[Book Review] : Shantaram

“Sooner or later, fate puts us together with all the people, one by one, who show us what we could, and shouldn’t, let ourselves become” – Shantaram

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts is a sublime tale of a journey towards life. The book serves as a fictional , semi – pseudo auto biography of sorts. This is a book where fiction and reality hold hands together and they both , rather conveniently, chose a cinematic narrative approach to story telling. The book starts with a bloke who flies into Bombay with a fake passport that belongs to a certain Lindsay Ford. The assumed identity becomes the only identity of the tale’s protagonist. If I were to sum up the tale into a line, it would read as the journey of a man from being Lindsay Ford to Lin to Shantaram. While the sentence is short, the road taken by the protagonist is wonderfully entertaining , thought provoking and long.

Lindsay or the bloke who soon is addressed as Lin, is a man of violence. There is violence in his heart. There is guilt from that violence. A shade of repentance and a longing for redemption. Lin, as he starts, is no saint and the Bombay of the 1970’s happens to be the perfect city for vices. The retro vibes to the 70’s set amidst the blossoming Mumbai Mafia sets the stage for the tale. From substance abuse to suckering unassuming, unsuspecting travellers, Lin beings to offer a bespoke professional service of procuring and delivering instruments of vice based on fluctuating demands. That’s fancy for Lin working the streets and peddling whatever he can.

At every page there is crime and its holistic view. Crime , is both a source of escape and a means of entrapment. It keeps the characters in a state of inertia. The characters endure a distinct sense of irony. Their lives of crime keeps them free. It’s the crime that keeps them chained. The world revolves around a subtle balance.

The characters are the strength of this book. There are far too many characters and the best part is, as readers, we’d grown warm to most of them. We’d passionately root for them. We’d vengefully want some of them to suffer. The heart of this tale is the nurturing of the bonds that the characters share. From the smiles of Prabhakar, the wisdom of Lord Abdel Khader Khan, the friendship that is with Abdulla, the charismatic Didier Levy , the whacky-do-doodle that is Vikram and the frustration that is love in the form of Karla.

“Nothing grieves more deeply or pathetically than one half of a great love that isn’t meant to be.” – Shantaram

I don’t think there are any stories worth telling that do not concern the matters of the heart. Lin shares the same sentiment. Neatly set in the backdrop of a violent mafia, wars across the world, poverty , the human spirit (aka the Mumbai spirit) that never gives up, is a frustrating love story of Lin and Karla. The two are equally matched, in coefficients of both the intellect and emotions. One cannot be a lover unless one is a certified fool and this tale is a testament to that foolishness. Not that there is anything wrong with being a fool. Karla and Lin, all the other tiny tales of love and life, render the characters to either remain as fools or volunteer to be one. I’m a romantic and I find that state of foolishness as cute. Reality does come and it comes biting. Wisdom, I reckon, is attained by not staying a fool forever.

There is a lot of philosophy plastered across the pages of the tale. Lin shares his view of the world and the principles that he holds close. Lord Abdel is another wonderful source of wisdom that covers all realms of existence. The moralities are put to the test. We, along with Lin, have a glimpse into the world that sits comfortable between the two extremes of black and white.

One of the best feature of the book is the way that all the characters are flawed and broken. Nobody is holier than the rest. The virtues and vices grip everybody alike. There are no saints in the land of the vice. Despite the evil, it is the quintessential struggle to do good, that quest to make this world a better place, that effort to make life better for others, that sets the book apart from rest of the fiction. As Abdel says, it’s the capacity to do bad for the right reasons is what that defines us as humans. I’m tempted to both agree and disagree. Good finds a way. So does evil. We are left to our own wits to embrace either, or even both.

Speaking of the huge list of characters, Bombay, or the present day Mumbai is also a subtle character in the tale. Mumbai takes in people from all walks of life, accepts all moralities and ethics that people choose to live by, and lets its people be. Some bring it pain while others endure pain to spread joy. The book is a fantastic tribute to Bombay. It lives and breathes the fabric that is the city. Right from the underbelly that has the slippery grime that is crime , to the most humane face of humanity that’s expressed through poverty, from the front where money buys a £150 cup of coffee to humble villagers who migrate to the city with nothing but hopes and dreams in their eyes, the book has the city painted all over its pages.

The big theme in the book is around what it means to belong to someone or even some place? Why do we yearn that sense of belonging? How does that belonging change our life? Each character in the book is , in one way or another, an alien to the city. They all walk in, fall in love with the city and endure and survive.

The next big theme is around ‘Karma’ of things. The big question around should we continue to be what we were or do we allow ourselves to evolve and in time, repent, atone, grow , and adopt a new path? Lin is a perfect example of man of violence who blooms into a man with a golden heart that has a few thorns that adorn it.

The biggest payoff from the book is the mention of the name “Shantaram”.

The many lives of Lin reflect the many conflicts that arise within his heart. Lin is driven by love, loyalty, anger, regret, guilt and he embraces all the choices that he makes and is forced to make. As Lin adapts to the consequences, we as readers, no longer remain blind to the way he evolves. The fantastic irony to the tale is that Lin is soaked and bleached in crime and yet there is a saint in him that comes out strong.

A name is just a name and it seldom defines the nature of the person that it is tagged to. Shantaram is a beautiful example of a man living his life, in pursuit of earning that name that emanates peace that is Shantaram.

