Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Interpreting a Malady

     Some denizens of this Information Age have developed an unnamed infirmity of the mind, a benign but supremely annoying condition that sometimes turns their compatriots homicidal. The sufferers are blissfully unaware of their condition and continue to inflict a cruel and unusual torture upon hapless friends, members of their family, colleagues, acquaintances and any living being in their digital vicinity. The effects of this ailment have been amplified by the ready availability of phones and internet. The sufferers exhibit a paradoxical nature of being extremely sensitive to any negativity directed towards them yet completely oblivious to the discomfort to others caused by their own thoughtlessness

    . The first stage is a sudden bout of quasi-enlightenment  leading to a paroxysm of verbosity that is spewed artlessly as a Facebook status or text. This enthusiastically shared word vomit is usually a platitude or something so moronically simplistic that it makes any sane reader visibly cringe. This status is immediately liked by a coterie of people who I have to assume are either really good friends, fellow sufferers who can empathize, opportunistic sycophants or the mentally defective.This often syntactically unsound rendering of a pseudo-epiphany ( or verbal diarrhea, if you want to be mean ) is then attacked by a second wave of people, comprising the Grammar Nazis, the pretend intellectuals, the contrarian horde and the frankly bored and idle.

      In the third stage this verbal volley of the inarticulate and the asinine descends to the gutter. People get riled up and start hurling expletives at each other written in SHOUTY CAPITALS. After expending an inordinate and frankly ridiculous amount of time and energy, all the brain dead parties call it quits. If the sufferer has a shred of intelligence, retrospection usually brings a sense of clarity and a feeling of mortification . A total cure usually follows. If there is no sign of intelligence in their dead eyes and their skull is as hollow as a politician's promise, this cycle is endlessly repeated.

     There are options available to those who do not wish to get wounded by the ricocheting verbal shrapnel. The first is to defriend the offender. The second is to ignore them though it can be well nigh impossible to be a fiddling Nero when there is an ongoing rape of the English Language. Also lying in wait for the next bout of this nonsensical deluge to drench you can be excruciating and potentially hazardous to mental health. Apprising the affected of his effect on you can lead to the loss of a friend and is an exercise in futility . Of course you could always delete your Facebook account. But you 're not gonna...

      Because making fun of these ludicrous "pearls of wisdom" is endlessly entertaining and is a sure fire way to build your self esteem. So we wait for the next outburst gleefully with the macabre enthusiasm of one who enjoys a train wreck.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Sharath's bookshelf - Christian Nation

     It has been a while since my last book review. I have read a lot of fiction in the interim, most of it high fantasy but nothing really worthwhile. This book - Christian Nation - is an exception. Without a doubt this is the best book I have read in a long time. Described as counter-factual speculative fiction, in the same vein as The Plot against America and the Handmaid's Tale, the author creates a scenario in which Barack Obama loses the presidential election and McCain is sworn in as the President. Following his death due to the rupture of a cerebral aneurysm, Sarah Palin becomes the President of the United States.

      The former Alaskan governor is a stand up comedian's dream. Her gaffes on national TV are comedy gold. So I expected this novel to be a light hearted farce which would use the fictional Palin presidency to highlight the sheer idiocy in choosing a photogenic running mate as opposed to a competent one. The author however does not go the Ludlumesque Road to Omaha route. He instead uses this novel as an exposition of the religious right in America.

      Written as a memoir by a wall street lawyer, Greg, this book paints a nightmarish picture of America devolving into a Christian totalitarian state following Sarah Palin's ascendance to the highest office in America. This book reflects the writing of a good researcher with an enviable lexical repertoire. It is a compelling read and at times I had shivers running down my spine. The dystopian future that this book envisions is my version of hell.This book works best when it's conjecture has a factual basis, when the suggested future does not seem wildly improbable. Frighteningly enough, a large part of this imagined future seems well within the realm of possibility. The writing is also riveting when it exposes the flagrant hypocrisy of the Teavangelical ( a widely used portmanteau of tea and evangelical ) movement.

          In my humble opinion, the author makes the right seem more insidious than they actually are. He also paints the general public in his book as more unaware and oblivious than in real life. On TV The Newsroom's Will McAvoy soliloquies deal with the subject of slow radicalization of  Christianity and are an indicator that the rise in the acceptance of scriptural literalism is being noticed. There is also a dearth of properly fleshed out characters. Most of the cast primarily serve as excuses to inform the reader of germane facts. As a result the dialogue seems clunky, verbose and unnatural. I don t mind that as much as the absence of intelligent, well-informed female voices in the narrative which is conspicuous, perplexing and somewhat jarring.

