Book Recommendation: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon? *

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

And that is the reason that what could have been termed Biafra’s War of Independence is called Nigerian Civil War or — in a grudging concession to the losers — Biafran War. For the purpose of history books you could write down a neat sequence of events to describe what happened in Nigeria is 1960s.

Independence from British -> (Considered primarily an Igbo) Military Coup -> Counter-coup and Igbo Massacre -> Secession of Biafra -> Secessionists Thwarted and Defeated -> Reintegration

But what did it mean to live through it? What did independence from British mean to a country which had no reason to be a country except that the colonizers carved it that way, where identities of people derived from their tribes and not from their nationality, where the preferential treatment of the former colonizers continued because of the political, social and economic reasons, and where there was an elite, rich local populace, as removed from the rest of the population as the earlier rulers and as inclined to influence a local government for its benefit as an outside one? Unless academic paper is more your style, you should pick up this book.

What happens when those neatly described and classified events turn your upside down in a matter of days, even hours? What happens if all you want to do is survive, but do not know what “neat” turn the history is going to take next, and hence can’t figure out who you should be loyal to? What if you are an idealist, won’t waver in your loyalty just for the sake of survival, but the object of your loyalty turns out to be an incompetent fool, a sloganeer rather than a leader, pumping people up with impossible to achieve dreams and running away in the time of real crisis, leaving them to deal with the mess of their fractures affinities? What happens when even as the richest of the rich, you find your safety and life in danger? Or when your neat, intellectual, middle-class life in a university campus comes crumbling down and the debaucheries of intellectual politics, puerile squabbles of local leaders and the issues of national or tribal identities do not remain the matters of evening conversation over drinks, but become the question of life and death, of eating from one meal to the next? When the death numbers are not a statistic, but a reality for your loved ones, your neighbors, your colleagues and your friends? And when the damning feelings starts creeping upon you that all the sacrifices, all the hardships will be for nothing? What happens when as a poor illiterate villager you are at the receiving end of all the worst outcomes of international politics, war for oil and strategic supremacy, without having any say in, without having even the slightest understanding of it all?

And in between all this, what happens to our regular, human issues and feelings? What forms do the emotions of love, jealousy and competition in relationships take? Do they fold themselves up, cower in a corner, humbled and subdued, when faced with the enormity of the external events? Do they rise up to the occasion to help you tide over those monumental changes? Or do they just stay there? Staring in your face, stubborn and unyielding even in the throes of calamity?

Half of a Yellow Sun is a book in the category comprising of the likes of Doctor Zhivago, which makes you live the history through its characters. And makes you question the ideas like nationalism, whose sanctity is taken for granted by many today. It is also a chilling reminder to an Indian that India could have been in that situation. That we have been lucky that despite the bumpy ride we had as a country after independence, it never came to that. It could have. It still might if identity politics – the way it has shaped up over decades – has its way.

Totally worth a read!

Book Description

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

Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, this is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written literary masterpiece. Now a major film starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, due for release in 2014.

In 1960s Nigeria, Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, goes to work for Odenigbo, a radical university professor. Soon they are joined by Olanna, a young woman who has abandoned a life of privilege to live with her charismatic lover. Into their world comes Richard, an English writer, who has fallen for Olanna’s sharp-tongued sister Kainene. But when the shocking horror of civil war engulfs the nation, their loves and loyalties are severely tested, while their lives pull apart and collide once again in ways none of them could have imagined…

Purchase Links

  • It is a little funny that this quote is from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but it is aptly written; so I’d use it.

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

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

Book Recommendation: Ghumakkad Shashtra by Rahul Sankrityayan

Ghumakkad Shashtra
Ghumakkad Shashtra by Rahul Sankrityayan

I was in two minds about the book recommendation for this month. To recommend it or not to recommend it. The reason for the dilemma was that the book is written in Hindi and no English translation seems to be available. And because the book is not in public domain yet, venturing on a translation would require complicated rights negotiation.

But it is a book that provokes me. And some of you can read Hindi. So, I decided to make it the Book of the Month despite my hesitation. May the torch of “ghumakkad dharma” be kept aloft by the Hindi readers until an accessible English translation is made available.

What is a Ghumakkad?

Wanderer, traveller and nomad are some of the words that come to my mind as translations. And yet, thanks to the old, cliched problem of translations, none of them are quite what Ghumakkad means. A Ghumakkad is not purposeless like a wanderer, not formal like a a traveler and not tied to his herd like a nomad.

