Category Archives: Non fiction

I AM THAT by Nisargadatta Maharaj

“I am That”, as its apt subtitle says, is a collection of talks with the great Indian mystic, and has gems of wisdom strewn across almost all its chapters.  Here’s one I discovered in Chapter 5, on a renewed journey along it’s profound pages, that expounds the value of avoiding contradictions in thought and action –

  “…life and light must not quarrel; behavior must not betray belief. Call it honesty, integrity, wholeness; you must not go back, undo, uproot, abandon the conquered ground. Tenacity of purpose and honesty in pursuit will bring you to your goal.”

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True life wisdom, really. And not as easy to follow at all times.

 

 

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Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

Mélange

Several months back, I began reading Salman Rushdie’s “Enchantress of Florence”. Even brilliance of prose can be tedious, as I realized not too far into the book. Nonetheless, it did trigger in me some interest in history. Out came a dusty paperback from my bookshelf, an old edition of History of India Vol. 2 by Percival Spear. A trip down its pages was so much more refreshing than the gibberish (sorry Mr. Rushdie, I like your writing, but everyone should retire one day, no?) I’d been digesting, that I returned to it with much reluctance. The end result of course was that my persistence fell short of my impatience, and I abandoned the book more than halfway through it.

Then came another book that I was hard pressed to finish – Manil Suri’s “Death of Vishnu”.  I did finish it though (with much gritting of teeth), overcoming the profusely ornamental style and unending series of cliches. The ennui of plodding through two (well, almost) painstaking books clearly signaled that I needed a break, perhaps into stuff not classified as “literary”, or even non fiction for while.

Michio Kaku’s “Parallel Worlds” was as intriguing read, next. But physics itself seems so limiting in trying to explain the non-physical, that I have a hard time carrying on, at least beyond one book. Projecting something as the pinnacle of knowledge when the source itself is dependent on our perception is a futile, if not unwise, exercise. Interestingly, I picked up Kaku’s book after watching a few episodes of the hilarious sitcom – Big Bang Theory (The title, science, books … you know, one thing led to the other). It’s about a bunch of bungling Caltech geeks and their hot neighbor.  Incidentally, I’ve become a fan, and recently watched the entire Season 1 on DVD

From physics to metaphysics – I re-read Dr. David Hawkins’ “I: Reality and Subjectivity“, the third of his trilogy(or what I knew as a trilogy till today before I checked amazon.com. I really need to catch up on his more recent works), a profound piece of work that highlights the importance of kinesiology for the serious spiritual seeker, a vehicle for intuitively discerning truth from falsehood. Yet despite the depth, I feel he should have kept away from opining on politics and other trivia (which seems oscillate more towards the right wing, to a degree). They act as  mere hindrances. Still, a very valuable book, for its insights. The book itself is in a question/answer format, somewhat like the compilaiton of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s discourses “I am That“, an advaita classic. David Hawkins himself greatly revers Maharaj, who, in his kinesiologic test, calibrates at 740.

But wait, I haven’t entirely given up on ficiton and literature. I couldn’t. One refreshing read was Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra”. Written simply, it’s an allegorical tale of a retired bureaucrat’s search for meaning. It reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”. Perhaps I’ll write about it next. In the meantime, I’d very much welcome tips on anything recent (Booker perhaps? Haven’t paid much attention to it), or even the not so recent.

Incendiary Circumstances by Amitav Ghosh

Incendiary Circumstances is a collection of seventeen essays, written over two decades, on the many social and political crises besotting our world. Here, our world is mostly confined to South Asia, parts of South East Asia (Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia), and Middle East(Egypt, Kuwait), “Half-made worlds”, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, which Ghosh refers to in the preface. But “the incendiary circumstances of these essays are no longer exceptional anywhere in the world”, Ghosh illustrates through the short, ruminative piece on the WTC attack in New York, titled September 11, which, though seemingly banal, is quite effective and appropriate.

What sets these essays apart from being purely journalistic narratives is the touch of personal perspective that Ghosh adds, either by his close presence during the occurrences, or by contact with a victim he has personally known. Given his training as a social anthropologist and his profession as a fiction writer, some of the pieces read like stories almost, or certainly a mixture of memoir and travelogue

 

Terrorism, or repression as we have come to know in today’s world, is a recurring theme. Ghosh draws successfully from his rich personal experiences, though he is himself dubious about the fruitfulness of writing about such issues. In the preface he writes:

“…is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject? [Para] No doubt the reason that this question had a special urgency for me was because the “incendiary circumstances” of the title have been a part of the background of my everyday life since my childhood. … if there is anything instructive in the present turmoil of the world, it is surely that few ideas are as dangerous as the belief that all possible means are permissible in the service of a desirable end.”

 

Ghosh unambiguously heightens the intensity of an alarm, which to us, aware to a degree of the dire state of affairs, has been dulled to background noise in the frenzy of day to day living. The book, while serving as a chronicle of modern history in patches, also brings forth a sense of urgency in our awareness to these events and their significance in our lives today.

 

While many of the pieces spell a sense of doom, of a world at the edge of a cataclysm, there are diversions. “Tibetan Dinner” is his experience in a NYC restaurant where a Hollywood star (Richard Gere, I presume) is hosting a dinner for the cause of Tibet. During his meal, Ghosh recalls the Tibetan refugees in India, between looking up to the solitary monk being felicitated.

“When I next caught the monk’s eye, his smile seemed a little guilty: the hospitality of a poor nation must have seemed dispensable compared to the charity of a rich one. Or perhaps he was merely bewildered. It cannot be easy to celebrate the commodification of one’s own suffering.”

The essay titled “Four Corners”, continues on the theme of marginalized people in our modern world, this time for the American Indians.

