Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Perfect Book for a Literature Lover

Long time back I had read a Malayalam book by Guru Nithyachaitanya Yathi titled Soundaryam, Anubhavam, Anubhoothi which was a collection of his essays on literature and arts. I was astounded by the way he takes apart the text, connects it with history, his own experiences, and other classics of past and comes up with fantastic insights about it. It changed my perceptions about reading and appreciating books. I used to be a voracious reader, with sole aim of finishing the book in hand as fast as possible and starting the next one. I used to skim a lot of sentences and paragraphs and properly read only that portions which dealt with the story. But Yathi’s book taught me how to really read a book. I won’t claim I am wiser now, or that I can decipher cryptal messages from the books that I read or that I am even trying to. But I hope this book that I read recently may take me onwards.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, written by Thomas C Foster, an American professor of English, has an interesting tagline- A lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines. He starts the book with an incident that happened when he was discussing Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun in his class. He points out that Mr. Lindner in the play is actually the Devil himself, his students never believe him.  Even after he explains his reasons, his class thinks he is making it up. The Professor explains that there is a ‘language of reading’ which is a skill that comes with a bit of practice and experience. In the preceding chapters, the trick of reading books with a Professor’s eye is revealed. 

The aim of the book is to help the reader understand the technique of reading in between lines- to find the patterns in a text, to read the hidden meanings behind the images in it or to find out connections it has with other previously written works. All these immensely help in appreciating the depth of literature and add to the pleasure of enjoying it. Author, with the help of many examples demonstrate different connections, patterns or images that repeat many times in different contexts. In the first chapter he demonstrates how a quest story is formed, when a knight follows a dangerous road in search of a Holy Grail. The contexts may differ, but the essence remains same. He goes on demonstrating how scenes of communion, vampirism, seasons, climate, geography, violence, disease, deformities or sex can be interpreted to find meanings of deeper social, political or psychological value. He also points out the most popular connections with previous works- Shakespeare, Bible, Greek epics and even fairy tales.

The witty and easily understandable language of the Professor makes the journey easy for us. But if we are to truly benefit from the book, it is not enough to just read it. Lot of practice is required, as well as good background knowledge, a step to which the author himself provides. A beautiful story by Katherine Mansfield is given in the last of the book for the reader to put use of his knowledge gained form the book. Analysis by some of the author’s students is also provided.

A word of caution for non- English readers- as the author is an English Professor; he deals mostly with English and to some extent European literature, where the aesthetics and values are derived from a Jewish/Christian background. For reading books from other cultures, say Chinese or Indian books, the pointers in this book may not be sufficient. Still this book can help to point out places to look in order to find the connections. All in all this is the perfect book for a literature lover, and added bonus is the great bibliography at the end of the book.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

One Straw Revolution: Zen & the Art of Organic Farming

In recent times there is a surge in the number of middle class people cultivating vegetables in Kerala. The reason- reports of widespread use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides in vegetables available in market.  If recent reports are to be believed, everything- food grains, pulses, vegetables, milk, poultry, fish and meat- comes to us adulterated. The frightening result is that people from Kerala are increasingly prone to severe lifestyle diseases. All the while, government has no efficient system to identify this malpractice and curb it. Organic vegetables are suddenly becoming a rage in the market, but the sellers are charging premium rates for the products. One visible improvement is that people are slowly getting warmed up to the idea of cultivating at-least some of the essential food products in whatever space available with them.

Now, in our industries we have this fetish for trying out Japanese innovations- Poke-yoke, Kaizen, Kanban, 5S and a lot many systems that are the pillars of Japanese efficiency. We use them injudiciously with varying success results.  It was with this background that I read this little book titled One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer who invented the clever philosophy of Do-Nothing farming. This is a book that I feel each one of us should definitely give a try. Don’t panic by seeing its title. The book is not a text book on organic farming. It is one part autobiography and one part vision statement or I would prefer to say philosophy of Fukuoka. It is a rather simple and straight forward account.

Instead of using chemicals and large scale machinery equipment, Fukuoka claims that working in tandem with nature can achieve better results and keep the land perennially fertile. He stresses the importance of using common sense, studying the way things grow in nature and copying it to achieve results. Also Fukuoka places great importance in ethics of agriculture- food production should never be a business. The primary reason for cultivation should be self- consumption and then surplus can be sold outside.  The philosophy of Fukuoka is to make things simple by avoiding any unnecessary complications. He ridicules the agricultural scientists and engineers who visit his farm, which gives same level of production as that of neighboring farms which make use of machinery and complicated procedures.

