Sunday, 27 November 2011

World AIDS day

           For members of the medical community, a duty to educate the general population about health risks when appropriate is implicit. December 1st is World AIDS day. I will not lecture you about AIDS but it would be remiss if I do not take this opportunity to at least urge you to protect yourself against HIV.


     Safe sex is not 100% safe. Using a condom does not always protect you from contracting HIV but it is the best way to prevent it barring abstinence. Abstinence is the only way which is 100% effective. As advocating abstinence is futile, all I advise is at least be serially monogamous. If you are sexually active, get yourself tested at least every six months. Life and AIDS are both sexually transmitted and invariably fatal. So, do not ostracise or patronise HIV positive individuals if you know any.

     Remember guys, Spread awareness not the virus. Be safe.

Sharath's bookshelf - The Da Vinci Code

     I read The Da Vinci Code before it acquired notoriety; leastwise before I was aware of its notoriety. It does not have any extraordinary literary value nor can I vouch for the accuracy of the historical data in the novel. What it does have, is an engaging storyline and an imaginative author who uses various disparate historical facts and coalesces them to make a seemingly preposterous conspiracy theory sound plausible.

     This was the first Dan Brown - Robert Langdon book I read; so the layout of his novel was new to me. I hadn t read Angels and Demons yet. So the story felt fresh and it did not have the been there - read that vibe
I got when I read the other two Brown - Langdon novels. If it aint broke, don t fix it - is a quaint adage that I think Mr Brown has taken to heart. His novels are international bestsellers and their success make Dan Brown stick to his shtick.

      Anyone familiar with all of Brown's novels can see a common layout in all his stories. There is a city with historical significance that forms the backdrop ( Rome in Angels and Demons, Paris in this novel, Washington DC in The lost symbol ), a secret society (the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion, the Free Masons), a henchman fueled by fanaticism ( the (H)assassin, Silas ), a mastermind who is revealed at the end of the novel and an array of riddles and puzzles that no one except Mr Langdon has any hope of unraveling.

       This book was a magnet for controversy. It attracted the ire of the Catholic church which moved to ban the book. This ironically resulted in a phenomenal increase in the sales of the book and made the mediocre film adaptation,( albeit with a top notch star cast ), a financial success. I personally think that the whole thing was blown out of proportion.This book was also the subject of at least two lawsuits alleging plagiarism by Dan Brown.

      This book has been reviled by the critics as being historically inaccurate. Other critics have blasted Brown for his "clumsy" and "pedestrian" style of prose. I don t mind it that much. If you are like me, you know, the kind that loses track of time while in a Wikipedia spiral, you will definitely enjoy the asides about the divine proportion, the discourses about renaissance art and the descriptions of Paris.

       The book, though not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of imagination, is still worth reading. I enjoyed the book immensely though it does not lend itself to rereading( which according to me is the hallmark of a great book ). The movie is simply not worth commenting upon , though it gives us an opportunity to examine Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

Read it if you haven t already. If you have already read it, then skim through it and read the parts you like.  

The Big Fat Indian Wedding

      Indian weddings, as a rule, are loud, ostentatious affairs. Women in expensive silk sarees wear copious amounts of gold jewellery just to flaunt their wealth. The speaker system is set at a volume that ensures a sleepless night to the entire neighbourhood. The Indian wedding has nothing subtle about it; it is larger than life in a unique way.

      Observing people at Indian weddings is a study in the art of duplicity. The uber realistic fake smiles, the innocuous sounding veiled barbs, the affected largesse of the miserly uncles may bewilder the newbies on the Indian wedding scene who are not privy to the undercurrents of this social situation. The whole exercise reeks of one-upmanship and an overwhelming need to establish one's superiority - economic and otherwise. . 

      Indian weddings are largely a feminine domain, the male participation is usually limited to finances, planning, the groom and the priest. The men of the bridal party are seen running frantically sorting out problems that inevitably arise everywhere from the pantry to the groom's bathroom. The male relatives of the groom are seated closest to the ceremony and are pestered by the bridal party every few minutes seeking to display their hospitality by offering them beverages or food.