Definite read. Give it a shot.

Karthik

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[Book Review]: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian , Han Kang.

There is no easy way to say this. This is a complex book that dwells in the abyss that is the human mind. It toys around with emotions and is rather cold and stoic in the way it settles to narrate the tale of two sisters , Yeong – Hye and In-Hye.

Yeong- Hye leads a pretty normal life. The term normal is an understatement. If I had to trivialise a loveless marriage, emotional impotence, suppressed insecurities, passive aggression, masked intolerance, manipulative relationship, pretend smiles as a BAU normal of a life, then yes, Yeong does lead a normal life. One fine day, she decides to become a vegetarian. She rejects meat of any kind into her diet. This leaves her husband unhappy.

The choice of being a vegetarian, given the Korean context, we are led to believe that the choice is an unpopular one in the society. Yeong’s husband, Mr Cheong is left alone to fend off the snide remarks from the judgemental society. This decision adds tension to their marriage. The family meet up with Yeong’s wider family over a get together and things get worse. Her family feels ashamed of her decision to shun meat. Her dad manages to slap some sense into her.

Push comes to shove and plot details later Yeong gets committed into a mental institution. Oh boy, this is a hard book to review without giving away the plot. I shall have to adopt a different strategy to review the book.

Lets focus on the themes instead.

What is beauty? What one finds ugly is someone else’s white swan. The age old word that says beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, while that makes sense, it’s also worth the while to note that the eyes that see you as beautiful, do they belong to the people in your immediate world? The book establishes the reality of an unsatisfying relationship. The lack of emotional and physical satisfaction and it’s effect on a relationship is horrifically screamed out in a gentle whisper.

Then comes the whole big bang around the nature of oppression. The tale is about oppression. The tale is about violence. The tale is about the might of the will of a few to crush and stamp on the voice of the others. This is a tale of how fractured people and the way they cope up with a flawed life. What choices do we have? Are we strong enough to even make choices? The helplessness of the circumstance would leave us with thoughts and a tinge of depression.

And then comes the theme around choices. There comes a point in time when we have a moment of pristine , demented, twisted catharsis. We act on that impulse and that action goes on to define the way of our life. How far would one go on that conviction? How far would you defend the honour of your choice? How far would you go? What is the extent of what you’d endure and survive in order to hold on to that singular, one and only hope-like thought of a choice? Our protagonist’s choice to be a vegetarian is one such choice. It spawns from a nightmare and Yeong does what she thinks is the right thing to do. The entire tale is her testament to that choice.

The whole book is a glance into the psychology of a person. From a nightmare to a choice. From a choice to an Action. From reasons around that nightmare to the mind’s projection of what it experienced to what it presents as a nightmare? The whole world of interpretation of intent, cause, symbols and their meanings, this book effortlessly tosses all of that out of the window. The book doesn’t pretend to be a super smart , slick dissertation of the human psychology. It does manage to beautifully outline the consequences of gradual and consistent fracture of the self over prolonged duration of time.

The other big theme in the book is Violence. This is a tricky subject. The violence that Yeong endures is almost a 360 degree wrap.

From physical to emotional, from carnal to exploitation, the violence again this woman comes hidden behind masks of varying socially accepted norms.

It makes us question the status quo of right versus wrong. It holds a big ugly mirror that reflects the archaic values ingrained into a patriarchal society.

What stood out in the book is the history shared by the two sisters. It left me numb through implied pain. The little things that had no significant value , the way the little things add up and in retrospect, turn out to be a series of massive life changers, the tale of the two sisters is a culmination of what ifs and regrets. The subtle horror would run chills down your spine.

The rest of the book is around life, death, and death that one endures through each day of a life. The book also elaborates the soul’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. There is far too much going around in this book. The beauty of this is that you get to take what you want to take away from the book.

It is a definite read, if you are used to reading between the lines. There is so much said across everything that is left unsaid.

Karthik

Coming up next : Shantaram.

[Book Review] : A state of freedom

A state of freedom by Neel Mukherjee.

A state of freedom is an anthology of sorts that outlines the lives of five people. It’s a beautifully written book that effortlessly carries a very serious, grim tone throughout and at the same time, it does effortlessly manage to hold on to our attention span. The anthology helps break the monotony of reading through a single individual’s darker than dark, deeper than abyss view of a pessimistic world.

Freedom is a lot of things to a lot of people. In my opinion, the book tends to blur the boundaries between a sense of freedom and the desperate want for a liberation. In fact, I am tempted to call out the subtle difference between the state of feeling liberated versus the longing towards finding an escape from the talon like clutches of life.

The book deals with loss, sacrifice, ideology, poverty and a double dose of poverty there.

It tries to explain the elusive view of freedom that the characters long for. The mundane, vulgarly abundant , unassuming nature of the circumstances that the characters endure also beautifully sets the tone of a reality that a lot of us accept, acknowledge and choose to ignore. The down to earth characters will win your heart as the pages unwind the aspects of their daily lives and the hidden meanings behind their valiant struggles.

