Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book Review - War and Peace

War and PeaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It would be about 8 or 9 years ago that i bought this book with the intention of reading it 'one day'. That day arrived when i took a break from my career, in January. Still, it took me more than 4 months to read War and Peace. That's after i set a deadline to finish it!

That makes it sound boring. Which is not exactly true. The book does have its boring bits, but it is interesting and entertaining for the most part. I would have rated it higher if it wasn't for the 'Epilogue II' - which is a take on things's inevitability vs. man's free will. Tolstoy confuses us to the point that one starts to think what's the meaning of it all - all meaning life itself, as well as the fact that you have almost read this tome of a book and come to the end of it, and you have set a deadline to finish it off, and this guy is telling you history really is inevitable and nothing to do with anyone's free will no matter what. So France would have invaded Russia in the early 19th century, with or without Napoleon; France would have had someone else. In any case, the result would have been the same, the French retreating after reaching Moscow, with or without Kutuzov and Alexander I doing anything on their part.

You don't really want a good book to end so morosely. So, leaving behind the unnecessary (but inevitable!) Epilogue II, the rest of the book is a page turner and (again i am insisting, like LT did in the whole novel about one thing or the other) should have ended at 'Epilogue I' with its happily ever after feel. Chronicling the lives of a handful of stately and rich people from around the year 1805 to 1820, when Napoleonic forces invaded Russia, it is a detailed commentary on the social and military setup of Russia during that time.

Of these people, some remain with you a long time after you have kept the book down. Prince Andrew, Princess Mary, Natasha, Sonya, Nicholas, Pierre, Denisov - the characters have been painted in vivid details and the tiniest clockwork of their minds laid bare. Their interactions and dialogues with each other further introduce you to their respective worlds and you get to know them all thoroughly. The novel touches upon a lot of areas - Freemasonry, extra marital affairs, balls and arranged alliances, love affairs, hunting (yes, hunting, with dogs), generals and their military strategies and how the strategies do not (and cannot) get executed. Then there is a long discourse on Napoleon and his not being a genius contrary to the public opinion at that time. There is also a long discourse on Kutuzov and history's lack of due recognition for him.

The novel is organized in various books, each one alternating with the themes of war and peace, and containing around 15-20 chapters. There are french sentences in between, duly translated.

While you would need time and patience to read this one, the feeling after the you've finished the book is one of triumph. For me specially since this one was on my list for the longest time!

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review - Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, now at last I begin to understand why this author was awarded a Nobel.

The story's narrator is a young woman reminiscing about her school days. This is no ordinary school though, as the reader finds out page by page. You get the feeling that the story is somehow a science fiction, but the fact is never quite out there. It turns out to be a love triangle as well, while being deeply psychological.

While reading, one is also reminded time and again of the irony of retrospection. How things in the past seem different when you turn back from the present. How perspective changes with the passage of time and the advantage of knowledge.

To mess with the reader's head, the author does not deliberately reveal the narrator's background, but forces us to see her as a regular person.

Worth a read for the serious reader.

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Book review - Remains of the day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Needless to say, picked this book up owing to the Nobel buzz, but was disappointed. Maybe I should reserve my comments before reading further work of the author. About the book itself, it's a good historical fiction fast-read. The setting is early to mid 20th century England, the political scenario described from the vantage of Lord Darlington's simplistic and loyal butler Stevens. There are many undertones to the narrative - the life of erstwhile aristocrats and their servants, hierarchy and ambitions of the manservants, the meaning of dignity, how loyalty drives someone to turn blind and deaf to what really is happening around, and extreme devotion to your profession among others. An enjoyable and fairly educative read if you forget the Nobel tag.
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Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Hearty Awakening

This is a story i wrote for Times of India's Write India Short Story Contest. The idea was to expand an established writer's given excerpt as per his/her rules. This particular story is for/by Durjoy Datta. The author's excerpt is in italics.

'Are you sure, Rhea?' asks my mother.

'Of course I'm. Survival of the fittest, mother. I'm not going against Darwin. Also I don't want unnecessary scars on my body.'

It's a known fact that we are all born to die. And frankly, I don't understand why it has to be made into such a big deal. If it were not for my mother I would have said that to the bunch of people outside my house, some of them with young kids, shouting slogans, waving placards, literally wanting me to cut one of my beating hearts out. "Save A Life. Donate!" they shout.