Ghumakkad is a devout follower of Ghumakkad Dharma. And Ghumakkad Shashtra is a textbook, a reference book, a how-to and a shashtra to aid that devout follower.

The author was what in today’s slang would be called a thorough badass. He had first ran away from home at the age of nine. He first started studying Buddhism so that he could denounce it in favor of the Arya Samaj’s interpretation of ancient Hindu religion. In the end he converted to Buddhism. Despite having little formal education, he was a polyglot who knew Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil, Kannada, Tibetan, Sinhalese, English, French and Russian. Despite that he favored Hindi as the national language of India. Because of that stand, he was expelled from the Communist party, although he was a staunch communist and a noted Marxist theoretician.

You have to be a badass to write a book like Ghumakkad Shashtra with a straight face. There is no apology for assuming that there is something called Ghumakkad Dharma and that it needs a Shashtra. And a shashtra it is, one that can put today’s how-to’s and “for dummies” books to shame with his detailed exploration of all the big and small aspects of Ghumakkadi.

I can almost imagine Pt. Rahul Sankrityayan speaking in an entrepreneurship conference today, telling young aspirants that they shouldn’t care for what the world would say, how mother would cry, how father would be disappointed and how marriage prospects would be ruined. He speaks to the aspiring  ghumakkads and not to the 21st century tech-entrepreneurs. If parents don’t understand your aspirations, how you could be a better person and how you could make a better contribution to the human race by being away from them, then it’s their problem.

He is brazen about things. Ghumakkads should not marry, and if they do the spouse must be a fellow ghumakkad. At no point of time should they try to come in each other’s way. If one is feeling restrained by the other they should be free to go ahead on their own. And under no circumstance should they grow the family. That’s the death of a Ghumakkad. You can almost see the book faltering here with lack of concrete advice. I am guessing that it was because birth control was not mainstream then. But it doesn’t fail to address the common societal concerns about not having children. Why worry about children? Look at the number of people in your caste and gotra. Too many people have already done enough to keep the clan going. What misery can befall the human race if a few ghumakkads decide not to have progeny? Talk about being ahead of his time. The decision to not have children raises eyebrows even in the 21st century, even amongst the most elite, most enlightened folks.

But this indifference to typical familial and societal imprisonment in the name of love does not mean that ghumakkads are heartless people. They love humanity. Their instant connection to and love for a fellow Ghumakkad is enviable. And they wander for the betterment of human race. They are the ones who have given us ancient travelogues; who have led to the synthesis and assimilation of various cultures; who have spread art, science and knowledge from one corner of the world to another. Today’s Ghumakkads must add to the tradition. They must write, take photos, create art and leave them behind for the world. But they shouldn’t be  fame-seekers. So long as their work benefits the world, a true Ghumakkad will not care if he gets the credit or not. Ghumakkad is the ultimate knowledge-seeker.

The societies that have produced and encouraged Ghumakkads have prospered. Those who have shunned them have deteriorated (how Indians made crossing the sea a sin and how backward our society became)!

So what if he is writing in the first half of the twentieth century? He doesn’t think that only men can be a follower of Ghumakkad Dharma. It is open to everyone, including women. He is convinced of the success of women emancipation. He has seen so many changes in just three generations that he doesn’t see the need for women to hold back. Yes – the society has a history of subjugating women and they might have a few more obstacles in their way. But what is a Ghumakkad if not the conqueror of mountains? And ditches and societal chains.

It’s a life lesson. What should you be doing from the age of 10 or 12 so that you can leave home and be a Ghumakkad by 20 is all covered there. Can  you give a challenge of the duration of JEE preparation for kids these days, do you think so? What do you do about money? How do you approach the backward tribes and the nomads? What about the fear of death? Can you still keep your religion if you are a Ghumakkad? Is there a best religion for Ghumakkads, that is if they need something other than Ghumakkad Dharma?

Some concerns are outdated. A lot more (all?) of the world is mapped now that was in his days. A lot of information about far-flung places is available on your fingertips. An updated shashtra would have instructions not only on how to make friends everywhere but also on how to get Internet access every now and then. An updated shastra would also not bother about how to preserve your diaries over the years, because you have to travel light. There is computer to type it in and there are Internet and cloud to back it up on.

I have overcompensated here for the lack of English translation of the book. I have been tempted to summarize. But I haven’t really done so. Your must taste the rasa of the shashtra on your own and dilute it by taking it through an intermediary, a poor intermediary at that.