The anthology approach is convenient to pick and pause. It’s always fun to keep guessing over how all the independent stories eventually connect. This book would throw its final curve ball there. There is and isn’t a big connect. What we are shown is the variance in our perception of the characters. The better we understand the circumstances governing their lives, the better our understanding of the whys of their lives becomes. Speaking of the characters, there is a bit of an element of diversity. Not everyone is plagued by the same demons. Two rich enough blokes and the rest are poverty stricken. I must admit, while I remained nearly stoic for most parts of the book because of the familiarity to the divide that money provides, the author manages to effectively dwell deeper into the poverty and painstakingly define what it means to live in near poverty. That left me saddened.

The book’s biggest win is the interpretation of freedom. It changes all the way. It evolves. There is liberation, there is escape and there is a thin balance that separates the delusion of liberation and the frustration from a longing for an escape.

The characters face that line. It’s up to the readers to make sense of what they read. I came to view it as the point of near rock bottom.

The book offers no redemption. This is a serious book that will plunge you into a state of ponder. It does not rely on cheap Deus Ex Machina to set everything alright. This is , in my opinion, one of the best quality of the book. It offers enough to harbour a hope. It offers enough reality that would pamper to your sensibilities to put an end to the misery of the characters by wanting them to give up and just die. The book would let you dictate the character’s fate in your head.

The book is a wonderful example of a classy writing that does not sugar coat the realities of a lot of people in the world. Each story has a style of narrative. Each story is a glance into an aspect of a living. I quite enjoyed the tale.

Sure, give it a shot. It’s worth the thoughts.

Karthik

Coming up next : The vegetarian. Now that’s a trippy book that scores really high on the cringe meter!

[Book Review] : How to be human

How to be human, Paula Cocozza.

” The comfort, that is the delusion of love, is an opiate beyond compare. ” – Katz

How to be human is a beautiful story of love, companionship, loneliness and madness. The tale picks up with Mary finding a baby at her door step. She holds the infant close to her heart. She decides to call the little one flora. As we , the readers, sit and wonder over the things we’ve read so far ; the story abruptly shifts its focus to the life of Mary.

Fresh out of a divorce, Mary is struggling to cope up with life. The irreconcilable reason for the divorce is a simple fact that she does not want to bring a child into this world while her husband, Mark, wants one. The fights lead to an inevitable moment in their life. A moment that is consumed by rage and anger, a moment that would fill the hearts with regret and resentment, a moment where words are uttered and lives are shattered. And bada boom, Divorce.

Mary turns to a shut-in. With fewer and fewer ties with the outside world, her world is consumed by the past. She wonders about the divorce, she wonders about her own relationship with her mother, she wonders about what ifs to life. Mary embraces the loneliness that is her current life. She accepts her fate and succumbs to it without much of a fight.

And then she spots a fox. A fox that invades both her garden and her life. Mary ferociously defends her house against her ex, Mark and odd enough, she doesn’t go all guns blazing when it comes to keeping the fox away. She finds him as an inconvenience and longs to get rid of the critter. The introduction of the fox has an unexpected effect on her life.

Mr Fox happens to be a charming fella. He’s smooth, cautiously intrusive but is neither hostile nor perceived to be that. His demeanour is rather gentlemanly. The fox soon wins the curiosity of Mary. She observes him at a distance and as the days start to grow, so does the fox on her. They both adjust to tolerate each other. The fox becomes a regular visitor in her garden and he always behaves well. Mary starts to find a sense of some misplaced comfort through the fox’s very presence.

This odd companionship inspires a change in Mary. She , without trying too hard, starts to adapt to the world around her better. In this human fox couple, She is the talkative one and he , Mr Fox, speaks through his nature’s intended body language. Mary makes meaning of everything about the fox. She manages to open up that channel of communication by correlating her own words and the response like reactions that the fox expresses.

Trippy and so far , so twisted good.

Rest of the story is about , who the hell is that infant Flora. Does Mary marry a fox? Will rabies replace Mary’s fear over having babies? Nasty pun but apt on the context.

The book is a wonderful journey of Mary’s emotions as she meets and greets the new Mr Fox into her life. She replaces the failed relationships with humans with a new relationship with a fox. Their conversations are unidirectional but that doesn’t stop Marry and her fox from having their dialogue. Your curiosity over where the roads would take them would keep your eyes glued to the book.

At the heart of this book, the central theme is that of love. What does it mean to love someone? When does love suffocate? Why do people love other people and importantly, why don’t some people ever love others?

Love, through Mary’s life is also about the nature of companionship. Love seems to be key in her fight against loneliness. Our lives do change when we lose the people that we once used to love. Mary’s desire for companionship and the fact that she finds that gratified by a fox is a testament to what makes us human. Our undying need to stay protected away from loneliness makes us human.

The other big , subtle theme is around how much humans endure in that battle against loneliness. I’m not surprised at all by how much one would choose to give, or even accept in order to build a bubble of delusion to keep that element of isolation away. With the tale, how far does Mary go is a question that keeps us hooked.

The final catharsis is quite a bliss to read. There are no ‘TA-DA’ moments to it. The sun doesn’t shine better or different, the time doesn’t pause to hint a difference, the world goes about its business and somewhere amidst all that , there is a pristine moment of a realisation.

The world indeed is a better place if you don’t house a black hole in your heart.

Two thumbs and definitely worth the time invested into the tale. You probably won’t feel disappointed.

Karthik

And coming up next : The state of freedom!

