About Guilty Pleasures …..

When I was young, I used to choose books expressly based on whatever seemed to have a good story. From Enid Blytons ( Yes I know she is many ist things now ! ) and Anne of GG to all my Nancy Drews to so many other books that I cannot even recollect. The ultimate reason for picking up a book was to be told a good story, a yarn that would entertain me, take me away from the mundane and would allow me to fanaticize about time and places and people, that had no bearing on reality! I was the 4th friend with George and Bess with Nancy in River Heights or going on picnics with Ann of GG at King Edwards Island. Good stories and interesting characters were the mainstays of what I chose to read and it led me eventually as a young adult to To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, East of Eden, War and Peace and Tagore’s novels. And they blew my mind away! I discovered Literature and life would never be the same; this is what art and writing was about – ideas and expressions and mankind! But I also discovered that which was not “Literature”, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robins, James Hadley Chase and Jeffrey Archer! And oh! yes, Mills and Boon romances.

The Library (1905) by Elizabeth Shippen Green; Source https://www.librarything.com/pic/7275994

The reaction I often get when I mention the above line up is usually a wrinkled nose along with a very condescending “Really?” . That inevitable look of surprise on people’s faces when scanning my book shelves, where tucked among Charles Dickens and Umberto Eco, they discover a historical romance novel! The idea is if I read Elizabeth Gaskell and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I cannot really read a Judith McNaught novel and vice versa. It’s almost as if I have some kind of reading disorder and cannot truly be a sensible reader. And this is where I have a problem. I make no superior claims of literature or ideas from these authors; but do we always have to read something superior? Yes, great literature elevates the soul, makes us sensitive and opens our minds to new thoughts! But do we need greatness constantly? Do we not need some fun, now and then? Is not greatness better appreciated when you take a break and come back to it, like all good things, that improve in some temporary absence? Don’t we love our classics a little more, after having read a popular or a modern fiction? And ideas? Is it something that exists in an exclusive commune, available only in certain kind of books by a certain type of author? I personally completely disagree with the thought that ideas can only be absorbed from the so called great works. Sidney Sheldon gave me the the first understanding about Jewish persecution (Bloodline); I was a 13 year old living in India, absorbed in Indian culture with a detour to everything English as part of the colonial hand me down. World War was taught in school and there were chapters on Holocausts, but it was a pulp fiction novel that made me realize what persecutions means in flesh and blood. The Spanish Civil War and the Cold War politics, both came home to me via again Sidney Sheldon novels, Sands of Time and Windmills of Gods respectively. I learnt about South American politics from Harold Robin’s The Adventurer and more facts about turn of the century America from Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel than in my standard school textbooks, getting a regular A in history all through high school. I went on to get a Masters degree in one the most prestigious universities of Asia, that only admitted 40 students across the country every year for their International Politics course. All those pulp fiction novels laid the foundation for my interest in international affairs, introducing me to the larger world, beyond my regular ecosystem and set me up in a path of eventual academic excellence. Yes, I built upon those nascent concepts by reading many classics and thought provoking books, but the path, many a times was lit by such “light reads”. And this is not just about academic success; I first became acquainted with Bach’s music in a Mills and Boons novel, The Shadow Princess; and have been in love with it ever since. My parents were both very musical and Hindustani Classical and Indian popular music along with a lot of 60’s-70’s Pop and Jazz always played on in our home. But the whole world of Western Classical burst upon me , thanks again to my non highbrow reads. My life is infinitely richer because when I looked, I found great ideas in every book. Besides, who am I to judge what someone else reads and vice versa again! I think I can safely say I am literature connoisseur , but some books hailed as masterpieces, still do not make sense to me. (Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary & Middlemarch by George Elliot! Sigh! ) Reading therefore, I firmly believe is a very personal affair between a reader and their book and what works for some, may not and will not work for others. And unless you read all kinds of books, how will you know, what works and does not work; and what entertains and what educates? Finally, at the cost of sounding cynical, in today’s day and age of digital blitz, I feel thrilled to simply see someone pick up a book and read it. Do we really need to make a case of reading casteism now? Is it not simply enough that you are reading a good story that entertains you even if it does nothing else? Is entertainment not important? Does it not refresh us and help us face life and its challenges better? Is it not a fact that many multimillion dollar industries of films and series thrive on the concept of entertainment? Then why do we look down on entertaining books? Why are they a guilty pleasure? A good story that delights you is a value in itself, even if does not add a single additional word to your vocabulary.

