Books

The Accidental Universe

Alan Lightman

The title is intriguing and revealing at the same time, just as the book is. Most of us understand that it required an almost impossible set of coincidences for me to be writing this and you to be reading this! In many ways, it is accidental. And despite the vast developments in science and improvements in technology across time, do we still really know much of the universe we exist in?
It is an awe-inspiring subject, and Alan Lightman uses a series of lenses to frame the universe in ways that give us some understanding about its origins and how it works. From the basic forces that underpin the functioning of the universe, to the way it is constantly changing, to my favourite part – the two paths that have we humans have taken to answering our questions – science and religion – both spiritual in their own right, to the symmetry in design that almost suggests an architect, to the scale that is vastly beyond what we can actually perceive in relation to our immediate world, to its paradoxical love for the predictable and the occasional unpredictable, to the ‘unseen’ but active world of waves and particles, the book provides us snippets of the knowledge that humanity has collected over the years about the universe it inhabits. It also gives us an idea of what we do not know.

Land of the Seven Rivers

Sanjeev Sanyal

Geography through the lens of history, the other way, or both! Whichever way one interprets it, the perspective it offers simply by traversing the length of time from “Gondwana to Gurgaon” is quite amazing.

In trying to unravel the broad contours as well as nuances of an ancient civilisation that continues to thrive, the author covers varying domains – beginning with genetics and tectonics and continuing on to trade, politics, cartography and so on. As the title suggests, the specific area around the seven rivers gets most of the focus. One reason is probably that, the events and transformation that this region has witnessed is relatively much higher than the rest of the country. But in many contexts, the author has given hat tips to other relevant regions/kingdoms. e.g. Vijayanagara, Chola, Muziris. He has also covered population influx and exodus at different points in history, and the influences of both, in India as well as in other geographies.

In terms of history, while it might be arguably selective, the author does cover the Harappa civilisation, the movement of civilisation from the Indus to the Gangetic plains, the Mauryas, Guptas, the dynasties preceding the Mughals, different emperors of the Mughal empire, the British and even the politics and policies of contemporary India that continues to create new contours. It is fascinating to see the change in GDP (global share) and population growth through history, and understand the reasons behind them. More

Mumbai Fables

Gyan Prakash

I have a bit of a strange relationship with Bombay. On the one hand, I am not really fond of the pace of life there, or the sense of collective superiority its citizens (sometimes) seem to exude. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the very idea of the city, and its uniqueness. That is the reason why a lot of Bombay-based books exist on my bookshelf. On hindsight, it does seem strange that Mumbai Fables took this long to find its way there.
This idea of Bombay and the possibilities and promise is what led people from many parts of the country to make the city their home. This, I think, is what fascinates the author too, and this book attempts to understand what makes the city special. It is a historic journey of the city across various domains – geography, art and literature, culture, politics, journalism and business. The narrative is largely linear, with some overlap to cover ground when a new aspect is brought to the discussion.

Yuganta

Irawati Karve

Yuganta is not a linear retelling of the Mahabharata, instead it uses a few characters to do a critical analysis of the epic. At a simplistic level, the basic story thread is indeed communicated, while delving into these characters and placing them in the context of the story. But more importantly, the examination of various characters, their motivations and actions, belief systems and relationships with each other, as well as the societal frameworks of class, makes up most of the book.
Irawati Karve begins with Bhishma and I almost laughed out loud at her systematic takedown of one of the epic’s revered characters. An observation that I really loved – “When a man does something for himself, his actions are performed within certain limits – limits that are set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But let a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, and the normal limits vanish.” The portion on Vidura is also a look into the prevailing caste system, roles in society, and the strict adherence to these rules. This is extended in the chapter on Drona and Ashwathama.
  More

Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari

“Just six million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.” That appears on page 5, and somehow it convinced me that I was going to enjoy this book. Actually, even before that, the framing of the massive exercise of universe creation, and evolution, neatly into physics, then chemistry, and biology is itself a fantastic beginning. This elegance in framing, which extends to the analogies used as well, played a huge role in me recommending this book to pretty much everyone I met, even while I was still reading it.