      The men, who are unfortunate enough to be dragged to these events as guests, are usually found trying to catch up with old acquaintances shouting to be heard over the cacophony of the ceremony, gambling away a full weeks pay with other equally compulsive gamblers or trying seconds of every dish at the buffet. The younger men form a posse and start ogling their decked out counterparts of the opposite sex.

     The older women generously compliment each other on their sarees, jewellery and then move on to exchange gossip. Jane Austen wrote, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." That was the mindset of ninteenth century English women; it is the mindset of twenty first century Indian women. I was at a wedding reception a few weeks earlier. For the first time in my life, at that wedding reception, I felt the speculative eyes of a couple of middle aged aunties pass over me. I felt like "the Empress of Blandings" (yeah..... Wodehouse) being appraised at a show. Even with my looks, I am apparently a catch, I was told later.

       I, like most men, want to stay a million miles away from a wedding. If my mom hadn t insisted on going, ( I am constitutionally incapable of saying NO to my mom ) I wouldn t be caught dead in the general area of any wedding, much less attend one. It isn t the migraine inducing sound, the stomach churning food, the patent falsity of the smiles or the condescending attitude of the people that is off putting. It is the unholy combination of all these and an inescapable feeling of being judged that causes me to run a mile at the mere mention of a wedding.

      Then again... In a few years when I get married (hopefully to someone great), I want my wedding to be bigger, better and totally Indian; not some staid and boring affair but a celebration without reserve, pretense or apology.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Just Wondering......

     I watched Rockstar yesterday. In the movie, a character remarks that great art or literature is almost always the mental product of a tortured soul. I thought about the same thing many times. Music, art, literature have always seemed better when they were created as an outlet for pain. Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Tchaikovsky, Hemingway, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh ......the list of "tortured" artists goes on and on. Why is it that heartache can be an impetus for artistic genius? Why does sadness provide access to a fount of creativity out of reach to relatively normal, well adjusted people?

     Is it because profound grief provides us with a clarity of thought and a narrower focus? Maybe it is because torment forces us to look for avenues to express our deepest feelings, a coping mechanism, a cathartic outlet to rid ourselves of some of the pain. Or is it because anguish causes us to become more aware of ourselves, our psyche, our inner workings, our true self; resulting in the creation of masterpieces.

     All the greatest love stories from Romeo and Juliet to our very own Devdas are tragedies. Why is grief such a poignant theme in the most celebrated works of art or literature? I think maybe it is because pain and sadness evoke in us an empathy, a subconscious connection, if you will, to the work in question. It causes us to react at a more primal level rather than the purely cerebral appreciation shown towards art with other themes. Such art touches us to the very core. Listen to any of Tchaikovsky's violin concertos and you will understand what I mean.

     I also think that art born out of such emotions is pure, unaffected and sincere. Happiness can be faked but for torment to be believable, it has to come from within. One has to bare one's heart and soul on paper or canvas for the piece of art or literature to at least seem convincing. Maybe, it is this genuine and undissembled quality that our subconscious responds to. Or it could be the personal link we develop to the artist after being privy to an intimate and vulnerable facet of his self, his essence, his life that makes us more receptive to and more influenced by his work.

     Maybe just maybe it is nothing but pure chance and there is no correlation between sadness and great art. Just wondering........

Video of the week - Manasa sancharare

      I find this song very soothing and listen to it when I feel restive. The simplicity of the instruments and the spell binding vocals of Vani Jayaram and S P Balasubramaniam never fail to lift my mood. I don t understand the lyrics but the song is easily one of my all time favourites. Just goes to show that music is a universal language.

    If you have any videos you would like to share, paste the url in the comments section. Your video along with your name will be displayed in the forthcoming weeks, if selected. Thank you. 