For someone who is one in billions, 7.125 billion to be exact, I expect to be treated better. Scientists are still befuddled regarding my condition that gave me two hearts in my mother's womb. But years of research and sticking needles into me have led them nowhere, and they have labelled me as a freak mutation. It's so rare - literally one in all humankind - that they didn't even name the anomaly (as they call it, I will call it awesomeness). I wanted to name the condition myself, something on the lines of Rhea's Heartsawesome but the doctors aren't thrilled with the suggestion. Instead they want to cut one of them out and save a life. Huh?

An IQ of 180, increased concentration, exceptional athleticism and a phenomenal metabolism rate - are just the few boring benefits of an increased blood circulation. Why would I ever give that up? Who in their right mind would even want me to? Freak Mutation my

I know my mother. She just wants to get rid of the nuisance in front of her home, or the place she used to call home before it became a media jungle, and save her career. She is by no means any stranger to waving placards. But she's had enough trouble because of me to last her a lifetime, she says. First the series of doctors, then this. I don't blame her. Like the rest of the world, there's only so much that her lone heart can handle. If only my genitor had been with her and not just vanished off the face of the earth after that one night of sperm donation. She might have been like me, metaphorically, with her heart intertwined with his. Sadly, she simply hates men now. So much so that she hasn’t had any relationship with any man in the eighteen years since then.

Never having seen my father, in my imagination he is more like a demi-god whose secret mission on this planet was to find a suitable female and impregnate her to create me, an unparalleled being. Needless to say, this thought gives me a super kick! But honestly, it also gives me a sense of responsibility, or a deep meaning to my life, if you will. I feel I have been sent to change the world or something, or to fulfill my unseen father's mission. I tried telling this to my mother, and she seemed to agree with the responsibility part.

In her opinion, right now I was being callous. 'Scars? Darwin? Are you kidding me Rhea? Don't you realize this is the beloved mission you keep blabbering about? Give your heart to someone while you're still alive. How can you have two hearts beating inside you but zero kindness?'

Mothers, by definition, have to be melodramatic I suppose. Similarly, being a teenager, I was technically entitled to throw tantrums. Never the one to follow rules or societal norms, I very calmly said, ‘Ok. I am being unkind. I am only thinking about myself and the loves of my life. Not about you, not about anyone dying of a failing heart. But you know I can’t do this to George, nor Sanjana. Losing one heart means losing one of them.’

‘No man is worth such pain Rhea. They leave you to fend for yourself, one way or the other. George should be with you now helping with your submission and not in that godforsaken place called Haiti. Please listen to me. Sanjana is an amazing woman. Donate one heart so that you first get rid of the flashbulbs surrounding you. Then marry her and start a new life in Canada. They will welcome a genius like you with open arms. You won’t even need my intervention to get a permanent residency there.’

‘I know Sanjana is an amazing woman, I love her for God’s sake! But George is a great guy too…why punish him? You should be proud that he is helping resettle the poor earthquake victims. Just because you have distanced yourself from men doesn’t mean I have to as well for no apparent reason! And since when have you started believing in marriage?’

‘You said it yourself honey. Just because I didn’t tie the knot myself doesn’t mean I don’t wish it for you.’

This was becoming too much of an emotional discussion for me to handle. I excused myself on the pretext of preparing the thesis for my second directorate in data science. In all probability, it was going to be my ticket to getting real recognition in the world. One based on my efforts and not something I was born with. It could be a breakthrough in predictive analytics that could change the way we live. George, a professor of Data Structures and Algorithms at UC Berkeley, is my mentor. Our research has the potential to alter the course of history by predicting with a precision of 1/16th of a person’s last four generations’ average age how long he or she would live.

But all I can think of now is about G and Sanju. Granted that I was born unique, but both of them too were nothing short of miracles themselves. Knowing that your paramour loves somebody else as well and still accepting her was something that no ordinary person could handle. That I found two such people at such a young age had to be a miracle of sorts by all existing standards. I don’t want to steal the glory I just attributed them, nevertheless part of it could be because I have two hearts. The knowledge that I love each of the two with a full one must obviously help.

The doctors insisting on cutting one of my hearts out are pretty sure it will not affect my intelligence or focus, but are noncommittal about how my body would react to the reduced circulation. There is quite a possibility it could change my sexual orientation. Or not. It could also adversely affect my metabolism and thereby the physical agility I am so proud of. Then there is the big question of half-heartedly loving Sanju and G, or not having the capability to love one of them at all.