    I am usually dismissive of any extremist politician who spews hate mongering drivel . I am secure in my belief that most people are sane and would never back a candidate who is blatantly reactionary. I am also skeptical of any word that comes out of a politician's mouth and so believe that the right wing rhetoric of a politician  is only meant for appeasement of a certain section of the electorate. The author posits that there are politicians who are true believers of ultra conservative ideology and in extraordinary circumstances when usually moderate and sane members of the electorate feel especially vulnerable, they may vote for such a candidate. This assertion is the foundation on which the story is built.

    The well chosen but not very subtle quotes at the beginning of each chapter underscore the theme of the novel. The underlying theme of the novel can be summed up by the quote often erroneously attributed to Edmund Burke,"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Upon finishing the book, I caught myself thinking, "This will never happen." But the point of the story was never to assume that, never take the rights we enjoy for granted, never give an inch when fighting against the encroachment upon those rights. By the author's own admission, this story was a cautionary tale, one that needs to heeded even in this political climate. Given the frankly inflammatory statements issued by KCR and other politicians in the recent times and the rise of extremist rhetoric in India, this story resonates locally as well.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

An Identity Crisis ???

     When I salute our flag or hear our national anthem sung, I experience a sense of pride, a wave of patriotic fervour that lasts a moment or so. It is followed by an inexplicable twinge of guilt. Is it because I feel less Indian than I should? I, like most members of my cohort, am more comfortable expressing myself in English than in an Indian language.The food I eat, the books I read, the music I listen to, the movies I watch are rarely Indian. When I look at my peers and myself, I see an entitled, increasingly indifferent generation with no sense of what being Indian means.We are the products of a system of education that teaches history as a succession of dates, a sterile and dry recounting of facts that are reproduced during exams for a passing grade. This impersonal and unengaging pedagogy of history turns what should be an enlightening examination of our heritage into a chore as unpleasant as a visit to the dentist. As a result, most of us grow up associating history with boredom and with nary a clue as to our roots.

      The notion that mimicking western culture is "cool" has become a part of our collective consciousness. The art and literature being produced in India has steadily been acquiring a western sensibility. It seems like I inhabit a world that is becoming increasingly homogenized. The much vaunted "Indian Unity in Diversity" is being eroded and replaced by the bland universality of the Anglo-American sensibilities. The Indian ethos is being irrevocably changed to resemble a westernized one. Growing up in a society that tacitly professes the superiority of the Western culture discourages one to explore one's cultural identity.I may be making a broad generalization based on an unscientific observation of a small group of individuals that may not be representative of the general public but the question needs to be asked - Is our generation going through a cultural identity crisis? 

          The preceding generations had a sense of purpose, a distinct identity and an intuitive understanding of what being Indian meant. Our grandfathers were part of a generation that fought in the struggle for our nation's freedom. They laid the foundation for an Independent India which they envisaged would be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. Our fathers were the first post-independence generation, inheriting a nation in transition, faced with all the challenges that come when sailing across the uncharted waters of a democratic system of government. They were the pragmatic problem solvers who ushered in a green revolution and made India an agriculturally self sufficient nation, who put a man in space, who fought wars against enemies trying to encroach upon our lands.They also saw the emergence of a rapidly expanding educated middle class, rise in per capita income, increased life span and reduced infant mortality rates.

    This pragmatism came at a cost; This period also saw the entrenchment of corruption in our governmental machinery, a widened gap between the richest and the poorest sections of the society, an exponential rise in the national debt, financial scandals and environmental disasters, a veritable drought of scientific research and artistic achievement, an exodus of our brightest minds to other countries, not to mention an alarming and unchecked population growth that threatens to exhaust our already meagre natural resources. The legacy they bequeath to us is a welter of problems that permeate every sphere of Indian life and are inextricably linked to one another. We owe it ourselves and our nation to set things right.

    But without an inkling as to what our national character is, what kind of bequest would we leave to the next generation? A nation without an identity to an ignorant generation without a clue??   

Monday, 10 June 2013

Fellow passengers from hell

     A train journey always fills me with a multitude of emotions. A feeling of excitement, a quiver of anticipation as we reach our destination, a hint of nostalgia as I reminisce about vacations and journeys of the past almost always overlaid with a soupcon of annoyance at the other passengers.

     The most annoying type of passenger I have come across are the old timers who always fill the silence with inane chatter and meaningless platitudes before carefully examining and dissecting the genealogies of their fellow passengers under a microscope to unearth a mutual acquaintance and then indulging in a boring headache inducing soliloquy of their autobiography. They also dole out folksy wisdom and well meaning advice before they leave. It is hard to be harsh to them and darned near impossible to humour them without losing either our sanity or our temper. So, I drown out their voice by listening to music and (pretend to) read a book. It is not polite but I never pretended to be perfect.

