Book Recommendation: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

 

The Professor and the Madman“A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary” goes the subtitle of the book I have selected for this month. It indeed is all of that. One might argue that the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the primary tale here, but it wouldn’t have made as fascinating a read if it also didn’t include the stories of the eponymous professor and the madman, two people intimately connected with the dictionary’s development. They were Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the dictionary, and Dr. W. C. Minor, one of the most prolific and productive contributors to the dictionary for about twenty years.

Okay! Quiz time:

  1. Which dictionaries did Shakespeare refer to while writing his plays?
  2. When Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first conceived, how much time was the first edition supposed to take?
  3. How much time did it actually take?
  4. How big was the complete first edition of the dictionary?
  5. There was one word which mistakenly went unprinted in the first edition. Which one was it?
  6. How was the enormous word-list for the dictionary compiled?

Here are the answers, some at least. Others are partial and some withheld.

  1. None. There were no English to English dictionaries in existence in Shakespeare’s time.
  2. Two years was the estimated time when one of the early attempts was made. When the real push came under Sir James Murray, the time estimated was ten years.
  3. 1879-1927, that is forty-eight years of continuous efforts. Seventy years from the time of conception and beginning of fitful activities in 1957.
  4. 20 volumes containing 414,825 words.
  5. Read to find out!
  6. Through painstaking process of volunteers and staff reading through large number of books published over centuries and making word list from each of them! Existing dictionaries were used as a starting point too, but the comprehensiveness of OED was beyond anything compiled earlier.

And did you know?

  1. The primary editor of the dictionary was a person who had to drop out of formal education at the age of fourteen because of poverty.
  2. One of the most prolific contributors was an insane man guilty of the murder of a perfectly innocent stranger.
  3. The creation of the dictionary was made possible by the unpaid labors of a large number volunteers in reading books and noting down words and their usage. Crowdsourcing isn’t as newfangled an idea as we might be led to think!

Puritans interested only in the history of the dictionary may find the pages detailing the lives of these men distracting. But it is this glimpse into the lives of people involved (admittedly only two of possibly hundreds or thousands, but two very important ones) that gives the story its charm. You also get to hear of author’s ruminations on the advancing war technologies in the Civil War era contrasted with the area of medicine that was still old-world, and ill equipped to deal with the injuries of advanced weapons. You also get to know about the limitations of the understanding of mental health issues in nineteenth century and how it has changed since then. Some of it is perhaps there to pad up the pages and may sometimes feel too pedagogic, but the story flows smoothly. The time, surroundings and even private conversations of the people from a bygone era have been recreated with such confidence that one might wonder at times if the author has taken too much of creative liberty. But there are many letters, old newspaper articles, court proceedings and detailed asylum records that the author goes by, which lend credibility to the raconteur.

A dictionary is something we take for granted in today’s world. It has evolved from the printed tome it used to be to its online avatars. And now we may not even care to go to a dictionary-specific website because a google search to define a term throws up the details right there. It is easy to forget what a humongous enterprise creation of something like a dictionary, which is to represent a language in its fullness, is. A book like this is important to remind us just how thankful we have to be even for the things that feel like they have always been there.

One important warning is warranted here. The tale of insanity has some rather unsavory and grotesque moments. So, despite a cute topic like making of the legendary Oxford English Dictionary, do not hand over the book to kids. Read yourself first to determine if they are old enough to handle it.

Book Description

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

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of theOxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly–and mysteriously–refused.Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man’s tortured mind and his contribution to another man’s magnificent dictionary.

Purchase Links

 

Book Recommendation: Waiting by Ha Jin

Waiting by Ha Jin
Waiting by Ha Jin

Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction, Waiting by Ha Jin is an interesting book among the multitudes which are set in China of the times of Mao Zedong. The narrative itself is not dominated by politics, but there could not have been a story like that if it weren’t for the political circumstances of the time. And yet the story could not have taken the same shape as it did if it weren’t for the quirks of the characters involved. This interplay of larger sociopolitical background – where past and present, remote villages and action-packed cities interact to create curious circumstances – with the everyday idiosyncrasies of individual characters creates a story that makes you “experience another way of being” (to borrow the phrase from Sheldon Pollock). It is for this reason that despite some of the shortcomings in the writing (dialogues can feel stilted and awkward; reader’s intelligence should have been trusted to figure out what really happened to the male protagonist in the story, instead of author spelling it out – that he was always in love with what he didn’t have), I think this book is worth a read.