[Book Review] : The white book

Cover page of the White Book

The White Book , Han Kang. Based on a recommendation for Kang’s other book, The Vegetarian, I found myself shopping for books one fine Wednesday evening. I picked a stash of 5 books, The vegetarian, The White book(impulsive pick), How to be human. The other two , I’ll have to head back home to see what I picked.

I picked the white book to read first. There is something so sublime about the way the book is delivered. It’s pure white. It’s does have an air of mystery that surrounds it. The tale starts easy and fast. The narrator, whose name never gets mentioned, lists out words that can be associated with the colour White. Snow, frost, rice, and so on the list goes.

Then the narrator goes on to explain, with extreme obsession for brevity, the context of the words. The entire book is a list of words and what those words stand to convey. Hidden away, very obscurely, behind those words is a tale.

The narrator’s mother , when she was just about 22, births a baby girl whose face was as white as a white rice cake. That baby dies within a few hours. The tale also talks about a city of white. This city looks pristine white from the sky. Upon a closer inspection, the narrator realises that it’s a city wrapped in death and destruction. The city was apparently decimated by them jolly good fella Nazis , sometime in 1944. In the modern day, a replica of the city is build from scratch. The narrator ponders around life of such a city. Everything is new, everything is soulless. She goes on to contemplate the nature of the soul.

Somewhere between the words, the narrator recounts the story her mother used to tell her about the baby that died. That infant did not have the chance to open its eyes. The narrator often ponders the possibility of the soul of that child as being present in her.

A lot of words later, the narrator concludes the tale by describing the child of her own.

This book was not for me. While I struggle to connect the dots, struggle to grasp the things that I did read and totally miss, this book is twice as hard to soak in because it is a very crisp tale and the layout is not a constant narrative.

It feels like a journal of someone during the moments of lucidity while on an epic LSD trip.

Either the book masquerades as a super smart, super sneaky, insightful , deep dive into the nature of life, death and eventful reincarnation or I’m still dumb and too dense to understand the masterpiece.

The quick , not so satisfying read later, I felt insecure about my own ability to comprehend the book. A quick google later, I realised a lot of folks loved the book. It does feel like an emperor’s clothes moment to me. Do I pretend and praise or admit that I didn’t get it?

I don’t get it. Maybe I do need assistance in deciphering the book.

That said, the book feels creepy and claustrophobic. It adds suspense and does keep you wondering and guessing. But that’s all there is to it. I love Murakami. Murakami does not bother siting down and explaining the works as well. But the significant difference is that once you are done with a Murakami, you invest thoughts into it, you contemplate, you ponder , you will struggle to reach your own conclusion.

With this book, I threw my hands up in the air and went HUH!

So, if you chance to pick this book, please do give me a shout and tell me what I have obviously missed!

Coming up next : How to be human

Karthik

[Book Review] wild : from lost to found in the pacific Crest trail

Wild, as I’ve come to recognise and will go on to remember the book , is a biographical narrative of Cheryl Strayed. It’s her account of her 1100 mile hike through the pacific crest trail. PCT run all the way from Canada to Mexico. Cheryl manages the hike in around 100 odd days.

Of course, left to my wits, I’d have never picked this book in a million years. I’m not a huge fan of the non fiction genre unless it talks about philosophy or spirituality. Kanchan had reviewed the copy and I added to my list of things to read. I picked the book in 2017 and hadn’t bother freeing the book from the shipping wrapper that Amazon had used to deliver. As chance would have it, I didn’t plan my purchases right and I wasn’t left with any other choice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll explain shortly.

Back to Ms Strayed. She loses her mother to cancer and her mother’s death sends Cheryl’s life on the super express highway of self destruction. Depression sets in and over time a massive void engulfs her heart. As Cheryl fails to cope up with the reality , all her relationships start to deteriorate. She finds herself estranged from her step dad, divorced from her husband, distanced from her sister and brother. She slips into a life of a junkie , in time. Let’s just say that we have a crisp clear view of what a rock bottom looks like.

Through all of this, Cheryl chances upon a guide to the PCT. Spur of the moment, spontaneously she starts to harbour a deep rooted desire to hike the trail. She saves the money needed to gear up for the hike, reads about the trail and beings her journey of preparing mentally and acquiring the right enough equipment that she can afford. And just like that, her first day in the trail begins.

I think all of us find our demons when we are left all alone, with nothing but time and a million thoughts to keep us complicit company. This book is a biography of sorts. Cheryl is as special as the rest of us, as gifted as the rest of us and that means she isn’t immune to loneliness and demons that hunt us down in those moments. As she hikes through the trails, she gathers thoughts along the way her life has been, how she misses her mother, her failed marriage, and a little more pressing thought that is firmly grounded in the present reality. She contemplates the fact that she is under prepared for the trail and her inexperience has the right potential to get her killed.

To make matters worse, through all her meticulous planning, Cheryl manages to have a backpack that ends up getting stuffed with everything including the kitchen sink. Her new reality is a backpack that she can barely lift, let alone carry it through the 1100 mile hike through the mountains and forests. We, the readers and Cheryl soon start to focus on the job at hand. The battle of surviving the day becomes the apex priority. The challenging hike begins to inspire a change in the way the mind works. We see the full gambit of emotions at play. Guilt, Resentment, Anger, Denial, Realization, Acceptance and eventually a pristine moment of catharsis. The state cycle of life’s many emotions at its grandest display.