    Infants in trains are a nightmare. I have always dreaded travel with infants in the vicinity of my seat. I had the experience of not getting any sleep due to the incessant mewling of an infant. "The bundle of joy" not only wails at an eardrum splitting decibel level but also projectile vomits after every meal. The abashed parents then mumble the requisite words of apology which we are left (with no choice but) to accept with grace.

     Then there are the middle aged women, the incorrigible gossipmongers who propagate and perpetuate  vicious rumours about everyone from their neighbours to the latest northern import to Tollywood all the while cloaking themselves in self righteous disapproval of everything against their narrow minded moral code. They revel in recounting every juicy morsel of gossip while assuaging their conscience by following it up with a sanctimonious tirade denouncing the very acts of moral depravity they enjoy discussing.

     I am not a misanthrope though my ranting above might raise serious doubts. It s just that I enjoy solitude and when travelling alone, I like to kick back and enjoy reading and falling asleep with the soothing rhythmic swaying movements of a train acting as a soporific. That happened only a precious few times. Most of the times though I end up sharing the bay with one or more of the aforementioned types of people.

     One particularly trying journey had me in the middle berth with the hundred year old geezer on the lower berth ordering lights out at eight, followed by the screaming and wailing of the infant opposite my seat which culminated in a sonic boom mimicking crescendo at the exact time I fell asleep. To make matters worse, the consummate busybody of the top berth, who slept through the clamour of the night like a passed out drugged up junkie, tried to regale me with the indiscretions of a philandering actor in the morning after a sleepless night. It is testimony to my patience and upbringing that stressed on respecting the elderly that no homicides were committed on that train.

     However, I do remember that the baby had the most angelic smile and his laughter reminded me of tinkling bells.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Remembering Grandpa

                 " His life was gentle and the elements
                   So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
                   And say to all the world 'This was a man!' "
      It was two years ago that my Grandfather passed away. His passing left a void in our family that is keenly felt by all of us. I was initially hesitant about writing this post because my repertoire, lexical or emotional, is nowhere near extensive enough to give people even a soupcon of insight into the complex being my Grandfather was. But not to write about him, not to remember him would be a worse error. I hope my good intent is enough to sandpaper away the coarseness of this post due to my deficient vocabulary - linguistic and emotional.

         When we (my cousins and I) were children, there were very few people whom we feared or admired more than our Grandfather. He towered like a Colossus above almost everyone in our collective consciousness. He was the rock we held on to when we were frightened, our pillar of strength when we needed him, our safety net who would never let us fall, our hero of whom we were afraid of and in awe of in equal measures.

        My brother and I spent a significant part of our childhood with our Grandparents. I couldn t appreciate it then but now I realise how unbelievably good my grandparents were as guardians. It was only in College that I realised how sheltered I was from the real world. It is a credit to my Grandparents that I never realised that no one was as mollycoddled as I was and that our style of upbringing was the exception not the norm.

         There was an aura of strength about my redoubtable Grandfather; some inexplicable sense of certainty that he exuded which made you turn to him for help. I remember the feeling of safety I had when he was with me, the  borrowed courage I got because I knew he would back me no matter what. My Grandfather had an uncanny ability to walk the precarious tightrope between strict disciplinarian and indulgent Grandfather with remarkable ease. 

       There are a precious few things I would prize over the bedtime anecdotes my Grandfather would dole out quite parsimoniously. We would battle our drooping eyelids with fervour to be able to listen to his exploits as a Railway officer. (Writing about this is making me nostalgic - sigh!!!!  ). Watching my Grandfather with his seven grandchildren surrounding him would soften even the hardest of hearts. My Grandfather was a study in contrasts - he was a hard man who would brook no nonsense from anyone; yet with his grandchildren, he would react with a warmth and gentle tenderness you wouldn t believe he was capable of.

          The quality I admire most about my grandfather was his unhesitant and unwavering loyalty to everyone lucky enough to earn it. He considered family paramount and placed it above everything and everyone else. He protected his brood with the fierceness of a mama bear.I miss his enormous mental fortitude, which helped stiffen my resolve and put some iron in my backbone in moments of insecurity. It truly was the cruelest thing in the world that his final years were spent battling Alzheimer's disease. It was heart-rending to see such a vital and dynamic man brought down by a disease that systematically erodes the very essence of men - their mind, their intelligence, their dignity. I hope medicine progresses rapidly enough to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease very soon. 

        The greatest legacy he left behind was his family. He had a definite set of principles he adhered to, some of those virtuous principles we, his children and grand children, have inherited and made an integral part of our moral framework. You see his stubbornness in us (some call us mule-headed ), you see his familial loyalty ( we fight among ourselves but will never let an outsider treat any of us with the slightest disrespect ) you see his intelligence and charm ( I admit that I may not have inherited these particular genes ), you see his love for life and respect for women and elders.

        The fact that I could keep writing " my Grandfather " with such authority and possessiveness, over and over throughout this post is an enormous privilege and an honour only a select few can truly appreciate.