To end, read Voltaire, who was a far more erudite and learned man than yours truly and is a “great” writer and a defines classic literature, and you may believe him! He wrote “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” So let people read! Read even if it’s for the sake of amusement, it will not do any harm and by my experience, may end up in fact doing a lot of good!

The Joy of Doing Nothing….

It is a Sunday afternoon; we, as in, my sister and I have no plans of entertaining in the evening and all is quiet around the house. The lunch is all done and my sister in the very traditional a la Bengal meets Spain style is indulging in a luxurious siesta. I am pottering around the apartment aimlessly, sometimes in the sitting room or sometimes in my bed room. I am reading, making coffee and in between randomly surfing the internet. I feel bored but not really; the books I am currently reading – Humankind by Rutger Bergman and Which Way by Theodora Benson are wholly absorbing and thoughtful reads in their own way. Humankind makes me re-think and revisit some commonly held historical beliefs and Which Way, a brilliant piece of inventive fiction makes me both nostalgic as well as wonder about the many what ifs in life. I have plenty food for thought between the two reads, so boredom it is not. Yet I am at odds and ends; like I should be doing something or not whiling away this time; not meandering around. And then realization dawns, that because I am, we are, constantly attuned to completing a task, achieving something, this restless feeling, was/is actually an anxiety that this nothing to do will prove costly later. I and we as a species, have been guilted down from generation to generation that we must do something, constantly and incessantly to make life fruitful.

There is something to that argument; if as a species we would have not been active and accomplished things, we would have never invented fire or the wheel or vaccines to stop small pox or the internet. It is this very hyper productivity of mankind, that had led to it’s success and greatness. Where we stand today is the effort of hundreds and thousands of our ancestors who have strived and done their bit to bring in a better life for the progenies of the future. And now we reap the harvest of their hard work, so maybe it behooves us to do the same; in fact it obligates us to do the same; to work hard so that we can bequeath a better future to still unborn generations.

The Swing (La balançoire), 1876, oil on canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30518325

But when I think a little more closely, I wonder about this “progress”; true we have vaccines and the internet. But it all started so many 100,000 years ago by first invention of fire, then agriculture, wheel that stimulated trade and then as Yuval Noah Harari said, the greatest invention of all times, God. This naturally let to authority and then ours versus theirs and through centuries of wars and strives, into a seemingly modicum of peace and sanity that we have today, though not wholly and we have many newer problems to deal with as well. We may have created answers to solve older problems that we created ourselves and but new answers are creating new problems and we are constantly spiraling down a path of “progress”, without perhaps stopping to think what is this progress? What does it mean to me or my family? And personally at a microcosm level, is what I am doing really helping “progress” or am I like myself, just helping a rich company become richer and becoming caught up in a never ending cycle of chasing one goal after another and trying to fill the gaps with incessant consumption of things I do not need and does not make give me any long lasting happiness or comfort. If this be the case, then I am really not doing any good to the future generations; in fact I may be downright ruining their future with my consumerism which is killing the planet. Instead, would it not be better, if I appreciate quietly the joy of doing nothing one lazy Sunday afternoon. Yes, I may not achieve anything if I go on like this, but then what am I trying to achieve – some comfort and some happiness. A long race to millions in the bank does not guarantee either. Rather in the mad dash to achieve nothing, I may instead lose the present joy and this blessing, for blessing it is; how many can claim to have a dull Sunday afternoon?

This then is what I bequeath to the unborn of the future – the ability in the words of William Henry Davis, the time to stand and stare. To not be in a constant rush to do something and be some place; I absolve them from the guilt of all these expectations. I hope they have a fulfilling life, where they can go for a walk among green trees, have the ability to enjoy a cup of coffee under the blue sky lit by the orange haze of a rising sun and a lazy quiet Sunday afternoon, with absolutely nothing to do!