Her emotional battles aside, the hike also presents us with other battles. Is the world really a safe place? Are humans nice or animals in disguise. Cheryl meets a lot of interesting characters along the way. Most of them are nice and fill the moments of her life with kindness and warmth. Some are point blank rude. Some are creepy. I find it hard to believe that she managed to land with great awesome odds with strangers. Maybe it’s just the skeptic in me who refuses to believe in the goodness and kindness in people. I wouldn’t know better till I start my journey into the wild of the world.

The book has a wonderful theme. It talks about how vulnerable we are. A death ripped Cheryl’s life apart. The event causes her to self destruct. Thankfully, she’s not lost beyond the point of no return. For rest of us, that kind of a luck is not always at our disposal.

Depression and Self destruction are classic signs of an individual’s struggle against coping up with the events of life. I’ve been there.

Maybe I’m way too thick headed to be depressed. I’m far too funny to embrace elongated moments of saddened depression. I’m no stranger to self destruction. We destroy ourselves by hiding behind excuses. Some call it work, some call it relationship, some call it the EMI. The deception is played by many names. In our efforts of pretending to be normal and compensating the things that we lack, we often complicate our life and choices rather than simplifying them and leading a stress-free life.

Cheryl finds her balance through the hike. When you have real, tangible, quantifiable, physical , ‘not in the bloody mind’ challenges to deal with, you come out stronger for two reasons.

1. When you conquer a challenge that exists beyond the confines of your mind, the success is visible immediately. Either you power on, or you don’t.

2. By translating the demons in the mind to actual challenges that can be physically conquered, we also manage to symbolically conquer the demons that occupy the mind.

Science says that and proves that. My experience also points in the same direction. As long as one locks away the demons in the head, one cannot think through a redemption. The problem resides in the mind. To overcome it, one has to move the demons to the realm of the living and beat the living hell out of it.

The book is about one woman’s conquest of herself. Her journey, beside the 1100 mile on a radically tough and diverse terrain, is also about the realisation of self, it’s about letting one forgive oneself, letting one help oneself and letting oneself heal. I don’t see Cheryl’s account as any different from the books of spirituality that I’ve read. She had managed to DO the things in an alternate way, a way that suited her apt. The principles remain the same.

There are no surprises in the end. Cheryl does manage to accomplish her hike. She powers on and gets the job done. Somewhere in those 1100 miles, she loses the lost version of herself and ends up meting a stronger and a better version of herself.

I loved the book. I’d probably go as far as calling that this is the first SELF HELP book that I’ve read and I do like it plenty.

Karthik

[Book Review]: Fatherland

Fatherland , by Robert Harris , is an fictionalised alternate history view of the world. It’s a retelling of the world on the premise that Hitler’s Germany had world the world war. That event in history does change the shape of the course that the world takes.

The year is 1964, Herr Hitler is all set to celebrate this 75th birthday. This is the day that both Germany and the world celebrates in an unified way. The day also goes by the name of Fuhrertag. A body of an old man is found floating about in the river and officer Xavier March gets the call to go and investigate. Investigate he does.

One murder leads to uncovering a string of murders. March connects the dots and realises that the murders are connected and the victims are dead for a reason. There are a few big questions that still go unanswered. Who is killing these blokes? What were these blokes doing? What is so precious that it requires blood to preserve its secrecy ?

Xavier March bumps into an American actress, Charile, in course of his investigation. These were interesting times for the two countries. Hitler was finally welcoming the Wicked JFK. Two nations were at the cusp of coming together, cementing their bond through hate , greed and anti Semitism. March and Charlie team up to solve the mystery to the murders. The rest of the story is a gripping tale of politics, murder and adventure. It’s not the greatest of the ‘Who did it’ tales, however the story manages to retain its momentum and pace to keep the readers engaged about the consequences of the final reveal.

The Germany beyond the war is an interesting place indeed. A nation, the way it builds itself, it’s architecture, they all reflect the sentiment of its citizens. The new fatherland is a one party nation and Mr Fuhrer still it’s heralded champion. Everything about Berlin is a direct comparison to prominent architectures around the world where the version in Berlin is both bigger in size and grander in setting. This is a subtle nod to the lack of imagination and originality of the nation and it’s head. Germany, as I perceive through the words, is on a spree to compensate it’s insecurities. All of it’s achievements are mere comparisons at best. The insecurity of a nation is beautifully presented. A nation that has capabilities but lacks creativity and imagination.

The next theme explored in the book is about the effects of one party leadership. The state of perpetual fear and propaganda governing the daily lives. I no longer see the distinction between fiction and life. We do have one party leadership in a few regimes today. The quality of life, the magnitude of lies that shadow and distort the minds of the millions of citizens who are caught unaware. Then again, masses under delusion of supremacy is not restricted to dictatorship. We do have our Trumps and Modis 🙂

Couldn’t resist that snide retort!

Then comes the big white elephant that wears a florescent green shirt in the room. What happened to the many million jews ? In the fictional world of the Fatherland, it’s people are not fully aware and enlightened to the history of Fuhrer’s actions. A million people who look the other way when asked about what happened to the other set of million who just vanished. Denial and disillusioned. Yet again, this was a slap on the face of modern age living. We, the modern citizens of the world, live in that delusion that everything is alright and nothing is out of place. Yes, casual sexism is alright and it does not ‘corrupt’ the society. Oh yes, discrimination is a birth right as long as we sensitise ourselves and mask our ugly intent. I don’t blame us for what we have become. It’s just that the mirror reflects things that exist and not of things that could have been. The book focuses on one example to exemplify the million other examples that nobody wants to sit down and talk about.