To continue, after biology, which is the study of organisms, we come to the study of something developed by humans – culture, and that study is history. From as many as six other human species that existed until 100,000 years ago, we were the chosen ones. How did that happen, and how did we get here, that is what the book explores. More

Falling off the map

Pico Iyer

The timestamp for the first chapter is 1990. I imagine myself then, 26 years ago, cognizant of the places being referred to in the book only thanks to an atlas, and a penchant for remembering country-capital-currency courtesy school quizzes. Just text in the head, with no images to go along, in a world before the internet.
What then, are these lonely places? From Iceland up there to Australia down south and from North Korea to the right and Paraguay to the left (ideologically, just the opposite!) Pico writes about seven places (the others being Vietnam, Cuba and Bhutan) that have seemingly exiled themselves from the world. In Pico’s words, “Lonely Spaces are not just isolated places, for loneliness is a state of mind“.
Australia is probably the one place that can be deemed ‘alone’ (in terms of geography) too, but all of the other places are just that – lonely, despite being inhabited by populations vibrant in their own way, or being surrounded by nations that are seemingly not too different from them. “More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled, and it is their very remoteness from the present tense that gives them their air of haunted glamour.”

More

Wanderers, All

Janhavi Acharekar

“Window Seat”, the author’s first work, ranks among my favourites, so I picked this up with much expectation. While it did not really bowl me over, it does have a few things working for it.
The story, or rather stories, is just as the title suggests – journeys. As Kinara’s dad tells her- “it’s about journeys. We’re all on the same one.” At one level, these journeys are physical – the one that Kinara undertakes, aided by a cryptic set of maps and notes from her Dad, who had traced the family’s journey from sixteenth century Goa to twenty first century Mumbai, or the ones that her ancestors Gajanan and Murli made from Khed to Bombay. It is also the journey of Murli, whose story , set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, runs as the parallel narrative to Kinara’s own Goan backpacking trip. And finally, it is also the journey of Bombay – from Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s fierce oratory to the plague to the Quit India movement and the Bombay Docks explosion – as seen through the eyes of Murli, and other characters around him.

The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins

It does have a lot going for it, and I now understand why it has been such a rage. Quite a fresh take on the amnesia thriller, the author makes it easy to connect with Rachel, with whom the story begins – she is the girl on the train. Through her eyes, we see the other characters. The build up in the initial pages – we know something is about to happen – is done really well, and while the multi -first person narrative is not new, the skill with which it has been wielded deserves a thumbs up. It is not just the shift in perspective and the fresh format, but the timing of it that makes the whole thing work. A lot of work seems to have gone into Rachel’s character and the gamut of emotions one feels for her is proof that it is a job well done! But..

In the end, I think it was the expectations that spoiled it for me a bit. That, and the length. The immediate comparison was with the other girl – Gone Girl. I’d totally loved its unpredictability. In this case, there just aren’t enough twists to warrant 300+ pages. Actually, the pace towards the end is fantastic – I read the last 100 pages in one go – but I felt that all of that could have been made more gripping.  More

Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert
The title is quite misleading – this is by no means a self help book! It will not tell you how to become happy. In fact, I’d say that Daniel Gilbert truly appreciates the uncertainty and ambiguity that is happiness, its subjective uniqueness in each human’s mind, and therefore, even when he gives us his perspective on how one can predict the chances of one’s happiness, he underplays it!
I found the book to be a systematic deconstruction of happiness which takes it into realms such as cognitive science, psychology, behavioural economics and even philosophy to a certain extent. Right from the explanation of the literal ‘blind spot’ in our optical mechanism, the ‘deal’ between the eye and the mind, and then using this blind spot as a metaphor for the lacunae in our perception and imagination, it is a fascinating step-by-step analysis of how we perceive happiness, with studies and examples to back it all up. He is also able to point out why our own predictions of happiness regularly go wrong, even on events which are repeats of our own earlier experience!
More

Finite and Infinite Games

James P Carse

The last book that fundamentally affected my way of thinking was ‘Antifragile’. It altered my perspective on ownership, planning, and in general, the approach to various events and things. It remains a favourite. But this book took my thinking to a different plane altogether, and has probably altered it irrevocably. Credit goes to James P Carse for at least two things – one for the thinking that clarified everything around us to this level of ‘simplicity’, and two, for explaining it in a manner that makes it easy to absorb.

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.” From politics and wars to sports and business, finite games are all around us. They are played to be won, and are over when there is a victor. There is only one infinite game and its only purpose is continuing the play. In both, “whoever plays, plays freely.” More