Sunday, December 26

A good read

In the Pond

Ha Jin's relatively unknown novel "In the Pond" was published in 1998. The book set in Communist China around the time of cultural revolution, takes as its protagonist, a small town Harvest Fertilizer maintenance employee Shao Bin. Bin with his wife and a two year old daughter live in a 12 by 20 foot room. The story begins when Bin's application for a larger house in the employee quarters is rejected despite is seniority in the company. He is rejected because of the rampant corruption at the higher level. A really quick read, funny at times deals with some weighty issues- power, corruption, art and vanity. Shao Bin sets out to seek justice through art (he was a self taught artist), the constant struggle between him the two powerful figures at the company, his alienation among other workers, his wife and her struggles- all these give the story its poignance.
Personally, I did not like Shao Bin- I thought he was egotistical and used everyone to further his own agenda. Doing the things that he did during a revolution, I was surprised at the happy ending, at least for Shao Bin.  I did love the book. It gave me a glimpse into a society which I am so far removed from and have never been able to fathom. Can't wait to read Ha Jin's well acclaimed book "Waiting".

Sunday, December 12

James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room

If you are looking for something to cheer you up- this certainly then is NOT for you! A very simple, yet powerful book written about the isolation felt by homosexual men. This second novel by Baldwin was first published in 1956.
Almost every male character in the book is homosexual and the ways of rich men buying the services of and in fact having a sense of entitlement of the younger, vulnerable out-of-towners was disheartening. There is David, an American so ashamed and afraid of his sexuality- he flees to Paris to save himself from embarrassment.  In Paris, with no money in hand, he is forced to get help from Jacques. Jacques was the reason that David and Giovanni meet. Giovanni works at a bar owned by Guillame in Paris. Hella was one odd woman out- David's girl friend who is off in Spain as she takes a break from the relationship and my be even Paris. It was during this time that David and Giovanni's relationship and love for each other blossoms. The end is quite tragic (I will not tell you what happened) but I would just say that I went through myriad of emotions. I am still unsure if I hate David- I was definitely furious with his dishonesty- not just to himself, but he was dishonest with Hella, Giovanni and pretty much every one else! I am also not able to fathom why Giovanni would love David so much and would need him so much for his survival? The title itself has many interesting metaphorical connotations (you have to read it to understand it).

Baldwin himself, as an isolated gay black man in the 50's moved to Paris and when he finished this manuscript his publisher suggested that he might as well burn it. You can read all about it here, here or here.

I will leave you with David's words-

"What happened was that, all unconscious of what this ennui meant, I wearied of the motion, wearied of the joyless seas of alcohol, wearied of the blunt, bluff, hearty, and totally meaningless friendships, wearied of wandering through the forests of desperate women, wearied of the work which fed me only in the most brutally literal sense" 

Must Read!

Thursday, November 11

Laura Childs- mystery or misery

Fiber & Brimstone (A Scrapbooking Mystery)
 "There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts"- Charles Dickens

I usually do no pick up books in the spur of the moment from the library, because when I do, I end up picking ones that are quite bad. But we never learn from our mistakes, now do we?
I love mysteries and so I picked this book up hoping for some. The book started off with a good note- Protagonist- Carmela who runs a scrapbooking store called Memory Mine
Her friend- Ava runs a voodoo store (JuJu voodoo, I think)
Setting- New Orleans, a week before Halloween (apparently NOLA is big on Halloween, I had no idea- see I did learn something!)

With two murders in the story you would think it would keep you on your toes- but instead I found myself amidst incessant trivial portrayal of  high-society's (both women are reasonably well to-do, especially Carmela who got a  big fat alimony pay-out) celebrations culminating with the halloween parade. The descriptions of one party after another without any intelligent mystery-solving, the constant harping about Carmela's mystery-solving abilities and how she always has an eye for where trouble is was quite irritating (I mean come on- she definitely was no Miss. Marple). Not to mention the boring details of how Carmela and Ava go about getting ready for these parties!

May be it was a young adult read, but I love some of those young adult books. Anyway the good thing was there are interesting scrapbooking ideas and recipes (Carmela is supposed to be a great cook!) that I might try. May be I should give another of her mystery series a try- may be they won't be as bad!


Read it as your own peril!