In Fukuoka’s vision, a farmer should be a philosopher, a monk and a poet. I loved his argument that organic food should cost way less than regular products because the manufacturing cost is considerably low. He details his methodology in this book, but cautions that the reader should not just copy his method, but should adopt and fine tune it according to the geography and the crop. For this deep observation of nature and several trials may be necessary. He warns the reader not to be fooled by the wording Do-Nothing farming. It takes some time for the soil, inflicted by the chemical abuse to regain its fertility.  He says that we are unnecessarily straining ourselves by taking up the work that nature can do much more efficiently than us. Finding out such wastages can really help overworked farmer to spare some valuable time to sit back and relax, enjoy life’s little pleasures and even be a bit lazy!

Friday, April 24, 2015

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

English biologist Richard Dawkins wrote his best-seller God Delusion in 2006. It is, as its title suggests, a book that criticizes the concept of God that is propagated by religion and that tries to put science in that mantle. It also exposes the troubles of being an atheist in Christian society and the common prejudices faced by atheists. Dawkins uses Darwin’s evolution theory and natural selection to prove that the probability of the existence of God as described in Abrahamic religions is almost nil. As expected, the book turned out to be very controversial with many theologians criticizing it bitterly in diverse forums.

The book has ten chapters, each one building on the previous in systematically proving the improbability of God and that religion is not basically responsible for virtues in humans. In the first chapter he quickly points out that, by God he doesn’t mean the Einsteinian God, but the interventionist God, that creates life, judges and metes out punishments.  Next he takes up different arguments for God, especially the one that states that the perfect designing of universe requires a master creator and one by one puts forth his rebuttals for each of them.

Dawkins is aware of the argument that even if there is no entity called God, religion is still essential for common people in-order to maintain its morals in society. In the remaining chapters he tries to reveal the fallacy of this argument by proving that morality and good virtues that we display are not due to the presence of religions among us. As per him religion occurred as a byproduct of an acquired human skill to transfer knowledge by believing one’s elders and following them. He is critical of Christianity’s stand with abortion. Dawkins also deals with several social issues created by religious faith- psychologically damaging and corrupting the minds of kids, leading them discard reason to become blind followers, commodification of women and forcing them out of the mainstream of society and creation of unnecessary divisiveness and friction in society.

In God Delusion, Dawkins put forward compelling arguments against a God figure that designed the universe, judge the inhabitants and punishes them. Majority of his arguments are built around Christian and Jewish faiths and predictably they end up his punching bags. He touches upon Islam. I agree with the logic of several of his arguments. Evolution indeed can solve many a puzzles in human history. I am also wary of the tendency of religions to fill in the gaps left by science. Dawkins’ language is witty and that makes the book an easy read though a bit toning down on the scorn that he exhibits towards religions could have made it more palatable. God Delusion helped me in appreciating the theory of evolution much more.  Fortunately, in this part of the world we don’t have the big fight in education system between Evolution and Creation.

One difference of opinion that I have with Dawkins concerns with the bifurcation of religion and spirituality. I believe that spirituality is something personal that exists beyond the realms of organized religion. It basically deals with introspection- something that is lacking in Abrahamic religions and is the core of Sanatani faiths- Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Though these religions have, to some extent degenerated in their later periods, loosely imitating Abrahamic faiths and displaying sectorial tendencies, I feel the individual nature of faith and the inquisitiveness inbuilt in them still stand tall. This introspection is basically for knowing and realizing the full potential of self- of body and mind in tandem with nature, and subsequently for attaining the ultimate knowledge that My self and this Universe are in essence the same.    

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: Autobiography of a Mad Nation by Sreeram Karri

I was born in a mentally retarded country.

Sreeram Karri's explosive novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation starts with this sentence. It gives the feel that this is going to be another long rant about all that is wrong with contemporary India. And it is, in a way. But on careful reading of the book we find that, what shines beneath is pure love for the nation. The novel, published by Fingerprint is longlisted for MAN Asian Literary Prize.

The novel starts with a rant by a young aspiring writer, Vikrant in death gallows awaiting President's mercy. Retired CBI chief Vidyasagar sets forth to find the truth by doing an unofficial investigation after a request from the President. He discovers that it is not a one off incident and there is more than what meets the eye to be discovered. A group of influential men are running manipulations behind the screens an trying to alter the course of Indian history. Is it for good or for bad?

Autobiography of a mad nation is a murder mystery in the outset. At the same time it serves as a look back into the bizarre and insane past of our nation. On one side a fast paced story unfolds parallel to the important historical incidents fom Indira Gandhi's emergency to Gujarat riots, while on the other we are served with some honest social an political observations that need not be on the politically correct realm.