There was no way in hell I would give one of them up. Besides being my boy/girlfriends, they were great friends amongst themselves. The three of us were the talk of the town, for obvious reasons - two girl students and a professor hanging out three-gether, too exciting a topic to ignore. But mother was right about one thing, we had to relocate if we had any hope of leading a semblance of a normal life. Canada was more liberal than US when it came to breaking stereotypes. It was, after all, the first country in the Americas to legalize same-sex marriages. That country had to be more accepting of our unique situation while keeping me close to the scientific community in my own country I so want to continue working with.

Suddenly my phone rings and breaks my reverie. It is Sanju.

‘All hell has broken loose Ree. My parents have found out about us and are calling me back to India. I am flying out tomorrow.’

One of my hearts skips a beat. ‘When will you be back?’ I manage to ask.

‘I don’t know man. My folks sounded real furious. They are as traditional as traditional can get. Their worst fear before agreeing to send me here to study was that I would end up marrying an American guy.’

That was my Sanju for you. Her wicked sense of humor never left her; this almost always managed to bring out my wry side. ‘Oh my. They so grossly underestimated your unorthodoxy baby. Is this the right time to say that makes me love you so much more?’

‘Ree, shut up. Bye.’

And that was that. The last thing that my witty clever lovely Sanju said to me a month ago was to Shut Up. Ironically, it is she who has gone quiet. Off Facebook, off WhatsApp, off my radar. Out of my reach. Completely. For the first time ever in eighteen long years, my heart is broken. I do all the cliché stuff that the brokenhearted are likely to do. Listen to mind numbing metallic rock. Sit on the beach and contemplate how drowning would feel. Dress shabbily. Get a new hobby: Paintball. Pour one of my hearts out to the bartender. Eat chocolate. Focus on all that is wrong with the world.

Then, like a breath of fresh air, without warning, George comes back from Haiti.

‘Your mom called me up Rhea, I don’t know how she tracked me out. It is madness out there. Being a senator has its own perks I guess. There is nothing your mother cannot achieve once she sets her mind to it. Anyway, she told me about your, eh, situation.’

This is beyond ludicrous. Unfathomable is perhaps the right word.  ‘Mother called you? To tell you about Sanju? She’s gone G. Just like that. Poof!’

‘I know. But that’s not the only thing I meant by your situation.’

So he means the askers of my heart, do they even know it’s broken I wonder. Out loud I say, ‘Oh, G. People will eventually get bored and find a new story to poke their noses in. These sloganeers hungry for my heart won’t stay here forever!’

‘It’s been more than a month already. Today it took me ten minutes to drive from the university to your house, and another twenty to get from the front gate to your room. Tomorrow it could take an hour. At least think about your mom Rhea. Any chances of her going for the presidential bid will go out the window if this circus continues any longer.’

This is totally below the belt. ‘So that’s why she brought you here? G, she is just using you to save her precious post. She doesn’t even like you. The other day she wanted me to ditch you and marry Sanju. And what about me? Do you even love me anymore? Why are you calling me Rhea?’

George looks befuddled for a moment. Doesn’t take him long to recover though, that sly trickster. I simply adore him for this, even in my anger. ‘Because you’ve grown up Rimpkin. The girl I saw before going to Haiti has now turned into a beautiful woman.’

Leave it to this guy to make me week in my knees. ‘Please continue’, I say.

‘There’s nothing better than a heartbreak to ripen one’s character. Today I see a mature lady in front of me who I am sure is capable of taking the right decisions. Decisions that would make the world a better place.’

I am repulsed and recoil as if horrorstruck. G notices and leaves. Is it my imagination or is it really my mother speaking out of George’s mouth? I don’t think he has any idea he’s been manipulated. How naïve of him. Or he knows and has fallen to mother’s charms. In either case, he has lost the respect he had in my eyes. Both my hearts, the broken and the intact one, together cannot convince my brain that George is the right person for me to be with.  

I pack my bags and hunt for my passport. From the back door of the house, I quickly sneak out and head to the airport. To hell with the thesis and the UCB scientists. To hell with mother. To hell with George. To hell with the world.

Sanju, my one true love, I will come and get you, wherever you are. I will love you forever, with both my hearts. I only hope that you will love me back enough to fight whoever comes in our way.

P.S. I did not end up even in the top ten!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Normal: A postmortem

I love celebrating New Year’s. Who wouldn’t? This puts me in the same category as everybody else.

I hate celebrating my birthday. This puts me in the category of borderline nutcases.

Is that okay? Is that normal?