“…The names of the dispossessed tribes of Americas hold a peculiar allure for the marketing executives of automobile companies. Pontiac, Cherokee – so many tribes are commemorated in forms of transport. It is not a mere matter of fashion that so many of the cars that flash past on the highway carry those names, breathing them into the air like the inscriptions on prayer wheels. This tradition of naming has a long provenance: did not Kit Carson himself, the scourge of the Navajo, name his favorite horse Apache?”

 

“The Imam and the Indian”, the last of the lot, is an encounter of with an imam (a Muslim cleric) during Ghosh’s stay in Egypt. While humorous, it poignantly reflects on the strange sense of irony in the interpretation of western progress in the rest of the world. The imam tries to belittle Ghosh in pointing out to the village crowd that Ghosh is from a place where they worship cows and burn their dead. The two get into a heated argument, where Ghosh says that they burn the dead in the West as well.

“The imam could see that he had stung me. He turned away and laughed. “He’s lying,” he said to the crowd. “They don’t burn their dead in the West. They’re not ignorant people. They’re advanced, they’re educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.”

“We have them too!” I shouted back at him. I was as confused now as I was angry. “In my country we have all those things too,” I said to the crowd. “We have guns and tanks and bombs. And they’re better than anything you have – we’re way ahead of you.”

The imam could no longer disguise his anger. “I tell you, he’s lying,” he said. “Our guns and bombs are much better than theirs…

So there we were, the imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West.”

 

Ghosh writes well, and one is awed by his scholarship and understanding of the issues he writes about, as well the vast spectrum of human populace he observes. He is honest in his assessments. Yet, when it comes closer to home, he provides an instance where his honesty is called into question. In the introductory part of the essay titled ‘The Fundamentalist Challenge”, he talks of how, in his own words, “intellectual pedigrees of most versions of religious extremism around the world today can be traced to [similar] moments of conversion”. He goes on to give some example, relevant to South Asia and Middle East. For the lack of anything else, he chooses to say this, for the case of Hindu extremism:

“Swami Vivekananda, the late nineteenth-century thinker who is today claimed by Hindu extremists as a founding father, was famously a rationalist in the best positivist tradition, until he underwent a dramatic conversion.”

This statement is ludicrous, not because of the claims of Hindu extremist groups, which is irrelevant, but in the manner in which it tends to imply that the conversion turned him into an irrational, as if Swamiji was a proponent of Hindu extremism thereafter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The extremists may claim anything Mr. Ghosh, but don’t you, as a conscientious writer, realize the fallacy hidden behind your statement? Swami Vivekananda was a sage, a saint, and the “dramatic conversion” that your scholastic prose is talking of is bluntly termed as a spiritual experience, in the grace of his guru, the great, Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Surely Mr. Ghosh, you are aware of his secular and reformist influences on Hinduism?

The statement thus appears laughable to anyone but pseudo seculars out to prove a point. Or is it that too much of intellectual study blinds one from simple truths? The futility of all this scholarship is perhaps it leaves behind little else but interesting essays, some confusion and a dread of the place we call home.

On Writing by Stephen King

onwriting.jpgI’ve never read a Stephen King story, having little interest in the genre that he typically caters to. But I must say that this book has some excellent tips and inspiration for anyone interested in writing. And why just that? It’s a good read in itself – part memoir and part instructional, it manages to draw attention and hold it throughout its moderate length through a direct, hard hitting, no nonsense stance.

King classifies writers into four categories: bad, competent, good, great. He tends to believe that it’s possible to transform a good writer into a competent one, and that is the only jump possible among the various strata. I do agree that writing requires some propensity towards the skill, something one is born with. But I also think it is possible, for someone who is terrible, to improve, with sufficient training and determination, to levels close to competency. Greatness again, is a different matter, but Thomas Edison said: Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. So apparently, there could be some perceived misconception in King’s thesis.

 

King focuses on fundamentals probably most good writing teachers would emphasize: characters over plot, story over theme, active voice over passive, and so on. He doesn’t mention anything on conflict: the basic premise of any story. But he does strongly prescribe sticking to the truth, on verisimilitude.

King is pissed off with literary snobs who distinguish between high and low brow writers, and that’s understandable. But it’s also understandable why someone writing horror stories and bizarre tales would be hard pressed to find admirers among seekers of truth in reality. No matter how deep the characters and their apparent conflict, there’s the supernatural element which is hard to imagine and dismissed as bogus by many, including myself. He also has a strange notion that a writer, regardless of the quality of the work, needs to be prolific, and is somewhat bemused by the fact that the likes of Joyce merely produced a handful. I find this idea rather naive. What has volume got to do with quality? Some are prolific and yet produce brilliant stuff, some continuously pour out rubbish like a leaking faucet, while still others create well crafted fiction but in large gaps (maybe they need the time or they may simply be disinclined to write in such profusion). Where’s the issue?

 

 

But regardless of Kings biases and limitations as a writer, the book is a worthy addition to an apprentice’s shelf, simply because most of what is told is worthwhile and comes straight from his heart. No BS there.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcuts.”

 

King heavily emphasizes reading, calling it “the creative center of a writer’s life.” I agree. It does help one grow as a writer, put ones work in perspective, discover unexplored means of expression. And this happens automatically – no conscious effort is needed besides the process of enjoying the book.

 

There are two appendix sort of sections at the end of the book. The first is an example of revising a story (leading to the second draft), which is very useful to analyze and understand. The second is a suggested reading list, but I’d make my own list based on my interests.

 

Above all, King believes it is most important to enjoy reading and writing, not let it feel like work, the element of play being vital to the mysterious creative process which every successful writer must invoke.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

Well put Mr. King, well put indeed.