I must warn that some of the reviews I have read lament that the characters are not realistic. I, however, don’t think so. It’s probably the unrealistic dialogues that weigh the characters down.

While the pressures exerted by societal norms on an individual will not be unfamiliar to an Indian reader, the state, the workplace and politics making inroads into an average person’s most private feelings and decisions can still be unnerving.

Another striking feature of the novel is the character of the male protagonist Lin Kong. I don’t like him; I don’t even sympathize with him, because I demand more decisiveness from people; but I see him. I see that just like it is difficult for a woman to be a superwoman, to be everything to everyone, being strong as well as nice is a difficult demand on men. With one woman (his wife) he is strong and decisive, but not nice; with the other woman (his “lover”) he is nice, but not strong and decisive. When a woman can’t just be happy with whatever is doled out to her, when she has a mind and expectation of her own, she finds him wanting; but doesn’t feel repulsed enough to give up on him either. Because you can’t really blame him for not being everything. There is something achingly realistic there.

There is a lot more to analyze and feel in the book. But I don’t intend to spoil it for you! Go, read it.

Book Description

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

Ha Jin’s novel Waiting was the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction. This quietly poignant novel of love and repression in Communist China begins in 1966 when Lin Kong, an army doctor, falls in love with the young nurse Manna Wu during a forced military march. They would like to marry, but Lin has a wife at home, in a rural village far from his army posting. His wife, Shuyu, is an illiterate peasant with bound feet, whom he was married to by arrangement so that his parents would have a daughter-in-law to care for them in old age. Each year, Lin travels back to Goose Village to divorce Shuyu in the county court; each year he is defeated, either by the judge or by the intervention of his wife’s brother. Because adultery is forbidden by the Communist Party, the years pass slowly and Lin and Manna wait chastely for their fate to change. By the time 18 years have passed–the interim after which a man can divorce his wife even without her consent–what had begun as a sweet and passionate romance has turned into something far more complicated and more real.Written with grace, wry humor, and an uncompromising realism, Waiting gives readers a story that puts their cherished ideals of individualism and self-fulfillment in a wholly different perspective.

Purchase Links

 

Article Recommendation: India must end history wars over Tipu and other controversial Sultans by Janaki Nair

Now that the Karnataka government’s Tipu Jayanti blunder is (at least until next year) behind us, I feel safe in recommending this sensible article, which exhorts us to look at historical people as persons of their times and not try to force-fit them into our current political classifications. Unfortunately our public debates tend to push people into more hardened, extremist stances, rather than developing a shared, nuanced understanding of history, which will not serve a convenient precursor to whatever opinions, grudges and ideologies we want to hold today. As the article points out about Tipu Sultan and all the labels that different groups apply to him:

What we would get is a richly ambiguous historical figure who is not easily amenable to a “nationalist”, “secular”, “tyrannical”, “pro Islamic” readings.

It ends with a sensible suggestion:

We must find the resources to develop a new historical temper that acknowledges and accepts the inconvenient contradictions of our past.

While you are on the subject, you can also read Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage? by William Dalrymple. This article may have gone some extra distance to prove that the “Islamic tyrant” image of Tipu was a British propaganda and is almost ready to label him a nationalist. But you can form your own opinion after looking at the facts presented.

Read India must end history wars over… at Daily O and Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage at Open.

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

Article of the Week: Be careful, your love of science looks a lot like religion by Jamie Holmes

As one of the articles we have discussed earlier on this blog reveals, ignorance is mostly (confidence-inducing) misinformation and hence misinformation can be safely labelled as dangerous. Misinformation, as wise people declare with a knowing nod, is worse than no information. In a similar vein, a misinformed defender can be worse than an uninformed bystander or even a critic. Science and scientific methods seem to have quite a few such dangerous defenders. The article we have selected for this week should warn you against the beliefs that you may mistakenly think to be pro-scientific, but are really just the opposite, especially when science is fielded against religion and its dogmas.

The article quotes the results of some studies:

When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals.

and

Another study led by University of Amsterdam’s Bastiaan Rutjens in 2010 found that uncertain subjects expressed an increased faith in God o​r i​n evolution, provided that evolution was presented as a structured and predictable process.