Purchase Links

Book Recommendation: Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donavan

Pema and the Yak by Siofra O'Donavan
Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donovan

Pema and the Yak was an accidental, but timely find for me. I was on a very short and hurried trip to McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s government in exile. It is a tourist place to the core, with a picturesque view of Dhauladhar range, delicious cuisine of every kind in the restaurants run by Tibetans (now mostly India-born) and Indians alike, sufficiently commercialized Tibetan wares in the shops and the exoticism of colorful Buddhist buildings standing out amongst the dingy to okay-ish dwellings available for visitors at reasonable rates.

But guilt set in quickly for me. This tourism is built on the misery, loss and exile of a whole people. It’s fine to enjoy the cuisine and wares and mountains, but one has to stop and think what the exile of two generations has done to these people? The question was gnawing at me, but unfortunately I am not the kind of person who can strike conversations easily and make people open up to me. This book, which I spotted in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj was thus a godsend. It helped that it not only covered what I wanted to understand, but was also well-written.

It is easy to picture heroic, resilient people whose sole aim in life is to get their land and country back,  waiting and struggling till eternity for it. But can that be the reality? Can the day to day concerns and ambitions of people be sacrificed at the altar of this great vision which grows more impossible and blurry with every passing day? Can you really sit in judgement over a youngster who has never seen this promised land and dreams of going even further away – to the US and UK – for a better life? What about the elders who are still fierce, or those who have lost hope and are dying?

There is a human story for each one of those picturesque, cute, exotically dressed people: the lamas, the political exiles, the traditional teachers and doctors. This is a complicated and sometimes perilous history of their relationship with the locals.

Can a society whose structure has changed beyond recognition in the conditions of exile be restored even if their land was recovered? Especially when some of those changes are actually for the better, such as the breakdown of the old feudal theocratic hierarchy.

Yet who is to decide what is a better change and what is worse. Consider these telling quotes from the book about people of nomadic tribes, who have lost their tribe.

Without a herd, a nomad cannot be a nomad. He can only be a wanderer.
Or those who had to “settle” down.
For a nomad it is a trauma to settle, just as it is a trauma for a settled person to take to the roads and live in tents, as so many refugees around the world have to do today.
Despite all the hard-core investigation, the author does have a penchant for the emotional and the mystic. It bothers me when she goes down that road. But those turns are not many and even when they are there, they don’t steal the book out of its real merit. Some of you may actually like that part, unlike me.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.
Pema and the Yak is the fascinating story of a journey through the Himalaya along the Indo-Tibetan border into the heart of Tibet in Exile. Encounters with oracles, lamas, ex-political prisoners, Tibetan doctors, DJs, nomads, guerilla fighters, painters, poets, missionaries and Himalayan royalty paint a vibrant picture of Tibetans living in exile today.

Purchase Links

 

Book Recommendation: The Outcast by William Winwood Reade

The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade
The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade

Have you ever been in a situation where your deepest beliefs are proved conclusively wrong? Have you been tortured by the proverbial head vs. heart struggle that ensues? Do you know that feeling when your mind cannot continue to hold on to the old ideas even at gunpoint? But letting those go would create a vacuum that your heart would burst trying to fill. Taking the bullet would seem the easier way out.

There is a cold, rational, philosophical and intellectual aspect to this situation. You are enlightened. There is a tragic, personal, humane aspect to it too. You might be broken.

The book I have selected for this month, The Outcast, by William Winwood Reade explores both these aspects. It is what is called a secularist work and it was included in the Thinker’s library, referred to in an earlier article recommendation.

It is the story of two young men, who lose their faith in the religion they have been taught since childhood. Considering the time in which the novel is set, the consequences are not only personal and emotional, but also social and economical. One becomes insane and commits suicide; the other survives to tell both tales but loses a lot in the process.

The beauty of the book is that it is like a gentle hand stroking your shoulder in assurance as you make that immense leap from theism to atheism, hoping to lose only your irrationality and not your humanity. The author appreciates what it takes to abandon religion. It is not like the threatening, belittling sermons of aggressive atheists who cannot (or  pretend not to) sympathize with why people need religion at all or how much it means to abandon something you have grown up believing in, irrespective of the rational merits of abandonment.