The House….

I read Susanna Clarke’s much acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in September of last year. ( Yes, I was late to the party!) While I found a lot of great things in the book, I felt it to be needlessly verbose and the character’s problematic and once I finished reading it, there was nothing but a sense of relief that I survived till the end! Naturally this foray into the fantasy world left me convinced that Susanna Clarke was not for me and there are some books and authors that do not work for and you should not spend your limited time on them.

Then I heard that the author’s second novel had won the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction and this book was not as cumbersome as 1000 plus pages and instead was a mere 200 something; again belonging to the magical-fantasia genre. I heard great things about the book from everyone but I was once bitten, twice shy and I was NOT going to attempt a Susanna Clarke so soon. I needed recovery time

The one bright morning, around the last few days of 2021, I stumbled upon Brona’s excellent review of this book. I really respect Brona’s tastes when it comes to reading and her ability to discern a good narrative from an average pretending to be excellent type of writing. Besides being an excellently nuanced review, there was particularly one phrase that stuck to my mind –

In our Covid-19 pandemic world, where isolation and solitude have become the norm, Piranesi’s approach to living in his infinite world can be enlightening. His deliberate day-by-day living, paying attention to every small detail, caring for his environment and honouring those who came before him provide him with sense of peace and connectedness.

In the last 2 odd years, I have closely come to understand what this feels. First COVID and then Cancer confined me to my house and made me appreciate the simple joys of everyday things, around me. I was always a homebody but these years taught me the value of sitting in the sun in my balcony, of crisp fresh sheets on the bed, a perfectly boiled egg for the breakfast and finding contentment in them, beauty in them. This part therefore resonated especially strongly and before I knew it, the books was bought and I began reading , what I never thought I would read atleast not at such close quarters after the Mr. Strange reading .

Piranesi lives in a huge house with infinite halls that are filled with all kinds of statues. The house is divided into 3 layers; the lowest being that of oceans, the second of living beings and solid land and third being the level of the sky and the clouds. Piranesi leads a peaceful and an engaged life, fishing fish and seaweed for his sustenance from the lower levels, taking care of the other being of the house, birds or dead humans, documenting his journal and in enjoying the process of discovering the house. There is another human inhabitant in the house, The Other, who is Piranesi’s colleague and together they are in the quest of A Great and Secret Knowledge that will give them power and immortality. As Piranesi works through the halls of the house, calculating the tides and documenting the stars, that will help in the discovery of this Great and Secret Knowledge, he begins to realise that there may another person in the house. Soon he starts finding evidence of another life, finally unraveling a past and forcing choices that Piranesi did not even know existed.

I loved this book! I loved its themes of kindness and generosity and of finding joy and fulfilment in everyday life. I loved Piranesi’s character which seems to embody all that is sincere and honorable and most importantly the child like wonder that he has towards the house. His gratitude for what the house gave I think can serve as an example for many of us, stuck in a constant consumerist, where we do not stop to appreciate what we have or all the wonderful things that nature provides us. I also appreciated the moral struggle that Piranesi experiences against doing evil to someone who has done him the same; a dilemma that many grapple against everyday and not many who are able to make the right choice. There is not a usual defined plot arc; there is plotline and a sense of suspense, but there is so much more to this book that to say it is a thriller or a fantasy book. The prose is lyrical and there are philosophical insights as to what is meaningful life. This is multilayered book, that like Brona says needs a re-read, maybe several, to fully appreciate it’s narrative, beyond the obvious.

This was a magnificent start to the bookish adventures of 2022! There are very few modern authors who have provoked such sentiments in me, but this book is a keeper, an almost metaphorical tale on some of the essential truths of life!

About Finding the “Ikagai”

Dalai Lama in one of his seminal speeches had said that “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions“. It’s not what you have or who you have but rather what you do, how you act and how you live, that many philosophers and thinkers say is the key to happiness.  The concept of “Ikagai” stems from these principles and in Japanese, means something akin to  “a reason for being” and translated in English it refers to the “reason you wake up in the  morning”.

