestled away from Brahmins? Try that at any place of worship today!
  • Don’t worry that reading about European discovery of Indian history will colonize your mind. The good Christians were as horrified at the nude sculptures and exaggerated sexuality of figures like yakshi as the self-appointed custodians of our culture today would be.
  • There is evidence that covering upper body was optional in Mauryan times, even for women. At least in that respect, our daily serial is not authentic.
  • All the statements about the Indian television should be consumed with salt to the taste.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

The Recovery of a Lost Civilization

Two hundred years ago, India was seen as a place with little history and less culture.Today it is revered for a notable prehistory, a magnificent classical age and a cultural tradition unique in both character and continuity. How this extraordinary change in perception came about is the subject of this fascinating book.

The story, here reconstructed for the first time, is one of painstaking scholarship primed by a succession of sensational discoveries. The excitement of unearthing a city twice as old as Rome, the realization that the Buddha was not a god but a historical figure, the glories of a literature as rich as anything known in Europe, the drama of encountering a veritable Sistine chapel deep in the jungle, and the sheer delight of categorizing ‘the most glorious galaxy of monuments in the world’ fell, for the most part, to men who were officials of the British Raj. Their response to the unfamiliar – the explicitly sexual statuary, the incomprehensible scripts, the enigmatic architecture – and the revelations which resulted, revolutionized ideas not just about India but about civilization as a white man’s prerogative.

Purchase Links

Short Book Review: The Sceptical Patriot by Sidin Vadukut

The Sceptical Patriot
SBR: High on intent, low on content. The idea is good. The Sceptical Patriot wants to find out how authentic the patriotic claims about India’s greatness you keep receiving  in email forwards and Facebook posts are. But there just isn’t enough content about the issue at hand for it make a book. It would have been better off published as an article. To create a book the content has been padded unbearably with personal anecdotes that have no connection whatsoever with questions at hand.
To read or not to read: Wait for a better book on the topic. Or try to find out if the author has written an article on the subject. That might be enough.

Book Recommendation: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Pardon me for my opening example, I have just come back from a feisty publishing conference.

“Amazon has gotten people used to low eBook prices.”

“People know what they want to pay!”

If you are someone who has used such a refrain, you need to stop and rethink. Although Economics 101 starts with demand and supply curve, which assumes that people know exactly how much value they can derive from a product or service, in reality people are highly unaware of it. How they decide how much they are willing to pay is not by weighing some intrinsic value of the object in question, but by what they have been anchored to believe they should pay.

If you have ever been thrown into a negotiation situation where you do not know what the ‘prevailing prices’ are, and hence have been hesitant to put a number on the table, you know that you don’t really know how much to pay for something.

In an experiment described in a book people were asked to write down last two digits of their social security numbers before answering how much would they be willing to pay for certain products. When the data was analyzed, people with their social security numbers ending in higher digits were willing to pay significantly more for the products than those who numbers ended in lower digits. There can’t possibly be any correlation between those two digits and the value of any product, say a bottle of wine. But when there is no other anchor, even something as arbitrary as last two digits of SSN becomes an anchor.

The idea that human beings are not really rational the way classical economists would want them to be surprises nobody other than those economists. So, a task like cataloging human irrationalities would hardly ever run its course, and would still be quite futile an exercise. What would they prove that we don’t already believe in? What makes this book – and several behavioral economics studies – interesting is that we aren’t just irrational, but we are irrational in very systematic ways. In many situations, therefore, the way we’d behave irrationally is predictable.

Why care? It helps in better decision-making, in understanding other people’s baffling decisions, and in avoiding the traps set up by sales and marketing professionals who have from experience or training have learned to exploit our predictable irrationalities.

The book is conversational and easy to read, although it does sometimes meanders into stories too much, as popular business and psychology books are wont to doing. But unless you are someone who already knows everything Daniel Kahneman has done, you should read this book. If you like what you see, you might then want to venture into Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman himself, which is a much more content-packed book.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website:

Why do our headaches persist after we take a one-cent aspirin but disappear when we take a fifty-cent aspirin?

Why do we splurge on a lavish meal but cut coupons to save twenty-five cents on a can of soup?

When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we’re making smart, rational choices. But are we?

In this newly revised and expanded edition of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

Purchase Links

Short Book Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin
SBR: There can be no doubt about the quality of writing given the Margaret Atwood’s reputation. But The Blind Assassin leads to nothing and is still super-long. So, it’s difficult to justify the time it takes to read the book. The suspense, which is the meat of the story, is manipulated, not natural at all. You feel cheated in the end.
To read or not to read: This is the only book by the author that I have read (decided to start with the Man Booker Prize winner!). But my guess is that I would have been better off reading something else. So would you, I think, unless you are a fan and want to read all of her books. In which case, go ahead!

Introducing Short Book Review (SBR)

I am starting a new series of posts on Worth a Read under the category Short Book Review (SBR). These posts will be what the name says – short book reviews, no more than a few sentences focusing on what was the best, the worst or the most important thing about the book.

No star ratings. The goal here is to indicate who should or should not read the book.

I’m not Afraid

I am not afraid

I’m not afraid

I’ve been scared of shadows
Fearful stalkers

I’ve been woken by nightmares
Gasping for air.

I’ve run away from a room full of people,
Deactivated and closed social media accounts.

I’ve avoided online forums,
Book club meets.

I‘ve covered my ears and shut my eyes,
Lived in fear for ages.

But worry no more
I’ve read all the books in the series.

I’m not afraid of spoilers now.