Sharath's bookshelf - The Tristan Betrayal

     Robert Ludlum is the world's best selling author in the political thriller genre. He is probably the most prolific as well. His books have been successfully adapted into movies, miniseries etc. His earlier life as a US marine is probably the reason for his acute insight into the inner workings of the military and security agencies which form an integral part of his novels.

     A typical Ludlum novel is characterised by a hero with special skill(s), a shadowy organisation that places the safety of the free world in jeopardy and a story that moves at break neck speed. The secondary cast contains a trusted colleague who betrays the protagonist and a heroine who gets mixed up in this risky business and falls for the dashing hero. This tried and tested formula always works.

     The Tristan Betrayal marks a departure from this trend. It is a historical thriller set in the Second World War era and is the story of Stephen Metcalfe, the protagonist, a spy for the Allies. The story starts in Paris where the American hero is under cover as an Argentinian black marketeer and play boy. His cover is blown, his team is assassinated and he escapes from Paris. For his next assignment, he is asked to rekindle his relationship with his former flame, Svetlana Baranova, a fiery ballerina at the Bolshoi and the paramour of a Nazi official in Moscow.

     Svetlana is Ludlum's most well written female character, in my opinion, even better than the more popular Marie Webb nee St Jacques of The Bourne series. The story has the trademark Ludlum twists and turns. The pace is unrelentingly fast but still sedate compared to his other thrillers. The courage and patriotism that Lana shows is stirring. The book provides a fictional reason for the U-turn in Soviet-German relations, during the later phase of  Second World War, which in many historians' opinion cost Germany the War.

    This book is rumoured to have been written by a ghost writer by expanding on an outline written by Ludlum. It was published two years after Ludlum's death. It does show a discernible difference in the phraseology, style and pacing. It still ranks as one of Ludlum's, if not this genre's best.

     Read this novel and comment.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In Memoriam - A Friend

     Mom was cleaning the cupboards today and I came across my journal from college. Leafing through the pages I relived the best and worst experiences from my college days. One of the saddest entries was on the 30 th of October 2009. I quote it verbatim from my journal -

       " I lost a friend two days earlier. He committed suicide by hanging himself. I do not know why he has done that. I am still grieving. The moment I heard about it, I was shell shocked; My mind could not register the fact that a person who sat beside me many a time, a person I 've shared many experiences with, a person who has always been himself with me and accepted me as I am, is now gone forever. I stood there like a blubbering idiot unable to make sense of the goings on. I cannot even remember exactly what I did then.

      As I was returning to my room, it suddenly hit me, a wave of heart rending, soul crushing grief. All I could do was break down and cry and I did - unabashedly. After that there was a numbness of the mind and a quiet acceptance of the fact that he isn t here anymore. I felt emotionally deadened. I couldn t make myself react to anything for a while.

     I will always remember him and carry with me the memories of a generous and sensitive bloke who was always kind to me. Farewell Raghav. I miss you deeply."

     The reasons for sharing something this personal are twofold. One - to honour the memory of a dear departed friend. Two - to ask everyone reading this to keep a lookout for signs of depression in your friends. It has been two years and I still cannot get over the fact that I noticed nothing wrong prior to the mishap. It was clearer in hindsight - all the subtle signs, the lack of enthusiasm, the forced smiles, the affected bonhomie.

     In today's world of high speed internet and facebook, the thing we re missing out on most is face to face interpersonal interaction. We check our facebook and twitter accounts umpteen times a day but do not call on friends living a few blocks away. We use headphones to drown out the crowds. We can barely be bothered to make small talk with our neighbours. We build walls instead of bridges. Is it any wonder then that some of our friends feel a disconnect? Is it not foreseeable that some of them, especially those uprooted from their sheltered homes for education or employment , feel lonely?

      Reach out to the taciturn and withdrawn people you know. Make the effort. Who knows? You might even save a life.