The inevitable, but insoluble question about who/what God is has also been discussed with intellectual rigour and personal sensitivity. The madman’s ravings makes Him out to be demigod whose drama production is called The Earth. It is produced to make an intellectual point to his peers. Too bad if the little animated creatures he made on earth are actually sentient and  subjected to cruel death through wars, diseases and natural disasters! He gets criticized for his cruelty and indifference, but he has already created what he wanted to create.

The sane man discovers an interpretation, which comes from a well-discussed line of philosophical thought. The bigger truth, if any, about God is impossible for the human mind to decipher. We have created the semi-human God. That’s not likely to be right. The concept defies reason all too often. Whatever higher powers are there above us, they cannot be understood in anthropomorphic terms. But this disbelief in the God that religion forces on us doesn’t mean we can’t be good. It reminds me of the final realization Levin has in the legendary novel Anna Karenina, although for him the revelation was more about returning to religion than abandoning it (strange, isn’t it?).

The sane man also discovers what he calls his own religion. Be good without expecting any rewards for it – in this life or in afterlife ( echoes of the Bhagwad Gita?).

No – I haven’t summarized the book for you. The conclusions are nuanced and aren’t even the main point of the book. The point is in the process of losing faith and losing yourself with it, or surviving it.

Despite being 140 years old, this book is immensely readable and relevant today. We struggle with the necessity as well as the terror of the loss of religious faith more today than ever in history.

Purchase Links

Book Recommendation: Wrong – Why Experts Keep Failing Us… By David H. Freedman

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us
Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them

The worst aspect of growing up for me has been the realization that a lot of the expert gyaan we receive is ineffective, ridiculous, wrong and many a time outright dangerous.

How dangerous?

Well. All of it – probabilistically speaking, with a very high level of confidence.

I wanted to incite people to burn all the self-help books, go on dharnas to remove advice columns from all publications, and wage a war against the publish or perish culture of research and academia.

Then I came across this book with an obnoxiously long title of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them written by journalist David H. Freeman. It managed to curb my rather ambitious and violent intentions down to wanting people to just read this book as it says what I wanted to say in a rather cool-headed and polite manner. At times too apologetic to douse my fury, at times trying too hard to prove something that’s obvious, at times going into journalistic diversions that the engineer in me cringes at, and at times using a roundabout way to explain a simple statistical term like ‘confounding variable’, the book does test my patience here and there. But overall it is a book that I could ask people to read instead of  – you know – organizing self-help-book-burning sessions, sitting on dharnas or waging wars.

So, why do I want people to read this book?

Because I am sick of people who want simple, optimistic, pleasant, actionable and universal solutions to their life’s problems. Those who want a clear-cut answer to whether Computer Science in NIT is better than Aerospace Engineering at an IIT, whether they should do an MBA or not, whether marrying an entrepreneur is better than marrying an investment banker, and so on – you get the point. They don’t want the right advice, which will force you to examine many complicated things about yourself and the world. No! They want what the book calls resonant answers. With all the characteristics I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. Do X to achieve Y sort of solutions.

And because people want it, an entire advice-giving industry has been erected to serve their needs, which keeps doling out simple secrets to a wonderful life through best-selling books, TV programmes, speaking engagements and workshops, newspaper reporting, magazine columns, and now through You Tube videos or dime a dozen online publications.

Probably all of us have been skeptical of some of this advice at some point of time, but we are definitely not as skeptical as we should be, given the colossal scale and absurdity of advice being doled out, and SADLY consumed.

Certain kinds of informal experts – the magic-diet creators, the celebrity lifestyle gurus, local experts like mechanics – are usual suspect for potentially being incompetent, ignorant, giving wrong advice and building their careers around dubious offerings.

But business gurus? Those who tirelessly mete out advice based on whatever latest management fad there is or squeeze out banally generic lessons from successful companies have been proven wrong time and again. Yet their popularity does not seem to wane.

Professional life or personal, we seem to have this insatiable appetite for resonant advice. We don’t like to accept that most problems do not have a clear-cut solution. Any good advice, if there is one at all, will come with if’s and but’s and uncertainties and qualifications. It will most likely be difficult to follow through and still not offer a guarantee of success. The best anyone will have to offer will be an explanation of things, which leaves us with nothing concrete or actionable.

Okay! So, all those business gurus and self-styled informal experts are charlatans. But what about scientists and researchers? Aren’t they the paragons of truth-seeking? Don’t they do better?