There are a few characters in this crisp tale. We have the hero, Xavier March. Broken, duty bound, an SS officer. All that is left of his life is now work and work he does. There is Charlie, the American actress. Young , Wild and perfect yang to March’s ying. There is Max, March’s best bud from many years. He worries a lot about March’s attitude towards the fatherland. March does not gel well with the fear-laden society. No Heils, no subscription to the party. March , Max believes, is destined to be silently executed in the middle of the night by the gestapo.

Then there is Globus. The chief of Gestapo. Ruthless and a proper Bond Villain of sorts. While none of the characters stand out and can ever hope to capture your imagination in a spellbinding way, they are the best fit for this tale and they serve their purpose perfectly well. I’d like to blame the tv series, Man behind the high castle for my obsession and addiction to pronouncing SS ranks like Sturmbannführer , Obergruppenführer , KriminalPolizei. Leave it to the Europeans to inspire fun into spelling and pronouncing words 🙂

The book is not a serious dive into social welfare and mass psychology and behaviour. It stays truthful to the story that it intends to narrate. It’s a fun , thrilling ride and hope you enjoy it too.

Karthik

[Book Review]: The boy who could see demons

“There can be no faith without bias” – Katz the sober.

The boy who could see demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

My name is Alex. I’m ten years old. I like onions on toast and I can balance on the back legs of my chair for fourteen minutes. I can also see demons. My best friend is one. He likes Mozart, table tennis and bread and butter pudding. My mum is sick. Ruen says he can help her. Only Ruen wants me to do something really bad. He wants me to kill someone.’

With that back over , buying the book was a no brainer choice.

The quick snap shot review of the book : Brilliant Story, wonderfully written, engaging plot and intriguing characters, poor lousy lazy ending, but ,and that’s a rather enormous but, it’s a tale worth reading.

Now lets get down to the bits and bolts.

And then there was a tale that was caught right in the middle between the eternal conflict between belief, faith and Schizophrenia. Alex is a ten year old, who lives in Belfast (surviving the aftermath of them troubles) , can see demons and one in particular called Ruen is his best friend of sorts. Ruen wants Alex to kill someone.

Welcome to the world of what the hell is going on.

The world painted , rather scripted in the book is beautifully balanced by the author. We are introduced to the little boy who starts seeing demons on the day he learns that his dad is dead. Ruen, the demon, manifests in different shapes , sizes and forms to Alex’s eyes. Ruen is not seen by the rest of the world. Ruen is a bit of the snobbish, posh kind. He loves Mozart and is far too sophisticated to be the run of the mill hound from hell. In fact , Ruen isn’t the average joe of the demon world. He is a ‘Harrower’ , a top general in the realm of demons.

Ruen is Alex’s best and only friend. Ruen dictates the right words into Alex’s mind. Ruen is in fact the power that helps Alex cope up with his life. The world sees Alex as a bit dense.

Cue in Anya. Anya is a psychiatrist who specialises in paediatric psychology. Anya comes with the baggage of having lost her daughter to a suicide. The cause, Schizophrenia. Anya is broken into far too many pieces but her strength reverberates through the pages of the story. Anya sees Alex as her shot at redemption. She couldn’t save her daughter. She wouldn’t let another kid die.

And so beings the chase of a cat and a mouse. Science and the understanding of mental distress and disorders that it unravels fights heads to head with Demonic possession which has its roots in Faith and belief. Anya and us, the readers, we are introduced to many supernatural-esque capabilities exhibited by Alex. Throw in clairvoyance, access to knowledge beyond the usual means of a normal individual, we witness the battle of the mind. Anya deciphers the clues and finds ways to justify the phenomenon through the eyes of accepted and proven medical science of psychology.

It’s not the case of science hurling sticks and stones on the village idiots of believers. There are things that Anya’s science cannot explain. The story hinges on the uncertainty of what if demons really do exist. The story brings that balance of belief and the debunking of that belief brilliantly. As we dwell deeper and deeper into the minds of the characters, we also get to understand the power of psychology that governs the lives of us, humans.

Alex’s mom is suicidal and her battle reflects upon Alex. Then there is Ruen. A demon whom we cannot easily dismiss as the figment of imagination of a mentally troubled ten year old little boy. The evidences don’t always tally up. Psychology does not explain it all. The alternate world of the super real, super natural does not always sound believable. We journey through the book, living with that conflict.

So is Ruen really a demon? Is Alex really really mentally disturbed? Is there a happy ending for Alex or his suicidal mother? Does Anya finally find redemption? Does science outsmart a world of faith and belief? Do we realize that science, while magnanimous it is, is still too young to explain everything there is to the world?

The book’s conclusion offers some answers to those few questions. Personally, I wasn’t too thrilled about it. The return on the investment that I had made through the pages, was too little by the time the tale ended. The cheesy last minute jump scare was too clichéd and too cheesy and way too subtle to leave a lasting impression. That said, ignoring the book because of one chapter would be a crime. This is a fantastic book and has a smart story to tell. It is well worth the time.