Video of the week - Thriller

      Three words - Thriller Michael Jackson - 'nuff said

     If you have any videos you would like to share, paste the url in the comments section. Your video along with your name will be displayed in the forthcoming weeks, if selected. Thank you.

Vanity, thy name is human....

     One of my most frequently voiced laments is about my looks (or the lack of them to be exact). I was born to parents who are pulchritudinous (my obnoxious way of saying comely). Why did I not inherit their genes? I don t know who said that women age like fine wine but he was talking about my mom. She has a nearly flawless complexion; lively eyes, a cheerful disposition and can pass for someone who is at least a decade younger. My Dad is compactly built but has a persona that commands respect and attention.

     My face, on the other hand, resembles a bad reproduction of Picasso's portraits chewed up by rodents. I have a nose that looks perpetually swollen, lips that look bee stung and a smile that can be used to break mirrors. I was chubby as a child and not too thin during my college days. With all the home cooked food I am gorging on these days, it is only a matter of time before I resemble the Pillsbury dough boy. Even with my grotesque looks, I still delude myself into thinking that a new shirt or a different set of glasses will somehow make me look better and hence the abominably butchered and corrupted Shakespearean quote forms the title of this post.

     Vanity is a symptom of the human condition. I am, (though there have been arguments made to the contrary), completely human and not an exception. Most of us want to look good. I know people who spend more time in front of a mirror than they do sleeping. The barrage of ads on the idiot box or in the news papers for grooming services and the roaring business they do are an indicator of the rising interest in self image.

     With the increasing societal acceptance of the male metrosexual archetype, men are now embracing methods which hitherto were a part of the exclusive domain of female grooming. Men using fairness creams is one thing but waxing, manicures............. It does not stop at that. I had a class mate in college who wanted to gain a few inches height by going under the knife. With the advancement of medicine and surgical techniques, there are methods to correct every perceived  physical flaw if you are affluent enough.

      Why are most of us obsessed with making ourselves conform to a popular media propagated image of physical attractiveness? Is it because ours has a become an increasingly superficial and shallow society? We teach children that God does not judge by outward appearances and that we should not to judge a book by its cover. The sad thing is we do it all the time consciously or sub consciously. Scientific studies have established the same beyond dispute.

       Shouldn t we as the most evolved species be able look beyond a pretty facade? Why then are we attracted to the more evolved equivalent of bright plumage? 

Sharath's bookshelf - The Dresden files


       I love high fantasy and all its cliches - Chivalrous heroes who ride horses, fight with swords, rescue beautiful princesses from fearsome beasts and speak in archaic English. The Dresden files has none of these cliches. Jim Butcher's irreverent and unapologetic piece of fantasy literature is contemporary, deliciously kick ass and diametrically opposite to usual High fantasy. I still love the series.

     The USP of this series is without a doubt - the patently fallible but eminently likeable protagonist, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. The stories are told from his point of view. The narration is informal and full of laugh out loud sarcastic remarks and self deprecating humour. The storyline is a creatively crafted amalgam of fantasy and whodunit detective stories.

       The characterisation of the secondary cast is nothing less than brilliant. Every reader of this series has his or her favourite character. I personally like them all; whether it is Lieutenant Murphy or Thomas, Mouse or Bob, Mister or Michael, all of them are great. The city of Chicago which forms the stage on which this series is set is a character unto itself.

     The tone of the story is fun and light. That is what sets it apart from the rest of the series out there. It never feels heavy handed or preachy. It is pure entertainment. All the staples of fantasy fiction - vampires (there are three kinds ), werewolves, ghosts, faeries, wizards, necromancers, angels, knights among others - form various threads in the rich tapestry of the Dresden multiverse.

      This thirteen book series is a joy to read and has spawned a role playing game, a thriving online community and a shortlived TV series.( The TV series was badly produced and so given the axe.) I do not want to give out plot details but suffice it to say that time spent reading The Dresden files is time well spent.

      Read the books and tell me what you think.