Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard
A biologist turned Buddhist in conversation with a philosopher about the meaning of life. If that isn’t interesting by itself, they happen to be son and father. (respectively) World views separated by time and distance. What really works is that Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel have absolute clarity on the points of view they represent, and yet, are not in the discussion to force their perspectives on the other.
The scope of the discussion includes scientific research, metaphysics, politics, psychoanalysis, and obviously religion as both share their perspectives on these topics. In many cases, they seem to arrive at the same destination, but via different paths. More
This was the first time I actually read a Khushwant Singh book. It was the blurb that got me. The idea of three octogenarians in Delhi discussing everything from the weather to sex to politics was intriguing. Not because of the topics themselves, but because I have wondered about the lives of old people, the daily rituals they hold dear, and their perspectives of a changing world. Khushwant Singh was 95 when he wrote this (!) and therefore this would be very close to the real thing. I wasn’t mistaken because I would be very surprised if the character of Boota Singh wasn’t at least semi autobiographical.
Pandit Preetam Sharma and Nawab Barkatullah Baig make up the remainder of the trio, called The Sunset Club, who meet at Lodhi gardens on the Boorha Binch. The book captures a year in the life of these gentlemen, with occasional rear view looks into their past. Through their discussions, the reader gets a sense of the pluralism and the contradictions that make up India. It finds a parallel in their own lives, which are themselves a showcase of many contradictions. More
Arundhati Roy, John Cusack
Given that Ms.Roy is one of the authors, it is only fair to expect a fair amount of radical thought in the book. In just over a hundred pages, it does just that, helped by John Cusack, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, who is described as the Snowden of the 60s.
The content is in the form of observations and conversations with one another. Arundhati Roy is in great form as she articulates thoughts that are not only profound but also vastly out of line with the propaganda that we are so familiar with. After all, even the resistance, as she says, has been quite domesticated. I found some of her observations quite astute. e.g. how “non violence is radical political theatre” and effective only when there is an audience. Or how “human rights are fundamental rights” and should be our minimum expectation, but they have become the maximum, whereas the goal really should be justice! My favourite though was on patriotism – how a country is just really an administrative unit but we end up giving it an esoteric meaning and protecting it with nuclear bombs! More
Yuval Noah Harari
The follow up to Sapiens, and therefore it arrived with huge expectations. To begin with, while this is a progression from the earlier work, it is also a standalone work. The book has three parts which I would broadly classify as past, present and future. The author spends the first third of the book summarising what he wrote in Sapiens, and if you have read that book, especially recently, you might find yourself muttering “Why doesn’t he get on with it?”
To be fair, he outlines his broad premise right at the beginning – having (relatively) conquered hunger, disease and war, humanity’s next agenda would be to master happiness, immortality and divinity. The path to that is what Yuval Noah Harari slowly but surely proceeds to elaborate on.
The second part of the book is where Harari sets the premise and context for the future by analysing the present. As is his wont, he goes about dissecting the origins of our current belief systems and the occurrences that have led us to what he calls humanism, and our collective belief in man’s central role in the scheme of things. More
Manu S Pillai
Absolutely fantastic, and the strange thing is, if you had asked me when I was even at about page 400 (out of 555) I probably would have used milder adjectives. I also wouldn’t have thought (at that point) that I was likely to change my opinion later because knowing the direction, I didn’t think the last 100 or so pages would even be interesting to me. But while they’re not really the focus of the book, and more an inevitable ending, it (to me) is what delivered the texture that mattered most.
But let’s begin at the beginning. The focus of the book is definitely Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was the Regent of Travancore from 1924-31, but the author spends the first section of the book in setting the context. The canvas is vaster than Travancore itself and everything from the fall of the Zamorin and the entry of Europeans to the evolution of the intricacies that decide the ruler of the land and the prevalent socio cultural setting sets the stage for the reign of the Senior Maharani. More
History is not usually kind on its readers, and changing that is probably the biggest advantage this book has to offer. The author makes history accessible through a largely simple narrative and writing style. While he has taught history, I don’t think he is a historian. Thus it isn’t based on what one might call ‘original research’ but more an aggregation of sources. Indeed, the book cites a large number of sources for the information it gives.
The ‘seeding’ begins long before humans arrived on the scene, when plate tectonics created the land mass that is now called the Indian subcontinent. The geological results – the Himalayas that act as a barrier, the fertility of the land etc – have had huge implications on how the civilisation in this part of the world has evolved.
The book moves on to the Indus Valley civilisation, the influx of the Aryans and the Rig Vedic times, the later Vedic times, and in the process, touching upon quite a few popular misconceptions. This entire shift is obviously significant from a civilisational and cultural point of view, but it is also interesting to see the theatre of action shift from the Indus to the Ganga. The societal and cultural milieu is also explained well, using the texts of the time – the Vedas and Upanishads. More
At the beginning of the third chapter, the author asks us to imagine a world where there is only one operating system. In such a world, it would be difficult to imagine another OS, or even think of the OS as something that need not be the way it is. That, in a nutshell, is what money has become. “Central currency is the transactional tool that has overwhelmed business itself; money is the tail wagging the economy’s dog” because “money makes money faster than people or companies can create value”. The proof of it is in the abstractions that have come up in history – the stock exchange was an abstraction of commerce, and the derivatives market its further abstraction. The author notes how fitting it was when in 2013, a derivatives exchange had enough ‘value’ to buy the NYSE, its own creator of sorts!
My introductory paragraph, and the title itself might give you the idea that this is some kind of a call for a bloody revolution against capitalism and technology. But it isn’t. The title is based on an incident in 2013 and in fact, the author notes how Google, using its buses, is actually doing its bit to protect the environment. He proceeds to ask “since when has doing the right thing become the wrong thing?” The buses, he argues, are soft targets, and the real culprit is a program that promotes growth above all else. So if the book is a call for revolution, it is against the concept of growth for growth’s sake, because such growth is the enemy of prosperity. More
“You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question : what else have I done wrong?” That is the disturbing thought I was left with on the penultimate page of the book. But it wasn’t always that way, you know.
Tony Webster is the narrator of his own life’s story. In the first part, which is about one third of the book, he sets up the context and the characters. There is a deceiving flippancy and brevity about this section of the book, and Tony does seem very capable of being true and objective about his own life. It’s only towards the end of it that one got even a whiff of a suspicion that something different lay ahead.
In the second section, the ‘peacable’ life that Tony desired (or did he?) is his. Even as he celebrates the ordinariness, we do get the other side by his own admission – “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was” and “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.” But it is when he gets the bequest from someone he met 40 yeas ago, and exactly once, that the story really unravels into a “what is really happening here?” mode. More