Monday, October 11

Consolations of Philosophy-

The Consolations of Philosophy

Funny and interesting read

I wonder if anyone has been wondering why this blog has been silent- well there is no good reason for why the silence, could always blame it on me being lazy. Now if you look up this book on the world wide web, negative reviews are aplenty, especially this one by Skidelsky. I sure do not understand Skidelsky's argument about using philosophy as therapy (which is exactly what De Botton does in this book), I mean why the heck can we not use philosophical theories/arguments as theories. I am sorry Mr.Skidelsky but I do not buy your arguments as to why this book was bad. I mean as a person with ample inadequacies I sure thought I could have put to use some of what these great philosophers have put forth and hence lead a fairly happy life. I also thought it was funny and the diagrams/pictures throughout the book added to the humor. It made philosophy an easy read for common people like me Mr.Skidelsky!

This book is a compilation of some of the theories from 6 great philosophers that De Botton says can be used as therapy or consolations for our failures, frustrations, inadequacies and even being unpopular. My favorites were Socrates and Epicurus.

Go ahead read the book and tell me what you think.

Sunday, September 19

A request to the blog readers...

Hi guys

This post has nothing do with food, so if you are here to get a dose of food fix- sorry not today. I am writing today to raise awareness and potentially some money for the organization I volunteer with "Stop Child Trafficking Now" and an issue that is close to my heart.

My teenage years in India involved feeling helpless and angry at households that employed children as domestic help. Many such scenes have left a deep impression on me early on in my life (they still do) and I remember making my mom promise me that she would never ever hire a child (thankfully my mom never did hire help for a long time). I could not bear the thought of someone my age doing all the household chores while I bask in their labor and get all the education I need to move me forward in life. Only a handful of us think twice before we hire children to perform duties that we are fully capable of handling.

I must clarify here that even though I talk of child domestic labor, in many countries a lot of these children working far from home are easy prey for the sellers, and therefore sooner or later some of them will be trafficked and sold! A majority of trafficked domestic workers are girls, this is especially true in Africa (source: UNICEF). Children are trafficked for sex and slavery.

I do my part in small ways by refusing to buy anything that I know was the product of child slavery. Anyway my anger issues aside- now I have actually started involving my time and effort in learning about various forms of human slavery and more recently volunteering with SCTnow. SCTnow provides me with a perfect platform to help stop any and every child from being trafficked for sex or as slaves.

 I am writing to encourage you to take a look at their website- register for the walk, volunteer with the organization, donate any amount of money to support the cause (remember human trafficking is the SECOND LARGEST criminal enterprise after the selling of drugs and weapons). Together lets put an end to the misery of millions of children- it is our duty to protect them.

If you are interested in walking or volunteering, check here. The walk is taking place in over 50 cities worldwide, so be sure to check the list and register for the walk.

You can donate here by clicking "support me" on MY donor page.  Remember the walk is happening on Oct 2nd and Oct 3rd in many cities.

Sunday, August 22

Junot Diaz- brilliant!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Judgement: THUMBS UP!

When I started reading this book, I was not too sure about it- but in the end all I can say is "Wow". The book is about the lives of people in Dominican Republic and how their lives change as immigrants in the US (I thought this part was quite subtle).

Oscar de Leon, (or Oscar Wao as his school mates christen him) an overweight, second generation Dominican- American fantasizes about writing science fictions (called himself the dominican JRR) and falling in love with a girl. The story is narrated in parts by Oscar's sister Lola and his friend Yunior (although the way he acts, you would at times doubt if he indeed was Oscar's friend). Trujillo's regime acts as a perfect setting as the novel- it is not just about the life to Oscar's mother Beli and her parents but also about how the family had to escape from the clutches of fuku (a curse probably).

The language was amazing overall, again one of those novels where I feel like I am part of the story.

The only problem I had was understanding the Spanish phrases- some I could sort of contextually understand but long sentences were out of my league. I wrote most of them down in the hope that I would some day translate them.

Saturday, July 31

The White Tiger-a review

The White Tiger: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)Highly Recommended

Arvind Adiga has me hooked. I loved this book- his first book for which he won the Man Booker Prize. His writing style is simple yet powerful. This book by virtue of being ironic, was quite humorous. I could not help but laugh out aloud (on a crowded "T", yeah and I did get "the looks") many a times. There were times throughout the book where I would give a knowing grim nod. Balram, a despicable character, did capture my heart. I usually have strong opinions about various characters in any book, especially the protagonist- but here I was not so sure- did I pity Balram, do I fathom his reasons for being the way he is and is he justified in doing what he did? The book is in the form a letter, a narration to the Chinese Premier. Balram escapes his life of nothingness and fear of landlords (with creative pet names such as mongoose and stork!) who collected hafta from the poorest of the poor, to start anew as a driver for a rich family (Amrica-returned golden boy of Stork and his wife). Now the story is all about how Balram gets there, how he learns all about "The Rooster Club" and how in all desperation he wants out of the club.