           We miss you a lot, Grandpa.

Sharath's bookshelf - The Wheel of Time series

" The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning."

      For those who don t already know it, I am a huge fantasy fiction fan. I read a lot of fantasy literature; some of it is exquisitely awful, some of it is just tolerable, a relatively small percentage of the published fantasy literature is actually good and an infinitesimally small proportion of it is exceptionally good, the kind which makes sifting through a lot of really bad fiction worthwhile.

     The Wheel of Time presents a unique problem to the discerning fantasy bibliophile. It does not fit neatly into any definition of good or bad; it just is. We read through reams upon reams of really bad writing with character treatment so puerile and a storyline so reminiscent of bad soaps that it often makes us throw our hands up in exasperation. But there are a precious few lines of truly genius writing interspersed throughout the exhaustingly voluminous 14 book series that kept me hooked.

      There are a bewilderingly large number of sources that this series draws its inspiration from. The concept of continuity of time, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth is essentially Hindu. The main villain is called Shai' tan, a name familiar to those who know a little about Islam. The concepts of mind over body and the fighting techniques and stances that have names like boar rushes down the mountain feel like they have been lifted right from a dubbed Kung fu movie. The biblical and Arthur Pendragon references are too numerous to list. But the most important influence seems to be that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Emond's Field could alternatively be called the Shire. Lan and Aragorn seem to be cut from the same cloth, Trollocs and Orcs could be related species.

      What endears this book to a lot of fantasy fiction fans is that it starts off as a story everyone loves to read, the tried and time tested template of innocent farm boy on an adventure. It is the kind of story that most of us identify with, the story that made us lifelong fantasy lovers. One of the problems with this series is the same thing that makes us like it in the first place. It is a good thing for a book to those evoke feelings of nostalgia, to make us feel young again. But that gets old very fast. You realise early on that you have moved on past these kind of stories, you want something more gritty, something less wishy washy and you start getting irritated about the most inconsequential of things.

      There are a lot of problems with this series, not the least of which is the character building - some of the characters are flat and one note while others, especially most of the female characters, are just plain annoying. To be fair though, this series does have an enormous cast of characters and fleshing out all of them would have made this already huge series ( in terms of word count ) much more unwieldy which bring us to perhaps the most often discussed problem with this series - the sheer size of it.

       This is a fourteen book series with a total word count of over four million - that is about 285,000 words per book on average. This wordiness allows the author to be quite inventive with his world building and detailed in its description  and he is. The problem is that he goes overboard and the resulting mess became too unwieldy for the author to adequately deal with. The first few and the last parts of the series are the best of the lot and the intervening books could have used more conscientious editing.

      Before the WoT fans out there start sharpening their knives and finetune their plans to torture me, I should probably point out that I am a fan too. The only difference between us is that though I absolutely love this series, I can also admit, albeit with a great deal of pain, that this series does have its share of problems. And now that I got the painful part of the review over with, I can write about what I like about this series.

     My favourite thing about this series is its familiarity, the sense of deja vu it creates, the warm feeling of it being the home turf. Admittedly, it gets old fast but in small infrequent doses, there is nothing better to lift your spirits at the end of a trying day. It is like an old friend you call to reminisce about the carefree days of time gone by. Though I have written about the characters being poorly constructed, you care about all of them. The books may be tedious reading at times but you get used to it and slowly begin to enjoy reading.

     The first book was published in 1990 and for most of the people who grew up reading it, it has been an integral part of their lives, a much stronger and more binding commitment than the Harry Potter fans have. Robert Jordan, the author of the series, passed away before he could complete the series and Brandon Sanderson wrote the last three books in the series, the last of which was released about a fortnight ago. It was a bittersweet moment, an ineffable unique welter of emotions - of accomplishment, of joy, of loss, of closure, when I finally finished reading " A Memory of Light ". .

      In a nutshell, this series is a lot like the fantasy fiction landscape today or life really: you go through it, step by step, one page or day at a time, with an expectation of finding something worthwhile,you slog through it, you get disillusioned, you get to the point of calling it quits and then in an attempt at a cosmic joke, the powers above deign to throw a crumb your way. You think, 'you can t quit now, its getting better' - but it doesn t; it only seems that way for a very brief but happy period of time. This sequence gets repeated endlessly till you grow numb to it all. The only driving force is a desire to see through to the end that which you have started.

         Only in the end when you get through it all, do you realise that the work was all worth it. Before long you begin to treasure the hardship because it made the moments of joy that much more special - the stark contrast between moments when there seemed no point to it all, when all you could see was endless despair and the moments of unbridled optimism and the feeling of being on top of the world is what makes life or a book seem real.

      Final word - will you like all of it? NO. Should you read it? YES