We spend our lives contemplating about ourselves vis-vis a perceived normal behavior. 

I am having weird dreams about falling off a cliff lately, is that normal?

I don’t like going to noisy parties like my friends do. Is that normal?

We can find all sorts of such questions on various forums. TV shows offering relationship advice, newspaper “Ask the expert” columns, Quora, chat rooms and what not.

Many times not just ourselves; we don’t spare anyone at all. 

Uncle so and so sold off everything he had and went on a world tour, normal people don’t do that.

That guy is in a committed relationship and is flirting with somebody else while his girlfriend looks on, is that a normal relationship?

Shahid Kapoor married a college kid! Is that a normal thing to do for a film star? 

Don’t we? What does normal even mean? According to Merriam-Webster, in the context of this discussion, normal could mean the following:
  1. according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle; conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern
  2. occurring naturally
  3. of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development; free from mental disorder :  sane

In other words, not abnormal. Not insane. Or, average. In a mathematical sense, something that fits the bell curve:

If you do something which more than 68% of the people in the world do, then it’s normal or conformant or standard or regular. Otherwise not.

Most of the people don't rob a bank. That’s normal. I guess it is okay to fit the bell curve here.

Most of the people don’t exercise regularly. That’s normal. But it is not really okay to fit this bell curve.

Would you go on making imaginary bell curves for everything under the sun? Now, is that  normal?! What kind of normal is acceptable?

But you know what, the real question here is: do you even want to be the same as 68% people? The answer is: no; and yes. It’s not about being a conformist or a non-conformist. If the majority of people on the world can swim, even a staunch non-conformist would want to be in the majority. Simply because it’s a good skill to possess.  Same for a conformist wanting to do something different, such as deciding to keep the car in the right lane, or following traffic rules!
So, in a nutshell, it’s okay to be a nutcase sometimes. It is also all right if you follow the rules. After all, life is too short to be spent thinking so much or trying so hard to be normal. In fact, lets just scratch this word from our vocabulary. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book review - The Lowland

A simple story. A few characters. Their growth over the years. This is what can sum up Jhumpa Lahiri's latest work. No surprise elements. Nothing really earth shattering. Ordinary people with some uncommon situations in their lives, some uncommon ways of reacting to those situations in their lives. This could be another summary.

Doesn't sound like much of a novel. But the way it grips your imagination is a proof of the sublimity of Lahiri's story-telling ability. The ability to weave stories about people around you, of someone who easily could have been you, is an art that this lady as mastered.

She takes you through the lanes of Calcutta to the marshes and beaches of Rhode Island with bits of California interspersed in between. Then back to Kolkata. All effortlessly. All as if you are actually present there all along. Powerful pictures painted by mere words. The details of a life uprooted from India and replanted in America. The feelings, the vantage, of a life begot in America, visiting India briefly. The nuances of oceanography, philosophy, the Naxalite movement of the '70s and even agriculture, all there for you to relish. Served within the story, intermixed as herbs in a savory delicacy.

With the same simplicity you get to meet and know Subhash, Udayan, their parents, Gauri, Bela, and Meghna - the Mitra family. Reading about their behavior, their individual traits and personalities, you get to understand them. In fact, you even begin to predict what they would think and do next. More often than not, they do end up doing your bidding.

In my teenage, which for some reason seems a lifetime ago, i would have panned the book for this same reason. Too predictable.

But now, i really appreciate it. Maybe now i am learning to understand the true value of human relationships, the true value of predictability. And savoring the joy of things turning out exactly the way you wanted them to be.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Toastmaster's Advanced Speech 13 - "Experience At PSK"

This is speech #1 from "Specialty Speeches" manual, called "Impromptu Speaking". Five general topics have to be written on slips of paper with which one is familiar. These are to be given to the speech evaluator before the meeting. He or she will select one at random for the speaker. The objectives are to develop an awareness of situations in which one might be called upon to deliver an impromptu speech, to understand how to prepare for impromptu speaking and to use one or more patterns to approach a topic under discussion; for example, comparing a past, present and future situation or before and after . Time allotted is 5 to 7 minutes.

For this speech, i had selected five general topics:

1. Book review
2. Movie reviews
3. Recent Experience
4. Superwoman Syndrome
5. Any other topic on which the audience would like me to speak

 and the audience chose this one for me -

Passport Renewal Experience 

The speech took 10  minutes fro delivery. I felt i have done much better before...both in prepared as well as impromptus.