A beautifully crafted story that will melt your heart and make you laugh.

Read it to feel it!

Sunday, July 25

Sultan's Seal- a review

The Sultan's Seal: A Novel (Kamil Pasha Novels)This was our book club read for June and the exciting part was that the author Jenny White was going to be at our meeting. But unfortunately, I was unable to attend the meeting (I was enjoying my stay in Chennai!). Set in Stanbul on Bosphorous, close to the end of Ottoman empire, this book was quite a riveting read. It is a mystery novel with a subtle yet beautiful romance between the protaganist Kamil Pasha, the magistrate and Sybil (daughter of the British ambassador, who helps Kamil during his investigation). Kamil Pasha's investigation in to the drowning of an European governess becomes increasingly difficult as he finds out that the lady (Mary Dixon) was a governess in the Sultan's household and that that this murder might be linked to a previous similar murder. The book has its fair share of chicanery, passion and betrayal. I liked the author's style of writing a lot too.
                                Overall this book was unputdownable.

A trip to remember...

This India trip was not your, or rather, my usual, run-off-the-mill trip. I did a teeny weeny bit of traveling. Landed in Chennai and rather unusually, my parents were out of town (well I did know that before hand)- so I was off to my uncle's place (my gran was there to pick me up!). The third day I was out of Chennai.
Next stop: Pune, Maharashtra to visit my aunt (mausi/chithi) and chitappa.
Day 1: Talk, talk on the way to Lavassa (a planned hill city) and more talk on the way back since we had to play a guessing game "will we reach the city before we run out of gas and get stuck in the middle of no where?". Since we did reach the city, we treated ourselves first by stopping to get some farm fresh happoos. I also got into fight with a security guard outside the National Defense Academy- I mean the sense of power is so misplaced. So when you see a big bulky canon being promptly displayed- what is your first thought- "I need a picture". Now you would think that this was a harmless endeavor- no not for this security guard, apparently he was guarding the antiquated, hardly functioning canon outside the academy that was in full public view.

Day 2: More talk, on our way to Mumbai to see more people...night show Rajneeti, of the 4 of us that went to the movie, only I thought it was kind of alright- the rest of them hated it!

Day 3: Leave Mumbai, en route stopover at Lonavala. Now as a sight to be seen on "World day against Child Labor"- I saw two little children, a girl (pictured here) and a boy were running a small tea shop that also served roasted corn (of course the mother was there too). I was so distressed with the amount of plastic strewn about in those beautiful hills- I do not even know where to begin and for this I blame no one but the damn people who lack curtsy and even the slightest sense of guilt when they go about throwing their shit around! Funny story: we walk around the "Lion's point" for a few minutes. A Tata sumo with three people, all three of them stuffing themselves with food. The lady drops throws her napkin on the ground. I turned to see what the gentlemen were going to do and I held my gaze on one of them. This guy held napkin for as long as I was staring and smirking at him- the moment I got in the car, the  damn guy threw the damn paper on the ground.

Day 4: Early morning flight to Delhi, out of the flight and into the traffic jam! After a considerable talking, it was dinner time which was at some fancy schmancy Dhaba- they even had a truck cut out and dhaba music but sadly food was no where close to a real dhaba food and neither were the people as nice as the people who usually run dhabas! So in the midst of all talking, I even got some pictures of the baby pigeons!

Day 5: DU by metro with cousin, spent a couple of hours there watching students dance their way through a college admission. I was quite impressed with the Delhi metro system. And as usual could not help but get angry with men who could not stop staring at women (age no bar). Dinner at a place whose name I cannot remember!
Day 6: Flight back to Chennai. Appa was there. Thankfully not on his "Hero Winner" moped (I think we are the only ones in the entire country that have this model)

Friday, June 4

Taken Over...

Image source is this blog here

I cannot believe I had once vowed to never step into the computer centers at BITS- neither to check emails on that UNIX machine nor to do my coursework (yes, it got quite out of hand and I did land on the infamous notice board!). Today when the Harvard network was down, leaving us all without any access to the world outside for about 29 minutes, I was amused by my own reactions. I had to find out what was going on, why all of a sudden things went wrong- had to find out when will I get my world back. It was quite early in the morning for our lab and people were just strolling in, booting their computers up- I go "aha! I am not alone, soon these people would be join me in my frenzy" but they seemed unfazed by it. I begin to wonder may be something was wrong with my machine and that drove me even crazier.

Well after enough dramatizations, 2 coffees down the throat- I sensed relief, I mean I could feel it. And there it was- I was back on people!

Tell me how much has the world wide web changed your world, do you believe we are in fact all that global as we claim to be?

