A Strange Kind of Paradise – book review

William Dalrymple called this book a “love letter to India”. I fully agree. “A Strange Kind of Paradise” isn’t intended as a history text-book, nor a dry list of “facts”.

What you have in your hands though, is an incomparable collection of selected writings from non-Indian writers about India as they experienced it through the ages – from the earliest Greek visitors to the modern American ones. From wondrous tales of fantastical tribes (one rumored to have their face on their chest, another took for its “food” the aromas of fruits and flowers) and animals (some dig up gold!) to modern rants about how this country is all about “s*** and filth”, it’s all here. Megasthenes’ amazement the Mauryan palace of Chandragupta to Inman’s (oatmeal.com) characterization of India as “a sun-scorched, scabbed a*****e of a country”, it’s all here. From respect to awe to disillusionment to hatred to derision and scorn, you can find it all.

And yet, for all the facts and profusion of narratives Miller puts in his book, it never feels heavy (nor does the book itself, despite being 400 pages long! :D). It’s a sumptuous feast, a veritable smorgasbord of stories, incidents, anecdotes and experiences. You get a taste of everything that has been said of India through the millennia. And all of this is beautifully interspersed with Miller’s own experiences in, and of, India. It is, at the same time, a history and a part autobiography, a discovery of India and of the self. But not once will you want to skip a page of the author’s journey to get on with your own. From Tony Mango to BBC-Delhi, Miller’s own story is as readable as the foreign narratives, and at times, a lot more pleasant.

You’ll find them all here – Fa-Hsien, ibn Batuta, Babur, Macaulay, Twain, Kipling, Rossellini (did you know he made a film on India?) and so many more. From the famous to the almost unknown, from mythical visitors who made India their home to real ones who never even visited, so many people’s voices are presented to us. And India is there, in all its beauty and ugliness, its grandeur and meanness, its simplicity and its convolutedness, its spirituality and its eroticism. You see how people have come to this land searching for their own idea of India, and for the most part they found it, whatever it might have been.

In the end you realize (unlike many narrators) that India is not a single concept, a genie to be bottled up in one, well, bottle. It never has been. People who thought they had found India had only found the facet they had come to search for here, nothing more. People who didn’t find theirs felt cheated and betrayed. But India was, and is, more than the sum of all that people came here for. From spices to gold to sex to yoga to mysticism to elephants and snake charmers to cheap labour to religion to peace………you can find pretty much all you want to here. But if you attain your goal and go away thinking that you have seen and understood the “real” India, then you are just like those (quite racial) blind mice of Indostan.

And this is the parting message Miller leaves you with. And herein, as he explains, lies the charm and the unsightliness of India. And therein, in that moment of understanding, lies the beauty of Miller’s paean.

I would definitely recommend this book. It’s gentle, funny, sarcastic, and above all, honest. Read it and get a taste of this mass of contradictions you see as a rhomboidal piece of land “somewhere in Asia”, and maybe you will be able to judge it better than Inman.

Time Warped – book review

Let me start by stating that I bought this book by mistake. I thought I was getting a book on the physics of time, of how the perception of time changes with speed for example, and what research is being done in this field.

What I got instead was a book on the biology of time, which, as it turns out, is equally interesting.

“Time Warped” can be roughly divided into two segments. The first, and more interesting, half deals with how our brains process and perceive the passage of time. This is something we take for granted, but when we think about the fact that we are arguably the only specie on the planet to mark the passage of time so methodically, we ought to wonder how our brains manage to do so. Claudia Hammond takes us through a delightful romp through cognition, neuro-chemistry, and neuro-anatomy, as well as the adventures of some intrepid researchers in search of answers to these very questions – how do our brains measure time? Is there a “time centre” somewhere in the cerebral cortex? How do our emotional states affect our perception of time passing?

Equally engrossing are the experiments on how we visualize time, our “mental calendar” as it were. It was surprising to know that even the direction of our script can influence how we see time moving in our mindscape. The answers are still elusive, but the clues are tantalizing!

The second part of the book is more pop-psychology and common sense than anything else. It was a fast read through how events around us and our interaction with them color our perception of how much time has elapsed. The last bits about how we can use this to our advantage are something you could skip with no material loss in knowledge gained. It’s Psych 101 at its most basic.

