Books

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.
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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.”

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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!
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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

Solo

Rana Dasgupta

I remember liking Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta’s earlier (and first) work of fiction. When I first came across Solo, its blurb content for some reason made me stay away. I remembered the leaps of imagination and thought I might not be able to keep pace. Recently, I read his non-fiction work ‘Capital’ and thoroughly loved it. And thus Solo arrived on my bookshelf.

A blind old man in Bulgaria, cared for by his neighbours, and dependent on them for many of his basic needs, reminiscing about the days gone by, might seem like a rather dry premise to base a novel on, but it magnificently surprised me. Ulrich is nearing the end of his life’s tenth decade and has lived through years of Bulgarian political experiments as the country’s elite switched their ideologies through the great wars and after. His early well-provided-for life contrasts sharply with the poverty of his later years, and the steadily declining quality of his life is poignant in itself. Through Ulrich’s perspective and experiences we see the socio-economic changes that take place in the country, and the author is able to do justice to both the suddenness of some of them as well as the gradual nature of the others. The sensitivity with which the author narrates a life that’s fallen on hard times that’s truly wonderful. More

This Divided Island : Stories from the Sri Lankan War

Samanth Subramanian

We visited Lanka in 2010, just after the war had ended. Reading this book, and on hindsight, I think we underestimated the seriousness of what the country had gone through. I remember the undercurrent of bitterness in a conversation I overheard while sitting in a Colombo cafe. Directed at Rajapaksa, whose smiles beamed down on you every time you looked around, it was about how he was presiding over a reign of terror. I was surprised, because I thought everyone would be happy that the war had ended. Another instance I remember clearly – driving through Trincomalee and seeing some lovely beaches, I asked the driver to stop so we could walk a bit. He laughed ruefully and said that entry was restricted. The soldiers were clearing the area of land mines and a walk there might relieve me of limbs or even life!
When I wrote the travel log, I had the luxury of making these footnotes, but this book is a visceral breakdown of what Lanka went (and still goes) through. The war might have ended, but the scars remain fresh. I haven’t read any war or post war accounts, and therefore lack the perspective to compare, but I do know that this book really brings out the futility of such human conflict. The battle has very less to do with good and evil, because both sides have very little territory to occupy on moral high grounds. A line from Star Wars comes to mind “you have become the very thing you swore to destroy”. Prabhakaran’s treatment of fellow Tamils is about as bad as what the Lankan army inflicted on them. As a Lankan Tamil says in the book, the Tigers first lost the war “for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils” before it lost the other war.

The Road to Character

David Brooks

The concept of the book is something I could easily relate to. In fact, it reminded me of a favourite concept from the Mahabharata – Jaya and Vijaya. Vijaya is victory over others, and Jaya is victory over self. In this book, the author writes about two sides of our nature – one that is ambitious and career oriented, and another that is more concerned with the moral battles within.

He calls the former the ‘Big Me’ culture, where the focus is on the individual – be it consumption, or self actualisation. The alternate is where the individual has the humility to understand that he is part of a much bigger picture and through what the author calls ‘eulogy virtues’ builds relationships and moral standards. Using examples across history, walks of life, gender and race, he illustrates how some people have built themselves a moral fibre slowly but surely. He then uses the lessons from these as a contrast to the excesses of our age – from contexts that range from parenthood to social media.

The journeys of the individuals are in themselves fantastic reads. The chapter titles are a clue to the thrust of the arguments within – self conquest, struggle, self mastery etc – and the author does a great job of tracing the tribulations, and the moral ascent of the people involved. My favourite would be George Eliot. Across the vast stretches of time that separates us, her words spoke to me. More