Sunday, May 23

Boy play or boy dismay

 Image courtesy: Free thinker

A recent episode of Frontline aired this program about boys in Afghanistan. Apparently an ancient practice of Bacha Bazi has been brought into life again. It is a secret (it is an illegal act under the law in Afghanistan) that was never meant to be kept. This Frontline show is called "Dancing Boys of Afghanistan" and it chronicles the lives of poverty-stricken children, either abducted or lured using money, who dress up like women to dance in front of grown men and more often than not perform sexual acts. The boys usually start off at a very young age, around 10 or so- they get trained to sing and dance and when they are ready, they begin to entertain their masters and other people. A boy who does well is quite popular and in demand. There have been boys who have wanted out and well their only way out-getting killed.
It is only in the recent times that this issue has been getting attention, not as much as it should. It is complicated by the fact that government officials and military men also engage in such a preposterous act and amongst them have a boy toy accompany, is a matter of prestige and power.
As far as I am concerned, you do not put children in harm's way, does not matter where you come from. The perpetrators should pay and hopefully the law (I am guessing it is going to be some form of international effort as we all know how well the Afghan system is working) will catch up with them sooner than later.

Thursday, May 20

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building: A Novel

- by Alaa Al Aswany, a dentist by profession. Be prepared to be angered and saddened by the portrayal of the characters' struggles.
The story follows the some of the people living in "The Yacoubian Building"- the building constructed in the art-deco style still exists in Egypt but the description that the author provides in the book is something of a wonderful classical European architecture. The story follows the residents of this building:
Taha-el-Shazli whose frustration at not getting through the police academy makes him vulnerable and eventually he joins the Islamist movement

Busayna, Taha's girlfriend, well ex-girlfriend, enters prostitution (well she has a day job too) after her father dies to take care of the family. She, to me seemed liked the only ray of hope in the entire book!

Hatim Rasheed, a reporter of a leading newspaper in Cairo and a homosexual. His story is quite an interesting one albeit very sad one too. I can only assume that the author has portrayed the life of homosexual people in Egypt as close to reality as possible and let me tell you- I do not like what I see.

Hagg Azzam, an old guy who enters the crooked world of politics- takes a young beautiful Souad as his second wife, of course secretly. He made her leave her son back in the village- that was the deal he made and she took it because the money and gifts were good and she could imagine a better life for both her and her son.

Zaki-el-Bey, an old flirt who had no qualms about womanizing- he would sleep with anything that looked remotely like a woman! But in the end, he does deliver another ray of hope in this forsaken land- I am sorry but I do not know what else to call it. I hope it is better now than when the book was set.

The author does a fantastic job of painting a broad picture of Egypt especailly Cairo. I was really moved by the daily struggles that people go through and somehow they did not look as horrid or sad as they should have been. They seem to carry on just fine...

Read more about this book here or here.


Thursday, May 6

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady

Thanks to our book club, I got to read my first ever Willa Cather. In a nutshell, I liked the way she played with her characters and all of it in simple, plain English- nothing fancy. She does a brilliant job of bringing out the emotions of her characters! A very interesting and a courageous lady, Willa Cather- she dressed like a man most of the times and most of her strongest relationships seems to have been with women. Her sexual identity apparently is one of contention- remember she was born late 1800's.

Anyway about the book which was originally published in 1923- it is the story of Marian Forrester and Capt Daniel Forrester told to us through the eyes of Niel Herbert. The story is set in a small yet rich railroad community of Sweet Water in Nebraska (this is an almost fictional place- Cather draws most of her inspiration from Red Cloud, Nebraska for the description of Sweet Water in the book but looks like there is also place called Sweet Water in Nebraska). It is story of the downfall of the town- the local elites losing it to the national big guns- the advent of capitalism. It is also the story of Marian Forrester, while she does seem lost after her husband's death, is she really "a lost lady"? Neil Herbert, the narrator, grows up loving Mrs. Forrester- most of all he admires her loyalty to her husband.

" Mrs. Forrester was the only woman he knew who wore earrings of which, they hung naturally against her thin, triangular cheeks"- says Neil in the book.

But as time passes by, he realizes that Mrs.Forrester was having an affair with Frank Ellinger and that she was not what he had imagined- she was a survivor!

"It was what he most held against Mrs Forrester: that she was not willing to immolate herself, like a widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms. In the end, Niel went away without bidding her goodbye. He went away with weary contempt for her in his heart"

You can begin to wonder at the end- who was lost?

Judgement: Thumbs up for this novella and double thumbs up for Cather!