This is where the last shreds of your faith in the truth-seeking tendencies of human-kind will fall apart. From ignoring confounding variables, to mis-measuring, to plainly doctoring the data to create sensational, publishable results, there is no statistical, operational or ethical crime that our revered scientists have not been guilty of. And no! Those are not exceptions. The much heralded peer review process doesn’t weed out the careless and incorrect studies. Even direct observations of misconducts are not reported or acted upon, and finally even after publications most studies are not replicated or verified. The incentives are so skewed that honesty and diligence don’t pay. Even the self-reported (anonymously, of course) levels of frauds and misconduct in scientific community are staggering. Whenever people have tried to look into scientific studies, the conclusion is that given the kind of system and incentives we have created in academia and research,  scientific findings are just not reliable.

If you think that I am asking you to read a depressing book, I do hope it is not the case. I hope that you find this liberating in the way I found it. That the nagging doubts I had about all the gyaan floating around me were not a figment of my imagination or arrogance. The rot runs real deep and the amount of outward make-up to keep things looking nice and sorted is ugly! At the end of the day, you would be better off being deeply skeptical of things that seem too good to be true. They probably are.

But there is no reason to despair. You have yourself to depend on. After reading this book, the skepticism you will create in yourself will  prevent you from falling  into the expert trap!

Book Description

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

Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn’t we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well?

Actually, those experts are a big reason we’re in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel usually turns out to be wrong–often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there’s hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements.

Purchase Links

Book Recommendation: God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar

God's Little Soldier
God’s Little Soldier

My first reaction after reading God’s Little Soldier was that if I could write something like that, I would take sanyas. Not just from reading and writing, but from every other vocation as well.

Let me set the record straight. I am not given to exaggerations; not while praising someone, not while criticizing. So, when I was so loquacious in my admiration of the book, it was because it had indeed impressed me deeply.

An upfront warning though. If you are prone to taking offence, don’t read this book. It has potential of offending people left and right. Nothing is sacrosanct once Nagarkar picks up his pen. No religion, no philosophy, no country, no society, no God, no human, not even rationality and liberalism. And it doesn’t happen because the book is deliberately provocative. No. All it does in bare the story called life for all to see (read)!

Subversion, wit and an expansive narration (spanning three major religions, four major countries and events like 9/11) are of course there in the book. But what makes me marvel most of all is just how many layers are packed in those six-hundred odd pages. Yes – I see you raising your eyebrows. That’s a big book going by the industry standards. But it’s not big for the story it tells. Or I should say stories?

You will find many stories in it.

There is the story of sibling relationship, swinging to and for with sibling rivalry and loathing on one extreme, and fraternal affection and longing on the other.

There is the story of dangerous genius. He is capable of doing whatever he sets his mind to. Mostly, he just wants to save the world. But he is focused and single-minded to destruction, his own and everybody else’s. He always knows the right from the wrong. He doesn’t need to see somebody else’s point of view. They don’t measure up to his exacting standards. They are not worthy. And you are forced to face the dreadful question. Who will save the world from the genius?

If the single-minded genius destroying everything life-affirming is too dark for you, there is also the story of his reasonable, conscientious, moderate sibling. He is filled with doubts. Reasonable doubts, I must add. He finds it necessary to question every dogma, and rationally so. He is a humanist, adoringly so. But his reasonable doubts, rational questioning, and infinite humanism are strong to the point of being debilitating.

And there, dear world, lies your choice. Your only choice. And like the rational sibling declares somewhere in the book, whatever choice you make will be the wrong one.

If you had to look up to someone who would you look up to?

The self-assured, charming genius, who has one single goal in life to exclusion of everything else, who is sure of that being the only worth goal for everyone, and who has the ability, conviction and single-minded focus to achieve his goal irrespective of the collateral damage? Or the one who would need your reassurances and must be forced into a leadership role by the followers, who would never see one solution as the right one and constantly weigh pros and cons for different people, who would always see more than everyone else, who would confuse you to no end with his if’s and but’s, and who would do the best-possible thing, only if he can make up his mind to push for something at all?

We don’t have great options, do we? But I’m afraid I have digressed. Leadership questions weren’t on the mind of the author. But I could not help seeing the story that was on my mind in the book. I think that is the beauty of the book.

One of the most important and direct ideas the book puts forward is about religious extremists. Extremism is religion in itself. Extremists will find reasons to be cruel and violent in any religion. They usually just latch into the religion they are born into. But really, any other religion would have done just fine by them. Although it is sort of fantastic on author’s part to have the same character being fanatic under the umbrella of different religions, but that serves to elucidate the idea even better. The moderate sibling blatantly opines, ‘You remained faithful to your religion, the religion of extremism.’