The core of the book is the way of the mind. It captures the ability of a mind to cope up to a trauma that overwhelms it. Some sit and cry, some kill themselves, some sleep off the night and wake up stronger than ever before. For some, their personality rips and they dissociate into multiple personalities with the sole intention of coping up with the trauma. The book, like many other sources, is a beautiful reminder of how fragile the human mind is.

To that fragile nature of the mind, add a hint of God and the Devil. Throw in a healthy bunch of Angels and Demons. What if they are real? What if the human soul really does exist and that the god and the devil are wagering for a piece of that pie? What if a demon, or an angel is not the response coughed by a broken mind? What if a broken mind and the supernatural coexist? Where does that leave us, the vulnerable humans?

There can be no faith without bias. Rest your faith to the modern day gods that go by the name of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Ellon Musk or rest it within the bucket of the many gods that are in our prayers and devils in our nightmare, that faith cannot exist without a bias. Wisdom is gained when we learn to see beyond our bias and observe without resistance and evaluate without prejudice. Maybe there is a lot more to this world. Maybe there is a lot more to the universe that is the human body.

The book does leave you with such questions. To me, that is a better win than a stronger ending.

Four stars . Enjoy the madness. Enjoy the mind trying to see through the madness.

Karthik

Book review : The girl with all the gifts

The girl with all the gifts by M.R. Carey is a fun and a breezy take on dystopia and the survival genre. When I picked a copy of the book, I had a quick flashback of skipping on the trailer of a movie based on the book. My curiosity led me to confirm the large screen translation of the book. I might sit down to watch the movie and condescendingly nod my head in contempt and disapproval some day.

The heart of the tale is the little girl who steals the title of the book. The girl with all the gifts and her world knows her by the name of Melanie. Mel is a smart, intelligent little girl whose curiosity , of her world, knows no bounds. Like any other normal kid, she hates most of her teachers. And then there is Miss Justineau. To Melanie’s eyes, Miss Justineau would be the good witch Glinda when compared to the other teachers who hailed from the east and the west. To Mel, Justineau is loving, kind, gentle, magical and the everything that embodies the good, the fantastic and the warm. Mel loves Justineau and in all fairness, the love and care is reciprocated.

Mel’s life is a routine of sorts. She has her classes. Each day of the week, there is a different teacher. And then there is Miss Justineau day. A day when the sober class comes full of life. Mel and the other kids are usually escorted both in and out of the class from their single room cell. Their school is sober grey. It smells of chemicals.

The adults in the school usually keep a healthy distance from the kids. Throw in a bit of the military guards into the mix. We soon start to realize that Mel’s school is not an ordinary run of the mill kind of a school. Then again, Mel is not an ordinary child. The kids are special in their own right. The adults are scared and wary around them. The kids are handled with utmost care. They are strapped down to their chairs whenever they are escorted out of their cells. The kids are strapped down to the chair when they are in their class. The kids aren’t free to move a muscle when they are in their school. The kids are sprayed with chemicals once a week. They feed once a week.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we aren’t looking at a normal world here. The world has indeed changed. Humanity has changed. The kids hold a secret that ,when unlocked, might prove to be humanity’s redemption.

The fantastic thing about the book is the innocence that Melanie brings to the table. To her young curious eyes, the world is a play ground. Her simple classification of good and bad, nice and not nice is refreshing to the readers. Her love for Miss Justineau is warm. Miss Justineau’s endeavour to protect Melanie is both motherly and does come out beautiful. The innocence serves as a the perfect foil to the intelligence and the impurity of the world around.

The dynamics shared between the characters grows on the readers. Helen Justineau detest the Military bloke Sargent Parks. Her view of the gun slinger is that he’s lost touch with his humanity. Dr Cladwell runs the school. She hates Helen for her zealous compassion towards the kids. Dr Cladwell sees the kids for what they are. They are anomalies who deserve to be dissected and viewed through a microscope. Needless to say, Helen hates the sinister doctor. Melanie loves her favourite teacher and doesn’t bother enough to care for the rest of the world.

The book , in its own way, questions humanity. What does the term mean? Is being human the only criteria for humanity? Are humans humane? In the face of an apocalypse, we humans as a species try to do the best that we can in order to restore normalcy and balance upon our world. In the face of crisis, we suspend humanity for the greater good. While the book is not hard hitting and in your face with opinions expressed, it does embrace subtlety by helping us view the world around through Melanie’s pure , innocent eyes.

The tone of the book remains causal and it does not force opinions or hard thoughts into our minds. You will like Melanie. You will root for her. You will want her to survive and you will tag her along in your journey of the book. This book was a welcome change from my ‘serious’ reading spree. I quite enjoyed the lightness.

It’s not the best tale there is. Melanie is the not sweetest cotton candy ever written, but the tale offers plenty of warmth, smiles and thrills. Skip the movie and give the book a shot. Or just watch the movie instead. I’m positive that the movie probably wouldn’t disappoint.

Oh yeah, almost managed to stay away from the big white elephant in the book. If you’ve reached here, you have earned the right to know about it. Melanie’s world, it’s over run by Zombies 🙂

Karthik

[Book Review] : Tibetan book of the dead

If there was an illusion that could be called the mother of illusion, I think spirituality would be just that.

The Tibetan book of the dead is a fantastic book on spirituality. I’ve not read many books on the matter, so to me, it’s good enough. It just has way too much information that my jaded mind struggles to comprehend.