PS- You can check this or this to learn more about the author. Interestingly one of Fitzgerald's character in Great Gatsby is said to resemble Cather's lost lady!

Monday, March 29

Savithiri Satyavan

... well Satyavan is her husband's name. In South India, Savithiri's successful endeavor of bringing her Satyavan back from Yama's grip is celebrated as Karadayan Nonbu. Apparently she knew she was going to die young, yet she marries him. We celebrate this festival for the husbands or husbands-to-be, womenfolk fast the entire day and break their fast with the delectable adais/cakes.
Agreed this mythological character was devoted to her husband and as the story goes her devotion (पति वृथा ) is what brought him back to life. Okay but there is more to her than just a dutiful, unfaltering wife. She was a STRONG, CLEVER and WITTY woman. Should'nt we be celebrating her for just THAT?
Image from Omaha Habitat

May be more of her story might make it clear to you as to why she should also be celebrated (see, I am being generous- I said "also").
Savithiri born to King Ashwapathi, decided to find a husband for herself (1). Her search leads her to a forest where she meets Satyavan, son of Dyumatsen, a king who had lost everything. Even though Satyavan had only another year to live, Savithiri married him (2).  She lived in the forest with her husband and his parents. The day that Satyavan was presumably going to die, Savithiri went along with her husband to chop wood. She decided to go without food that day. Yama, Lord of Death, finally descends in the evening and takes Satyavan with him. Savithiri follows them- Yama tells her that she cannot follow beyond a certain point. 
Depending on where you hear the story, Yama grants either one or three boons to Savithiri. Nevertheless, Yama blesses her with children and Savithiri says "Oh dear lord, you blessed me with children but how can I have them if you take my husband with you"- Yama pleased by her devotion and wit grants Satyavan his life back (3).

There you have it

(1) She was confident enough to make her own decisions. PARENTS TAKE NOTE!
(2) She was gutsy and she decided to be responsible for her actions
(3) She was smart, clever and witty

Without her Satyavan would have been long gone! So are these good enough for us to celebrate this festival in HER name?! Just asking...

Sunday, March 14

I have so many complaints...

...  that I could
       Image source: here
....right NOW!!

That is right, you heard me. I have too many issues with people around me and I complain too much. I wonder "is it me?" or "is there really something worth further investigation?"- and the answer is: a bit of both! What can a girl do people?!

I don't know may be this is some kind of a strange mid-life crisis- but I thought it was the disease of middle aged men that makes them go crazy. I am a woman and I am not even MIDDLE AGED!

Oh whatever!

You can read more about women's midlife crisis here.

Tuesday, February 23

English, August

Judgement: Must read

A book by Upamanyu Chatterjee

The book is a satire about Indian civil services, especially the people who are just starting as IAS officers. While parts of this book are funny, there is a significant bit that is dark (you would enjoy this book even more if you knew about the depravity of the system). The protaganist is Agastya Sen aka Ugu aka August, the son of Governor of West Bengal (I think!) who lived mostly in cities New Delhi and Calcutta. He is being sent to Madna (a fictional town) to be trained as an Assistant collector. The book revolves around how Agastya manages to do just the same. The portrayal of small Indian villages/towns seems accurate and so is the description of a young Indian's dilemma (not just of those who work for the government). A very engaging book where I could even place people from own my life in the story and have a good laugh about it. The author has depicted Agastya's loneliness very sordidly (at least it was really upsetting to me- but I think it was intended to be satirical and funny) what with all the weed-smoking, masturbating and running by the tracks late in the nights. The other characters in the book are quite interesting- the drivers, the superintendents, the collectors and their wives, Agastya's own peers from other towns- I think without them the book would not have had a strong impact on me. The only part I did not like- when Agastya had to accompany a Mr. John Avery and his girlfriend Sita to the place where Avery's grandfather was killed by a tiger (did not see quite the connection with the entire story)

Overall I loved the book, one of those that made me laugh out loud...

Monday, February 15

The Silent Spirit(s)

I know a woman. A woman with immense strength and character; a woman whose age is catching on to her. An unexpected call from home, each time, sends shivers down my spine  and I hear myself saying "Please, oh my, please, let her be-I cannot let her go just yet".

I consider her the "Martha Stewart" of our family- be it the food she cooks (rather cooked, she cannot do much these days) that tickles ones tongue or an embroidery pattern that flutters ones heart. She does not stop there- she composes devotional songs, the words for which are straight out of her soul and she sings them too. She is a great singer by the way (I learned the little music I know from her).  She is unarguably my biggest inspiration during my creative process. I do not think any of her children have her zeal for life (well they are all grown up now and they are different people!).