There are many, many more stories. Of the charms and perils of Bollywood, of the writer’s struggles, of a family trying to adjust to reduced circumstances, of God(s) found and lost, of business, of politics… But it would not do to recommend a book for reading and tell you everything about it.

There is another warning before you pick it up. The book can be baffling. It isn’t always realistic or reasonable. The central character doesn’t grow at all. He remains the same throughout the book. The amount of kindness and forgiveness this monstrous genius receives from everyone around him is hard to believe, and so is the number of disparate (mostly destructive) things he manages to do in one lifetime. But don’t judge the book on that basis. It isn’t supposed to be judged on that basis.

Yes – the book is big, but it is worth a read. It’s okay if you have to skip some thinner bestsellers to finish this. The one time I got to ask a question to the author, I could not help asking how he managed to avoid getting banned. His rather self-effacing, but probably correct, reply was to the effect that not enough people have read the book for it to attract attention. That’s rather sad. Not the book escaping ban, but that it has not been read much more widely. Despite the fact that it isn’t some obscure indie publication (Harper Collins in the publisher) and that an earlier book by the author- Cuckold – was a Sahitya Academy Award winner.

Cato the Reader’s Favorite Quotes

Cato the ReaderCato the Reader brings you some of his favorite quotes from the book.

1

If I could teach you anything, he told his pupils and apprentices, I would teach you irreverence. Irreverence towards your guru, irreverence towards all and sundry, but most of all irreverence towards yourself and your solemnities.

2

But blasphemy is always tempting. It is, after all, the first experience of freedom.

3

There is only one God and Her name is Life. She is the only one worthy of worship.

4

If you don’t know your fundamentals, it’s going to cripple your imagination, your concepts and your architecture. Not you but somebody else will pronounce whether something you want can be done or not.

5

Nostalgia is not just selective memory, it is the reinvention of the past as it never was.

6

It is the law of God, or nature, if you prefer, that pain, suffering and grief cannot be transferred by proxy. Neither empathy not sympathy but experience alone is the valid currency of affliction. It alone makes you a card-holding member and allows you to join the club of the wretched of the earth. All else is counterfeit.

Book Description

Below you will find the description of the book from the publisher’s site.

From the backstreets of Bombay to the hallowed halls of Cambridge, from the mountains of Afghanistan to a monastery in California, the story of Zia Khan is an extraordinary rollercoaster ride; a compelling cliffhanger of a spiritual quest, about a good man gone bad and the brutalization of his soul.

Growing up in a well-to-do, cultured Muslim family in Bombay, Zia, a gifted young mathematician, is torn between the unquestioning certainties of his aunt’s faith and the tolerant, easy-going views of his parents.

At Cambridge University, his beliefs crystallize into a fervent orthodoxy, which ultimately leads him to a  terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The burden of endemic violence and killings, however, takes its toll on Zia. Tormented by his need for forgiveness, he is then drawn reluctantly to Christ. But peace continues to elude him, and Zia is once again driven to seek out causes to defend and fight for, whatever be the sacrifices involved.

Posited against Zia is his brother, Amanat, a writer whose life is severely constrained by sickness, even as his mind is liberated by doubt. Theirs is a relationship that is as much a blood bond as it is an opaque wall of incomprehension. Weaving together the narratives of the extremist and the liberal, God’s Little Soldier underscores the incoherent ambiguities of good and evil, and the tragic conflicts that have riven people and nations.

Purchase Links

Other Books By the Author

Finally, if God’s Little Soldier is not quite your kind of book, you should still give a try to some other books by the author. Because one thing is certain. All his works are very different from each other. My affair with Nagarkar had started with Cuckold. The narrative is more conventional and less jarring here, the story is clear, but the genius (of the writer) isn’t missing. Ravan and Eddie and its sequel The Extras are hilarious but subversive and bold at the same time. The third part of the series is Rest in Peace: Ravan and Eddie. His first novel in Marathi Saat Sakkam Trechalis is considered a milestone in the language’s literature and English translation goes by the name Seven Sixes are Forty Three. I am yet to read his recently released Bedtime Story. Needless to say, the anticipation is palpable! Another novel — Jasoda — is also out now.

  • 1
  • 2