Blind faith

17 01 2017

Years ago I read a short story by Khushwant Singh titled “Mark of Vishnu”. It’s a story of a devout person Ganga Ram whose blind faith leads to his untimely death. He worships a deadly poisonous black cobra foolishly and practically invites its wrath and thus his instant death. The story might seem dramatic and far-fetched but to me, it’s akin to a parable. It carries a profound moral and conveys a powerful message against superstitions and the need to exercise rational thinking.

Somehow I feel like that Ganga Ram sometimes. Many times. Whenever I’m under-prepared. Whenever I don’t have a plan B. Whenever I rely completely on others’ expertise, kindness or good nature. Sure some of them are calculated risks but still. Ganga Ram’s fate serves as a strong reminder to guard myself from my own foolishness, not to have blind faith in anyone or anything. It might seem like common sense. One may even be appalled that it has to be stated aloud. But one shouldn’t forget – everything is common sense in hindsight.

I feel that the story’s all the more significant for me because faith has always been my default response. It’s effortless. It’s convenient. Unlike doubt and skepticism, which are harder. Nonetheless, Ganga Ram is never too far from my consciousness, ever since I was acquainted with him. I remind myself – No Blind Faith.

I would like to take a moment to appreciate the author, Khushwant Singh, for the no-nonsense genuinity of the story. I would say brilliant piece of lit.





2016 reading

7 01 2017

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It had been a novel reading experience for me in 2016. Steered off my usual choices. Didn’t participate in any book clubs. Read loads of non-fiction. Loved most of them. Figured out that listening to non-fiction is much better than reading it. 😛

Nothing cheers me up like a good thriller. While Cormoron Strike’s new case, or rather mostly JK Rowling’s craftsmanship in Career of the Evil, thrilled me to the core, the fourth in the Millennium series – The Girl in the Spider’s Web, practically saved me from winter blues during a long holiday.

Harper Lee recreated the magic of To Kill a Mocking Bird in her much long awaited work – Go Set a Watchman with her powerful writing. Another gem I just picked from the library shelf is “Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka, about Japanese immigrants and their mysterious relocation from California during the second world war. Written from the perspective of Japanese immigrant women as a collective, it is a beautiful and deeply affecting depiction of their plight during that time. rice of Salt by Patricia Highsmith had also been a pleasant surprise for me. It’s a passionate love story of two women in love.

Listening to Steve Jobs, as narrated by Dylan Baker, was truly humbling. True that the man was eccentric and notably a jerk, but his ingeniousness, vision, and perseverance are ideals for future innovators. Read three books by Jon Krakauer. His personal account of the Everest mishap is chilling to the core. Into the Wild is a real classic. I was totally impressed by his narration. Such a tragedy. I was noticeably distressed days after I finished the book. The third book is on the rape and justice system in Missoula. Needless to say, it was quite disturbing. One book that triggered a change in my lifestyle is “Fast Food Nation”. I’m now officially averse to fast food.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History that I listened to towards the end of year was truly remarkable. It tells you the story of extinction throughout the history  of the world as known or theorized by man. Mostly, it talks about how humans are the agents of disruption and destruction for the varied species on this planet. It gives us a perspective. It’s a very engaging book and is based on extensive research. I have to particularly note here that the narrator of the audio book Anne Twomey, with her bed time story telling style, did a great job and actually enabled me to finish this book easily and made it more interesting. Kudos to her. Susan Cain’s book on Introverts, Quiet is something that will stay with me forever, precisely because I can relate to it so so much! 🙂

Gollapudi’s Sayamkaalamaindi is a feel good portrayal of Vaishnava tradition and customs set against a backdrop of simplistic Indian village life at least a couple of generations ago. That was a time when the social hierarchy was determined by one’s caste and was accepted by one and all, even the underprivileged, as the only way of life. The reader, as a more liberal being, may cringe at some depictions. But in this novel, the author’s intention didn’t appear to be supportive of it or to make a statement about the caste system in some way. It seemed like a honest portrayal of life with all it’s complications. The story in fact progresses along the inevitable change that happens in the societal norms. The best thing about the book is that it’s a story about good and genuine people. It left me with peace and nostalgic. The writing is excellent and a reminiscent of classic literature and language in its purest form. Must read if you love the language and the culture.





2016 in books (Goodreads)

19 12 2016

 

reading-challenge-2016Goodreads has provided an insightful “My Year in Books” infographic of all the books I read in 2016. I’ve set a goal for myself to finish reading 50 books this year, which really didn’t mean to be a challenge at all because I typically read over 50 books per year “without breaking a sweat” 😛 . But 2016 actually proved to be quite challenging, as “life” took over, leaving little time and energy for indulgence.