Dei sub numine viget (Under God's power she flourishes), this woman truly believes that her life would not have been possible but for the help she got throughout her life in various forms. I have not known another person who is forever thankful to God for sending help when she needed it the most.

"Some of the strong women from our family"

It was in 1927, she was brought to life into an intellectual clan in a village by name Mannargudi (in Tamil Nadu). I remember her making it a point to tell me (many times indeed) that she was the sixth child and being the sixth was considered unlucky. I am not sure if it is because she was born after 5 others or not but she definitely could have had a better life and she deserved one just the same.

Leaving a suspicious, jealous, abusive husband who lived off the proceeds from HER family should have been easy- but not in those days- the pressure that society put on women was enormous (it still is, is it not?). She got out of one hell hole only to fall prey to the hurtful things that people had to say about her situation. She kept at it though- got two master's degrees (regrets not having gotten two more), taught high school children and raised her own 4 children. There would days when all five of them would go hungry for months together. But in the end, the five of them came through it all just fine. She even published a book of her compositions.

She hardly ever used to complain about it before, but now with age, her weakened spirits and strength have  paved way for self-pity and regrets from the past. She feels lonely, worthless and considers herself a burden on her children. She does know that I love her to death. To me what is very interesting- staying strong for so long (for her children mostly) and not letting her guard down (staying strong as a full time job impacts even the best of us) seems to have an impost on her. I can only imagine the state of one's mind when they go through rough patches constantly in their life, how unfortunate can it get. One can argue that there are people who have done worse, but it really does not give any hope. It breaks my heart when she hurts even a little- no one can hurt her anymore, I will not let them. She is now under my protective custody! So back off demons from her past... let her be, that is all she is asking of you.

Why this post now,

Violence, especially, against women and children, is pernicious. Several NGOs and government organizations are working toward putting an end to domestic violence around the world. Domestic violence was recognized only in 1983 as a criminal offense under Indian penal code section 498-A and a domestic violence act aimed at protecting women in a domestic set up was passed in 2005. It is shameful that even now about 70% of married women in India are victims of domestic violence. Women are still reluctant to report violence against them. Violence and abuse have a severe impact on the victim's mental health and their self-esteem takes a huge hit. International Women's day is fast approaching (the theme this year is equality)- please do whatever little you can, to spread awareness about victims groups and rights in place to help them through their ordeal.

PS: you can read more about domestic violence here and here.

Monday, February 8

Shut up...

Photo source: The malaysian

Do you know the kind who use a lot of words to say something simple or the kind that use the entire breadth of their knowledge of English language to convey something that you still would not understand after they finish their sentences, yeah that kind (I am mostly irritated because they talk too much, their verbosity comes later). Most of the times, I feel like saying to them just shut up but when I have my generous moments I kind of pity them. It seems to be an obsession, a way of trying to prove their worth.

But wait- there might be actually a point to all this talking, says Susan Blackmore. Theories out there from a genetic perspective suggest that talking might soon be a lost cause as it seems to be a waste of energy. Others from an evolutionary standpoint suggest that we are stuck with it today because somehow the advent of language and therefore talking was extremely advantageous to out ancestors. But Susan in her article describes yet another possibility- the spreading of memes through talking (remember memes all ye' Dawkins readers out there). For those who have not read Selfish Genes- memes are essentially a unit of cultural transmission or imitation. Examples include catchy tunes, trendy styles and ideas. Say for example- my hopelessly pathetic book reviews can be at some level considered as spreading memes. I read it, I am telling you all about it and hopefully you will tell someone else about on and so forth.

And as far as talking is concerned- think about our brain filled with ideas. These ideas will get transmitted only when you talk, the ideas that are easy to say and forces the host to say them (like celebrity scandals). So essentially you act as the host for the ideas that need to be heard, the "say-me" memes as Susan puts it in her article.

I want to leave you with what George Washington said-

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter house"

Not an optimist myself, yet I do hope the kind I described earlier would put talking to good use!

When we were Romans

A book by Matthew Kneale.

Judgement: Must read

I sort of liked it, liked different aspects of the book- loved the narrator (Lawrence, a 9 year old boy) and the narration probably because I am biased (Scott of the To Kill a Mockingbird fame!), hated the spelling errors (may because as a kid I was good at spelling), loved the story and the interruptions about space and Roman emperors such as Caligula. Kudos to Mr. Kneale for doing a great job as a 9 year old narrator, I am sure it is hardly easy.