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This idea of having a reason to wake up in the morning is beautifully explained and illustrated in a brilliant and precise work called Ikagai – Giving Everyday Meaning and Joy by Yukari Mitsuhashi . In this book, Ms. Mitsuhasi , takes the reader to the very root of the Ikagai word, explaining that the Japanese word of “Ikagai” consists of two Japanese characters, “iki” meaning life and “gai” meaning value or worth. The life that the “iki” refers to is not the big life and its meaning, but rather daily life – seikatsu; and about the joy a person finds living day to day , without which their life as a whole would not be a happy one. She further shares that while in West, the concept often leans towards finding happiness through work, in Japan, most people find their “ikagai” from their hobbies or their loved ones and not something they are necessarily paid to do. The concept of Ikagai per Ms. Mitsuhashi is so ingrained in the Japanese culture, that through their art and language, the Japanese people are constantly reminded of the joy that can be found in everyday life and will lead to a fulfilling life. Thus, Ikagai with its features of Everyday life, the act of giving, understanding and accepting emotions and active way of living leads to a stable state of mind, growth and progress and most importantly finding a purpose of life. She illustrates this concept by sharing stories of lives of people, both famous as well everyday man/woman, who have found their ikagai, through a variety of sources, including, hobbies, food, volunteering, or through their work, by getting better at their craft or seeing the impact that their work brings. Through several interviews, the author weaves stories of writers, business men and women and athletes, who have found their Ikagai through their work or by finding something worthwhile, post their retirement and how this finding of Ikgai has helped them succeed and find contentment. She brings the circle to its close, by showing how pursuit of Ikagai is the actions that lead to happiness.

This is a short, but a mighty book! It’s thought provoking and forces the reader to reflect on his or her life and  the directions it is heading towards. The author’s examples are well chosen, in the sense these are successful men and women, but they are like us and their life and pursuit of Ikagai, has helped them succeed, thus providing the reader with role models and inspirations. The author has written with simplicity, which works very well, as the ideas that the author puts through are contemplative and require thinking as the reader navigates through the book.  Furthermore, the concepts are clearly enunciated and the “plot” keeps moving forward. One of the most exemplary things about this work of non fiction, was that Ms. Mitsuhashi does not beat a concept to death, by constant repetition, but manages to find the fine balance of emphasizing on an idea and moving to the next concept.

To end, I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. It is good to sometimes sit and think about our lives and the good things in it and this book helps you value those good things and channelize them into your “Ikagai”

This book was part of my Non Fiction November Reads.

How To Think About Great Idea Project

I have always been fascinated by Philosophy. Its not like I always understood the subject completely and I often struggled with many of its theories, but I could not let go of this wondering fascination I had on this subject. I absolutely loved my Political Philosophy classes during my Graduate School days; a great credit also goes to the brilliant professor who taught us this jaw breaking subject and I remember the multiple re-reads I did of Plato’s Republic to get a hang of it, which fortunately I did before I graduated! Very recently,I have trying to find the time and make the effort to re-connect again with this subject and I have started and made extremely slow progress with Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophers and Albert Schopenhauer lies by my bed side book table urging me to pick it up and get going. Some critics even contend that Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is in fact fundamentally a philosophical treatise and as I read more, I have to agree.

In this kind of background, Cleo, my reading buddy and my fellow adventurer in all reading madness, came up with the idea of reading How To Think About Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler’s. Adler in his book, discusses 52 ideas ranging from a broad variety of subjects from Truth to Morality to Politics. The plan is to spend one week reading about one idea and then posting it a blog on the same. The chapters are not particularly long but they are tough!Now knowing how easy my life is, I did wrangle a promise from Cleo, that we pace it out and while we attempt to complete one subject a week, we may take longer. Good thing, I did, because I am already falling behind. However I have started on the first chapter and needless to say, I am finding my mind doing extraordinary gymnastics until it hurts. So even if I inch at a snail’s pace, I will see this through and hopefully at the end of the whole exercise have a more pandered and more educated mind!

Hence I start! Do wish me luck!