I would still do my yearly post on reading with details and visualizations. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, below is what Goodreads has to say:

goodreads-2016





Black Swan

23 11 2016

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It’s not too often that I write a largely glorious review for a book which I couldn’t manage to finish despite my best intentions. Sounds kind of counter intuitive. Isn’t it? But that’s how it is for Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan is a metaphor coined by the author to describe a phenomenon with the following three attributes: “First, it is a outlier. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Typical examples include Sep 2011 attack, 2008 economic meltdown etc. In this book, Taleb talks about the nature of black swan events and why we can’t predict them.
As I started reading this book, I couldn’t help marveling at the sheer ingeniousness of the author. It seemed every phrase and sentence oozed intelligence and creativity. I was spell bound. As new as I am to the world of philosophy and philosophers, I was filled with awe. I got introduced to more and more interesting and intriguing concepts and I was enjoying every moment of it. One such concept that runs through more or less the entire book is “platonitcity”. It is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. The author explains that “the platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” He says that it is here that the Black Swan is produced.

He draws up the occurrence of black swan events and our perception of them through a simple analogy of “thanksgiving turkey”. While the butcher feeds the turkey for months, only to kill it for a feast. For the turkey, the occurrence of its murder is a black swan event. It doesn’t expect it in the months leading up to it because there was never any evidence to suggest anything other than continued pampering. But it’s not a black swan event for the butcher. So, the key is “not to be a turkey”. 🙂 Our confusion of our perception of ” there is no evidence of the possibility of black swans” with the statement “there is evidence of no possible Black Swans”, which the author calls “round-trip fallacy” lies at the root of why we can’t predict those events.

He also talks about Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is a place an outlier doesn’t impact the overall measure and it follows the Gaussian distribution and is non-scalable. Example – weight a person, audience for a play etc. Extremistan, on the other hand is highly scalable and the outliers heavily impact the aggregate. Example – one extremely bestselling author or musician etc. The lesson is not use predictive methods applicable only to Mediocristan to Extremistan. It is in Extremistan there is a high chance of occurrence for a black swan event. Wow, pretty simple and deep at the same time!!

Another tendency of ours which contributes to our misunderstanding of Black Swans is “narrative fallacy”. Our tendency to develop narratives around facts (for the basic and subconscious need of easier storage and retrieval of information) based on our System 1 thinking. The result of this simplification is that we think that the world is less random than it is and we leave the black swans out.

There are many more interesting and though-provoking ideas in this book. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it, I must add, despite my best efforts. I don’t know why. It’s true that the book is so dense with content and ideas, even if they all have common threads. I might even have found it a little repetitive (but that’s how many good non-fiction books usually are anyways – just to make sure that you don’t miss the point and that it’s ingrained in your brain, to make maximum impact.). It’s also true that time and again I felt that the author was a more than a little pompous as he repeatedly bashed or disagreed with many other (supposedly) renowned philosophers and experts on many things. Still. Maybe, that’s all true. Maybe that’s how philosophers usually are – hold strong opinions and theories, single minded, assertive, and speak with utmost conviction.





The “no kids” decision

5 09 2016

It never occurred to me that parenting could be a choice (like many other conventions of course). When I first heard about it from an acquaintance , the idea of choosing not be a parent was truly shocking to me, to say the least. I couldn’t comprehend the reasons behind the sentiment. But that was 8 years ago. My perception, view, and understanding of world and people has widened to a non-trivial extent since then. 😛 And now besides being curious about the phenomenon, I can totally understand the decision.

I, like most, have been led to believe that raising offspring is the most meaningful aspect of one’s life. What about happiness? Of course, having and raising kids is the source of unsurpassed happiness. Isn’t it? But academic research had not been so conclusive about it. In fact, several research studies suggest that young parents are far unhappier compared to non-parents. The happiness benefits rather seem to roll in much later for the parents – when the kids are grown up. Hmm! Such a dismal outcome! 😦

That parenting is an ordeal is undeniable. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. And the expectations of “modern parenting” only add to the anxiety. According to Jennifer Senior, the concept of parenting and childhood as exists today is only about 70 years old. In the past, kids used to work and were treated as economic assets. Now, kids are economically worthless but emotionally priceless, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it . Jennifer, the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says that the happiness of our kids is an unfair burden both for parents and kids. We should instead focus on creating circumstances in which they become productive and confident. Happiness can only be a by-product (Listen). Despite the parenting crisis, parents usually vouch for the contentment it brings along the way. Nevertheless, when someone decides not to have kids due to the above or any other reason, they need and should not be judged.

I would think this particular phenomenon has been on an increasing trend in recent times. But maybe not universally. It is mostly seen in advanced/developed societies. This observation brings up many interesting questions.  Where is it most prevalent? It is in individualistic  societies or collectivist societies? What other cultural and social factors are correlated to this trend? (Adding to my to-read list: Japan: The Childless Society?: The Crisis of Motherhood.) Is it because people have become selfish, shallow and self-absorbed?

SelfishMeghan Daum tried to probe the question through “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed” a collection of essays from 16 writers who “chose” not to have kids (a few decades ago). I don’t know what I hoped for, but the reasons they cited for their decision are not very dramatic. The simplest and most straight-forward reason is that they never liked kids, never felt any emotional attachment to any kids, and hence did not envision themselves raising any. Other reasons included: not ready or up to take on the huge responsibility; didn’t think they could do a good job; to focus on career passion etc. Whatever the reason, the decision was not always an easy one,  given the social expectations and personal dilemma. But this may be changing recently and the practice is gaining wider acceptance. A 2012 statistic states that 22 percent of women in 40-44 age bracket are childless by choice. (Source).