Lawrence, his sister Jemina and his mother Hannah drive to Rome in fear of the father. Lawrence tells us the story of what goes on in Rome. Only it is not just about that- the author has brought about the innocence, pettiness and frustrations of a 9- year old child. The interruptions I thought provided a firm footing in reality to Lawrence- something that was under his control. There seemed to be a transference effect when Lawrence seemed to sense what his mother felt- he seemed to take on her fears and believe them to be true. I wonder did Franseen ever tell the dad about Hannah and the kids in Rome?! And what about the sister, although a brat, she did seem to bring about quite a few turning points in the story- she does play a subtle yet an important role. I wish I could get into the author's head to understand why he chose to end it the way he did- although it did seem a bit extreme, I think it was a perfect to way to end that part of Lawrence's life story.

PS do not want to give away too much!

Monday, January 25

Men against Demand

Something I was asked to write about recently, not sure if it will be of any use but I thought it is important to get the word out. Prajwala, if you all do not know, is an organization against human trafficking founded by Sunitha Krishnan. She is a woman of tremendous courage and will to do the right thing and I definitely feel honored to have been in touch with her at least via emails. They launched the campaign called Men against demand and this article conveys why that is important.

The drawing is a self-portrait by a 15 year old trafficking victim

Photo source: gtipphotos

I am not one of the survivors, I do not know any survivors but in my heart I know they are out there- I hear about them occasionally, I think about them very often and I wonder why, why does this happen at all? What are we doing wrong? We are doing something terribly wrong otherwise there would not be so many innocent human beings thrown out of their cocoons into a ghostly pit of human traffickers. Human trafficking is a modern day term for slavery. It describes the buying and selling of people, usually through coercion or fraudulence, by luring victims out of their homes and forcing them into slavery. Anywhere from 4 to 27 million people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each year. About 70% of the women are forced into the commercial sex industry while the rest are victims of forced labor, something that is quite prevalent in Asia. Interestingly, victims are never scarce- everyone of us is a potential victim. How does such an illegal trade thrive? It thrives because of the enormous demand, demand from a variety of sources that include brothel owners, clients of sex worker ad people like you and me who hire domestic help, adopt babies who have been stolen or kidnapped and buy mail-order brides. 

Bhavani's marital bliss was not out of a fairy tale story. She got married to Amar when she was merely 12 years old only to realize that her husband had left her at a brothel on GB road in Delhi and that she was not his first, he had 12 other marriages (rather victims) that year alone. Her resistance was no match to the ordeals of starvation and beatings that her attackers put her through. After a week of struggle she had to relinquish her struggle. She served the clients for about 5 years during which she had numerous sexually transmitted diseases and underwent five abortions. Now a teenager at 17, she is HIV positive. 

Slavery comes in different forms and for Mimin, the nightmare began when she landed in LA for a job as a housekeeper with a wealthy family (she left Indonesia at the age of 17). The family confiscated her passport and threatened her arrests and rapes if she ever left the house. For seven years without pay, Mimin endured the torments and kept at her job as a housekeeper, when she finally found the courage to set herself free. 

Recent study conducted by the International Labor Organization in five Asian countries, has shown that most clients who buy sexual services are men, 15-40 years old and from all walks of life. Despite the fact that the number of male victims is on the rise, it is hard to deny the fact that men also play a huge role in the demand side of human trafficking. While many organizations fighting against human trafficking work to prevent or abolish human trafficking, rescue victims from the traffickers and provide a new lease of life to the victims, they pay much less attention to the demand aspect of this whole trade. 
   It is just as important to fight the demand-side of human trafficking as it is to fight traffickers themselves. Therefore, it is important for men to understand that they have a huge role to play in preventing and may be someday abolishing human trafficking. Men must be educated and made aware of the toll human trafficking takes, not just on individual victims but on the society as a whole. Women and men must join forces to prevent desecration of the sanctity of an individual's right to live. 

Gandhiji said "you must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty", let us, men and women, act fast, act now before the victims of illegal trafficking, the many Bhavanis, Mimins, Gurungs and Theresas, stop believing in the existence of humanity, stop believing that there are people who care about them and who would not rest without putting an end to human trafficking.

Wednesday, January 20

Parent trap

They are never boring- my conversations with my mom, that is of course when we are not fighting (well we do not fight much over telephone, only friendly arguments!). They get particularly predictable when I tell her that I would be taking off for the weekend, usually travelling to another city/state/country (Well that last one has not happened much!).

(Photo source: wikitravel)

Me: Ma, I am going out of town this weekend, will be back Monday

Ma: Why my dear, why do you want to spend so much? (In Tamil- ஏன் டா இப்படி செலவு செய்யறே?)

Me: Ma, money is meant to be spent, it is not something that will stay forever

Ma: I know da, but still,

and so our wrangles continue...