The novel has a nonlinear narrative structure which unfolds in two paths- one is a first person narration of the fictional novel written by Vikrant and second is the actual story of the murders, coverup and investigation told mostly in flashbacks. The narration is stylish and intense. There is no doubt that Sriram Karri is a gifted storyteller wih enough honest passion to make the reader careful for his story and even gives it a serious thought while enjoying it.

The author should be appreciated for his guts to criticise the harmful elements of society without any political or religious bias. Many of the readers will surely be offended by the courage of Karri to call a spade, a spade. One complaint that I have to make is about the solution that the novel hints. I feel it may be ineffective, even extremely dangerous in long run. Yet I enjoyed reading this well crafted, powerful novel about contemporary India and would recommend it to anyone who feels at any point o time that they're living in an insane nation.

Book source: Publisher

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Staying One Step Ahead.

I received this email a few days back and thought it worthy of sharing with my readers. Enjoy:
The Taj hotel group had invited Mr. Masai Imai from Japan to hold a workshop for its staff.
The staff were very skeptical - the hotel is doing excellent business, this person from Japan has no exposure to hotel industry - what exactly is he going to teach?
But everybody gathered as planned for the workshop in the conference hall sharp at 9 am.
Mr. Masai was introduced to them - a not so impressive personality, nor the English all that good; spoke as if he was first formulating each sentence in Japanese and then translating it into rather clumsy English.
"Good morning! Let's start work. I am told this is a workshop; but I see neither work nor shop. So let's proceed where work is happening. Let's start with the first room on the first floor."
Mr. Masai, followed by the senior management, the participants, the video camera crew trouped out of the conference room and proceeded to the destination.
That happened to be the laundry room of the hotel.
Mr. Masai entered the room and stood at the window, "beautiful view!" he said.
The staff knew it; they need not invite a Japanese consultant to tell them this!
"A room with such a beautiful view is being wasted as a laundry room. Shift the laundry to the basement and convert this into a guest room."
Aa Haa! Now nobody had ever thought about that!
The manager said, "Yes, it can be done."
"Then let's do it," Mr. Masai said.
"Yes sir, I will make a note of this and we will include it in the report on the workshop that will be prepared." Manager
"Excuse me, but there is nothing to note down in this. Let's just do it, just now." Mr. Masai.
"Just now?" Manager
"Yes, decide on a room on the ground floor/basement and shift the stuff out of this room right away. It should take a couple of hours, right?" asked Mr. Masai.
"Yes." Manager.
"Let's come back here just before lunch. By then all this stuff will have got shifted out and the room must be ready with the carpets, furniture etc. and from today you can start earning the few thousand that you charge your customers for a night."
"Ok, Sir." The manager had no option.
The next destination was the pantry. The group entered. At the entrance were two huge sinks full of plates to be washed.
Mr. Masai removed his jacket and started washing the plates.
"Sir, Please, what are you doing?" the manager didn't know what to say and what to do.
"Why, I am washing the plates", Mr. Masai.
"But sir, there is staff here to do that." Manager Mr. Masai continued washing, "I think sink is for washing plates, there are stands here to keep the plates and the plates should go into the stands."
All the officials wondered - did they require a consultant to tell them this?
After finishing the job, Mr. Masai asked, "How many plates do you have?'
"Plenty, so that there should never be any shortage." answered the Manager.
Mr. Masai said, "We have a word in Japanese -'Muda'. Muda means delay, Muda means unnecessary spending. One lesson to be learned in this workshop is to avoid both. If you have plenty of plates, there will be delay in cleaning them up. The first step to correct this situation is to remove all the excess plates."
"Yes, we will say this in the report." Manager.
"No, wasting our time in writing the report is again an instance of 'Muda'. We must pack the extra plates in a box right away and send these to whichever other section of Taj requires these. Throughout the workshop now we will find out where all we find this 'Muda' hidden."
And then at every spot and session, the staff eagerly awaited to find out Muda and learn how to avoid it.
On the last day, Mr. Masai told a story.
"A Japanese and an American, both fond of hunting, met in a jungle. They entered deep jungle and suddenly realized that they had run out of bullets. Just then they heard a lion roaring. Both started running. But the Japanese took a short break to put on his sports shoes.
The American said, "What are you doing? We must first get to the car."
The Japanese responded, "No. I only have to ensure that I remain ahead of you."
All the participants engrossed in listening to the story, realized suddenly that the lion would stop after getting his victim!
"The lesson is: competition in today's world is so fierce, that it is important to stay ahead of other, even by just a couple of steps. And you have such a huge and naturally well endowed country. If you remember to curtail your production expenditure and give the best quality always, you will be miles ahead as compared to so many other countries in the world.", concluded Mr. Masai.