It seems that we tend to accept science for the same (misguided?) reasons as religion. To feel “a reassuring sense of order”. One way in which this need for predictability and order reflects is by resorting to extremism, where the world is divided into good and evil, black and white, saints and sinners. Some use religion as a vehicle for expressing this extremism, and others can do the same with science too ( “Anything not statistically significant is truly worthless.”). The article reminds us that “psychology, not theology, is at the root of extremism.”

In case you think that while extremism with religion is dangerous, extremism with “science” is harmless or even desirable, take a step back; science is not about absolute beliefs.

If the moral authority of science is rooted anywhere it is in the opposing stance, in its acceptance of fallibility and its welcoming treatment of ambiguity and unknowns. That is where science finds its contrast with scientism and many religious perspectives.

Why does it matter to the general public? Because when our understanding of science and scientific methods does not accommodate uncertainties and fallibility, it bestows a legitimacy on dogma. And dogma is not science’s strong point!

If the public were more comfortable with degrees of scientific uncertainty, for one, then climate change “skeptics”—those merchants of doubt, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway dubbed them—wouldn’t be able to conflate so easily minor uncertainties with substantive disagreement.

Read the complete article at Quartz.

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

Article of the Week: We Are All Confident Idiots by David Dunning

The article I have selected for this week is by David Dunning, one of the pair after whom the Dunning-Kruger effect is named. For those who have not already searched wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

Basically when idiots think they are the bosses!

The article explores similar and related phenomena focusing on ignorance.

What is ignorance? We tend to think of it as unawareness about something (the dictionary also says something like this). But if we do so, we don’t truly comprehend the dangers and impact of ignorance.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This can explain what to me is one of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. That education doesn’t really work in fighting ignorance. If ignorance were absence of knowledge, education could have imparted knowledge and made people wiser. But since it is not the absence of knowledge  but misguided knowledge, all too often education ends up producing illusory confidence without disabusing people of their wrong ideas. The information that comes through education is bent to fit in with the sacrosanct beliefs people already hold, instead of challenging and changing it.

The article mentions an example, where people uninformed about nanotechnology were “educated” about it through a brief write-up. Before reading, their opinions on the impact of technology were unsure and all over the map. However, armed with education, their beliefs became more confident and also polarized. The polarization was guided by what they already believed in (details in the article).

There is another interesting mention of an experiment, where teaching people about evolution not only increased the percentage of people believing the right things about evolution, it also increased the percentage of those believing the wrong thing. They were confident about their wrong beliefs too!

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

The article does end with some advice on how to manage ignorance-generated confidence. Those I think will only work, as in the case with most advice, if the idea has been internalized by you and you can clearly see the misguided confidence not just in others, but in yourself too. Knowing what is going on can definitely be a first step towards it.

By the way, if after reading it you find that you can see it happening only to others and not to you, you might be bending the information to fit the sacrosanct belief you hold about yourself – that you are smarter than everyone else!

Read the complete article on Pacific Standard.

Article of the Week: The obscure legal system that lets corporations sue countries by Claire Provost and Matt Kennard

I think it appeared as a cartoon in my facebook feed. It said something to the effect that the third world war is on and it not being fought through tanks, but through banks. The lament that corporations are the imperial powers of the 21st century has become almost clichéd. So clichéd indeed that we think these claims are exaggerated. Well – these pithy truisms are much closer to reality than the effectiveness of the latest weight-loss diet you have been recommended. The article I have selected for this week disturbingly points out one such system, using which corporations are not only able to undermine the sovereignty of nations but are turning these disputes into “asset-classes” against which they can raise money, not to fight the case, but to expand their business, while the states are so threatened that even democratically elected governments are not able to do right by their people.

The cases discussed in the article have mostly resulted in settlements or judgements that completely disregard the health, safety, social, economic and climate-change conditions of the people in these countries. And to top it all, all this has been done in the name of development. These investor-state dispute systems, one of which was created by the World Bank despite protests from almost every Latin American country, Philippines and Iraq, were supposed to help in the growth of developing and underdeveloped countries “by creating a welcome environment for international investments”. These were supposed to be “fair, impartial” mechanisms to resolve disputes. The reality is turning out to be bleak.

Corporations from developed countries are just have more support and are more adept at using these systems to their advantage than the states they are dealing with. Even in the rare cases that the state wins, the cost of dispute itself is too heavy for them to recover from. Read the complete article on The Guardian to get an idea of just how deep the rut is.