I guess I should not tell her that I am planning on a trip that would involve most of my savings and a lot more of my time... shhh!

So there you have it- my parents seem unarguably protective of their finances, they are not miserly (not by any stretch of imagination, well may be a little but I know where that stems from...)- but  when it comes to travel, they think it is usually a waste of money and that it should be done as scarcely as possible. Well on why travel is not important (their views not mine, hell not mine at all!)- a. we spend on things that are absolutely essential, b. we help people (family and friends alike) in their times of financial crisis and therefore we cannot afford to be spending on travel, c. we have been in deep financial troubles and hence we know the value of money (in fact this used to be their favourite argument, not anymore), yada yada yada. Oh, I almost forgot-d. these days it is usually we just like to stay put in one place, e. we do not crave journeys to the neverland anymore (Its not just one aspect, is it?!). Imagine if all of the above said arguments are used in one conversation...

There are two things that are interest me here
1. the sense that travelling somehow is akin to the crash of wall street and the feeling that nothing good comes by going around the country or the world (well it is just a vacation, what is the big deal) and 2. try not to spend money on anything other than the most important, well then that leaves us with just food and shelter, does'nt it? (God knows the clothes I have now would last me my lifetime!).

Now, I am curious- are my parents stereotypes, in that, do most people of the older generation feel that way, is it an Indian thing (pardon the lack of words here)- are they too busy or lazy to bother with travelling? Are they so protective of money- saving money is one thing but hey, not splurging once in a while on YOURSELF has got to be bad for the soul, right?

From where I stand, the standard sort of vacationing in an exotic city or a country does not excite me as much as going to a place to spend a considerable time in a place, learning about its people and their favourite haunts, their culture, history, a bit of their language, some of their cuisine, more of this and more of that-  something like an anthropologist might do, you know. That is what is fun to me and I hope I can do it sooner than later- have a humble beginning, may be in India first. While I have been toying with this idea for a mere 3 years now, something unknown stops me executing it (my thought on why- I am too afraid that I would not be able to get a job if I quit and go on my little knowledge expedition!).

My parents, well they just have to wait, watch and learn...  :D

Monday, January 11

Velazquez, Madrid, Venice...

I normally stay away from recent publications and authors I have not read before (well, there is no particular reason, but I do prefer classics). But this book by Michael Gruber, the one I picked up at the library last week, is not all that bad. A novel of suspense, while I did enjoy the suspense part, I had no clue when the author was describing old masters such as Diego Velazquez (before this book, I did not even know he was great painter from the 1650s) or the museums and art gallery scenes in exotic places like Venice, Italy and Spain. What a shame! Towards the end I did get quite confused when Chaz Wilmot would travel back in time and see himself as Velaquez (he even paints the Rokeby Venus as Velaquez, so I am not sure one can call that forgery, or can they?). I kind of rushed through those time travelling episodes to get to the "so-whatever-happens-in-the-end" part. The ending though to me was not super-impressive, may be because I rushed through those pages! But overall it is a decent book and am sure an art lover can relate to it better than me.

PS: Click on the link below to check the book out on amazon
The Forgery of Venus: A Novel

Sunday, January 10

Broccoli and other tales of food and love

Yes, yes I finally made it to the book club this month- the first one for this year. The book that we read for this month is by Lara Vapnyar- Broccoli and other tales of food and love. 

Whether it is broccoli in the third shelf of Nina's refrigerator or a bag (or 10) of puffed rice for which Katya and Vera stood in line, Lara Vapnyar's subtleties about immigrant life impressed me. The simplicity of her choice of words was amazing- while she did not say everything, she did manage to convey the story with as little as words possible. In one members' words the stories in this book seemed economical. While reading this book, one realizes that the men in her stories are losers and it is the women who play a central role. My own reaction when I read the first couple of pages of "Broccoli in the third shelf"- "wow, I could be Nina (a "vegetable lover" as her husband introduced her to his friends)- I love to buy veggies when sometimes I actually don't end up using them. It was interesting for me to hear about the priors some members, who  either grew up in Europe or who stayed in Eastern European countries, had about Russians in general. Another thing that struck me was the bluntness of Lara's characters, as one member put it-" they seemed like prickly people". 

This book is a compilation of short stories about Russian immigrants, Lara Vapnyar, herself came to the US when she was 23 years old. She hardly knew any English then. And now she writes only in English. You can read more about her and this book here.

Overall I really liked this book and my personal favourites were "Puffed rice and meatballs" and "Slicing sauteed spinach". It is a definitely a good way to start the year with just the right amount of food mixed with love!