To choose to be childless, especially for a woman, is largely perceived as very unnatural. This is due to the pervasive notion that women are mothers first and people second. But as Laura Kipnis explores in her piece in the above book, the mother-child bond is highly overrated and has evolved only more recently. She questions and explores the so called “maternal instincts”.

Another interesting observation made in the book was the possible implications of this decision. If a significant proportion of a particular segment of people, say for example, highly educated white people, decide not to have kids, will it not result in an imbalance in the genetic mix of the next generation? Well, maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s part of the grand scheme called the “human evolution”! 🙂 Also, of course there could be economic implications – lesser workforce, greater social security costs, school enrollments, vaccine demand etc. (See here).





Donga Tallidandruluntaru Jagratta

10 03 2016

DongaTallidandruluntaruJagratta600This latest book by Ranganayakamma is about abusive, selfish, and unloving parents. As I read the first few pages, I was so shocked and disturbed by the way the protagonist is treated by her parents. It took me some time to recover and compose myself. Even though such parents do exist and may not be rare, it’s harder to accept the fact at the outset. Male chauvinism, the author’s primary forte, on the other hand, is not so shocking. I think it’s because the former is less prevalent than the latter. It is common knowledge that many fathers can be abusive, but abusive mothers are far uncommon. This novel portrays two such mothers and how they damaged their children.

This is the story of “Parvathi”, who has the misfortune to be born to cruel parents, who consistently abused her physically, and emotionally. The only saving grace is her grandmother, who is the epitome of love. She grew up under her influence to be a matured, loving, and righteous person. However, the same cannot be said about her sister. She became as self-centered, cunning, and hateful as her parents. Parvathi’s mentally unstable husband also suffered a lot by his mother. In fact, she was the one who caused his illness and led him to pitiful death. All for money.

In the preface, the author claimed that the ultimate takeaway from this book should be that children should beware of such abusive parents and try to protect themselves from being exploited. In many cases it so happens that people who were abused in turn abuse others. A daughter-in-law abused by her tyrant mother-in-law in turn becomes a tyrant when she becomes a mother-in-law. Likewise, people who were abused by their parents in turn abuse their children. It doesn’t make logical sense, but that’s how psychology works in many cases. In this book, the author calls for people to break that vicious cycle, and become better parents instead.

Like in many of her other novels, the author adds some communist stuff in this book towards the end for good measure. She is a great believer of the communist philosophy and I always wonder. For me capitalism makes sense. I agree that it’s not perfect and lends itself to misuse resulting in an unbalanced society. But I’m skeptical about communism being the solution. Maybe I should read the books suggested by her -Srama Dopidi and  Capital – and then decide which one I prefer – communism or capitalism.

One thing I want to point out is that the novel depicts almost all characters as white or black; they are either good or bad. The bad – abusive parents in this case, can be always counted on behaving like the most disgusting people. And the good – the protagonist and her friends – always act in the most virtuous manner. I understand such people do exist and also that it is important to depict the characters as such in order to drive the point home. However, I believe that most people fall in between the white-black spectrum. The goodness/badness may vary with time, circumstances, or situations. How should one deal with such people, who are bad in only a few aspects? I know that technically speaking, even a minuscule of bad makes someone bad. But all such people may not be beyond salvation. I hope the author writes about such people, which a large number of readers can relate to and thereby benefit from their stories.





Quiet

5 03 2016

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When I first came across Susan Cain’s TED talk on the power of introverts, it struck me as a little defensive. I’ve always been comfortable with my introversion and have never felt any qualms about it. Maybe because the culture I grew up in didn’t show any undue favoritism towards extroverts. Or so I think. 😛

Susan Cain’s thoroughly researched book “Quiet” addresses the prevalent notion that extraversion is superior to introversion.  In many Western cultures Extroversion is highly valued and consequently Introversion is looked down upon. This is not quite true for Asian cultures, which perceive Introversion to be a more desirable trait.

The book discusses how today’s schools and workplaces are being built only for extroverts focusing more on group work  and seamless interaction/communication, leaving the introverts baffled, uncomfortable, out of place, and thereby very unproductive. The author calls for more balanced design of classroom and office work spaces, given the fact that introverts often make up 30-50 percent of the pool. The “extroversion ideal” also adversely affects the self-esteem of the introverts.

I never considered even the possibility of the opportunities lost because of my tendency to be reserved. Nor did I have any notion of how I could leverage my deep and quiet nature to the best in different aspects of my life. “Quiet” offered me a context to ponder over these thoughts. Introversion is  characterized by both nature and nurture. Learning the physiological aspect of it not only helps introverts to understand and accept themselves better and also to adopt some tips/techniques to get over their natural inclinations and occasionally play an “extroverted” role, as demanded by circumstances.

Susan Cain emphasizes that introverts have quiet power in them and are invaluable part of the society, who contribute as much, and in many cases, much more than extroverts to the success and well-being of the world.

It’s well-written, enlightening, and deeply engaging.