This review will stay away from the bias of a spiritual aspirant. This is my attempt at writing a non spiritual view of a quintessential spiritual book. Here goes. Fortune favours the brave.

Reverse Engineering : The process is a product to conception approach to problem solving. Just because all the parts and clockwork are there, it doesn’t translate to an easy approach. It does however establish the building blocks required to conjure the final finished product. Life’s biggest antonym is Death. What better way to define life than starting at death and sweeping back to the point of origin. The book of the dead does exactly just that. It’s a book about the list of things that ought to be passed on to folks who are near death. It’s still not a cool idea to say ‘ PSSST, you are gonna konk out bro’ .

Whilst the ideals are to help the near dying transition better into death and beyond, the principles work like a charm if the living were to follow it. That’s like having an issue in the production system, painful escalations and an extensive RCA later, one figures out that blokes did not bother having a review or running a unit test case.

The point is, knowing what matters in the end is a fantastic guideline to accommodate practices while we are still alive and kicking.

Fears , Regrets and messy closet! : Oh but I am trying hard to not sound like a frantic wannabe spiritualist trying to solicit the words of wisdom from a book. Through the eyes of psychology and behaviour, the message is not that difficult to understand. Bottom line, fear. Fear leads to everything else. Fear of failure results in lack of actions which results in regret. Fear of failure leads to insecurity which leads to lack of actions. Fear of failure, leads to inertia which leads to lack of actions. I think when fear paralyses the mind, we find ourselves incapable of progressing with life.

Science offers a way to confront such fears. Fish bone analysis, Root cause analysis, cause and effect analysis, they are all roads to identifying what fails and what the consequences of failures are. One can start with, I get this wrong and my entire life is wasted. By virtue of sitting down and deconstructing the effects of consequence, one might soon realise that not many things usually lead to a life getting wasted. Mess up a delivery, mess up the immediate appraisal. That’s a cause and effect. But assuming that one would always mess everything up hence forth is just paranoia taking creative control over all the choices we stand to make in life.

The worst that can happen is one can lose one’s job. The worst that can happen post that is one may never find a job. The question to ask is, why am I so unemployable? That question alters a lifetime of unemployment. It facilitates options that we had never considered before.

The road to a happy death, and a happy staying alive is taking a stock of the things that scare us crazy. It’s human to fail. It’s human to fear that failure. It’s very human to assume that there is no success ever , after a failure. It is also human to have a bit of a common sense and argue that one has to be an idiot to volunteer to carry out the same set of mistakes over and over again. That special skill is called reluctance to learn , adapt, evolve and grow. Science or spirituality can do very little to help such people from their moment of inertia.

Acceptance and denial: The big deal is, when you are about to die, would you rather accept everything that you’ve done or would you choose to die staying comforted by the talons of denial. Denial is the ability of a person to blame oneself or rest of the world in order to justify why one deserves misery.

Acceptance is the ability of a person to accept that one might have been responsible(partly or in complete) to actions that led to a failure. Acceptance leads to acknowledgement that there is something to learn and something new to adopt to. Acceptance is key to evolution and growth. Either lead a life in denial and face the moment of truth where time doesn’t really matter anymore or make that effort to accept, face your failures, make an effort to call out the different grades of consequences to deal with and live a life of choices rather than feeling helpless and saying ‘i’m going with the flow’.

Forget about the million gods and billion souls. It’s psychology one on one. One either learns or resists. Resistance is futile. Consequences are inevitable. One faces them one day.

Illusions and Illusions of illusions : The biggest take away from the book is that once we reach the choice of acceptance or denial, should one choose to accept, one also sees through the illusions that one has always been surrounded by. We are not talking about the entire world being an illusion. I’d very much like that if that were to be the case. It isn’t. Violence is real. Hunger and poverty is real. Abuse is real. Misery is real. Pain is real.

The things that aren’t real are our forced choices to stay succumbed and imprisoned to the realities. Violence is real and walking away from it is a choice. Hunger is real, but trying hard to stay away from it is a choice. Abuse is real, standing up against it is a choice. We love our excuses. We hide behind words like ‘Insignificance’, ‘Powerless’, ‘What can one person really achieve’, ‘ its my fate’, ‘Destiny’ to stay comfortably numb , connected strong to such illusions.

There is no miracle cure. There are no one stop shops. Embracing science or spirituality for the sole reason of escaping the choices that one couldn’t find the courage to make is the biggest illusion of them all. In that context, Spirituality is the biggest illusion of them all. We are so eager to surrender and embrace something divine in order to distance ourselves from the responsibilities of the choices that we’ve already made and the choices that we hesitate forever to make It boils down to acceptance and denial. We awaken from one illusion only to embrace another.

One doesn’t need to read ancient scriptures or words of the wise to know this simple truth. As kids , we were told stories about god helps those who help themselves. As adults, we hide behind convenience that words from various sources provide.

And so even from a purist skeptic point of view, I do feel refreshingly enlightened by the book. It was easier to distance the imagery and symbolism adopted in the book and associate myself with the lessons that were intended to be imparted. I see the argument of science versus spirituality as a quintessential epitome of pointlessness. They are the same, different words and both leading to the fundamental simple truth. WAKE UP , SMELL THE ROSES, and START LIVING

Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya – From darkness, lead me to light

Karthik