Intellectualism in Alexandria

After all the brouhaha about the stress of book reviews and the constant need to keep thinking about what to write, I am back doing exactly that! Talk about eating your words! But the Goodreads Historical Fiction reading week was not something I could give up without an effort – I mean its History and its Fiction and we all know that I am OBSESSED with that genre. Unfortunately I discovered the event a bit too late, so could not finish the book on time and hence the delayed celebration, if one could call this that!

After much deliberation, I chose to read Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria : a Novel  by Ki Longfellow. I had never read her works and I knew very little about Hypatia beyond that she was a mathematician and a philosopher in Egypt and Goodreads had given the novel a rating of 4.43. It seemed like a good book to start with and read something new, which addressed a genre that I loved!

The book opens with the destruction of the great library of Alexandria by the orders of Bishop Theophilus, the newly crowned religious leader of the city, who brings with him the new religion of Christianity and is determined to destroy all that is “pagan” and “ungodly”. Hypatia and her family and friends make a desperate effort to save some of the most valuable books in the library and there she meets and saves Minkah, an low born Egyptian who is also there trying to salvage the precious books from the leaping flames that engulf the library. The destruction of the library brings about a change in Hypatia’s life; her father, the brilliant mathematician Theon aggrieved by the destruction caused by Theophilus hides in his bedroom, forcing Hypatia to take on the job as a teacher and in turn become the breadwinner of the family.  As she struggles to keep sanity in her household, with a mentally ill father, a dying sister and yet another sister, who hates everyone and everything; she is also tasked with the charge of preserving the books salvaged from the fire in some remote corner of Egypt, where the Bishops powers cannot reach out to them. The books follows the life of Hypatia over the next 30 years, as she becomes an acclaimed philosopher of her time and travels all over the Roman world, all the while continuing to believe in “pagan” rituals and teaching the forbidden texts of Aristotle and Plato, all the while holding on the knowledge of the secret library, until a betrayal that changes everything, consigning those precious texts to ignominy.

What is there not to like about this book? It based in Egypt, with an intellectual woman as a central character and books that need to be saved….the perfect ingredients for a perfect novel. Not quite. The politics of the then Roman world is described with great detail and accuracy as is the religious conflict between the old religions and new emerging Christianity. There is a magnificent overview of some of the best texts in philosophy, mathematics and prose from the ancient world. But that’s all there is to the book. The characters are not real – everybody loves Hypatia. Great! But why? Because she is an intellectual? There were many intellectuals in the city that time….we just know everybody loves Hypatia and she is extraordinary. As a woman and as an intellectual she is indeed extraordinary considering the time, but her brilliance never comes out in the book. She is perpetually the babe lost in woods, needing Minkah or an Isadore to rescue her. She continues her obsequious behavior towards her cowardly father, and lets him treat her youngest sister with disdain without any complain or protest. She needs Minkah to make all decisions related to her own household, including whether to take her sick elder sister out of the house for an outing. There is no strength or intellect or brilliance that shines out of this character and she seems to be the central protagonist, only because the original Hypatia was a figure of intellectual authority. The other charterers are  equally incomplete – Isadore , the much loved heir of Theophilus, falls out of grace with the Bishop because of his beliefs and does good work among the poor and sick. Then when the Cyril. nephew to Theophilus,  becomes the bishop, Isadore returns to power as a blood thirsty curling who is out to kill Hypatia whom he loved desperately! Eh! Did I lose something in the plot? Nope! It’s just the way it’s written!  The author fills the book with debates on philosophy about intellect, after life etc – I don’t mind it one bit, I quite like philosophical and abstract discussion, except within a few minutes, you know that it is extremely superficial and shallow.  The only redeeming factor is when Hyptia points out that Christianity is a male dominated religion because the founding fathers of the religion suppressed woman’s voice and not because God said so…but I do not think that this angle of feminist studies really happened in 351 AD. I do not expect a historical fiction author to be necessarily an expert on philosophy, but then don’t rush in where angels fear to tread! The plot is so linear that you can see the end right into page 5 and the language ordinary.

Overall it is not the most inspiring book I have read, and should you choose to give it a miss, you will not lose out on anything significant.