Taken all-in-all though, I would still recommend this book, both for its engaging and personal style of writing and for the questions it raises about human biology and time. Grab it, no curious mind would be disappointed. 🙂

The Taste of Words – book review

I must start by stating that if you’re into Urdu shayari deeply, this book does not have much to offer you. You would already know the life and times of most Urdu poets and would be well versed in their celebrated works. At most, you might come across a few, lesser known poets and maybe enjoy their works.

As an introduction to Urdu poetry however, this book is invaluable. It is not dense, nor technical,  nor hard to understand. The language is accessible, the translations lucid, the style of writing engaging and personable. Every poet in the book gets a short introduction, with maybe a delightful little anecdote thrown in. The ghazals are chosen with care, and while they might not always be the most famous or best known creations of the authors, do serve to highlight the poet’s style and method of expression.

The Taste of Words is written entirely in English, even the original verse is presented in the English script.  The book is oriented to a reader with little to no understanding of the genre and maybe even the language, and the choice of script emphasizes this.

The Taste of Words is a wonderful entryway into the glorious world of Urdu shayari. If you are intrigued by this art and have always felt overawed by the difficult language, the convoluted idioms, the ornate phraseology, and the even more obscure translations you have come across in other books, this is the book for you. And if after reading this book, you are still not fascinated with Urdu shayari, you can safely conclude that shayari and you aren’t meant to be. 🙂

Your Inner Fish – a review

A very infectious book. Once I started it, I found it hard to put down. The author Dr. Neil Shubin, draws you effortlessly into his world and holds you spellbound with its wonder and majesty.
An excellent first book for anyone still believing that humans are, somehow, “special” and divinely created, separate from the rest of nature. Every chapter takes one characteristic, whether of structure,physiology, or genes, and draws comparisons between humans and other species. The details, while necessarily technical, are presented in a lucid, accessible and very engaging manner. A lay reader would not feel all at sea; even certain complex details are put forth without excessive technical jargon.
The evidence presented, from limb-pattern similarities to DNA to fossil evidence is compelling. But more importantly perhaps, it’s wonder-inducing and, well, just beautiful.
My only gripe? The last chapter is way too short. The whole book seems to me to lead on to it but before you know it, it’s over. I’d suggest that the last chapter might be further elucidated and fleshed out in a whole new book by Dr. Shubin. I’d be standing in line to buy that book!
This book is a great example of how scientific non-fiction ought to be written to make it both interesting and accessible to everyone.
I’d suggest that you buy this book along with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” and read the latter after finishing the first.
In all, “Your Inner Fish” is a very definite “must read” book that fills you with awe and leaves you wanting more.

Early India – a review

Penguin claims this book “brings Indian History to life”. I would posit that this book and its author kill Indian history, dismember the corpse, burn the remains and plod mechanically through the ashes.
Now that I’ve vent my spleen, so to speak, let’s vent a little more. 🙂
This isn’t a book meant for the lay reader or the history buff. If anyone, it is suited for First Year students of BA (History). You lucky guys can just copy-paste paragraphs from the book right into your answer sheets. 😀
To call this book academic would be an understatement; to call it “not interesting” would be an even bigger one. The author consistently fails to grip the reader’s imagination. Nor does she seem interested in gripping his intellect. The book is a series of such a dry, boring iteration of facts (as interpreted by the author) that it seems as if Ms. Thapar has simply transcribed her lecture notes and made a book out of them.
With such a vast tapestry of civilization and culture (in both time and space; one of her favourite phrases) the author fails to capture a single colour, shade or hue, a single thread to weave a riveting narrative with. The author drones on, page after page, enumerating facts (some often repeated throughout the book) and giving her view on how certain events may be interpreted. Which brings me to my next point.
The author’s leftist leanings shine through whenever she pauses to give her personal interpretation of any event. Turk and Persian invaders destroyed many Hindu temples? Well, some Hindu ruler destroyed a temple here or there, so it’s all the same! Chinese scholars visiting India were all praise for the country? Well, they were just trying to build up the image of the land where Buddha was born. In fact, anyone wrote anything in praise of monarchic India? They were surely exaggerating!
But even her leftist viewpoints would have been more palatable or at least forgivable if Ms. Thapar had the writing talents to present her (sometimes unsubstantiated and often poorly supported) theories in a more vibrant and engaging manner.
Unfortunately, there is an utter lack of wit, humor, wonder, passion, warmth…….the author consistently refuses to be drawn into the history she attempts to narrate. While being dispassionate in writing on such a subject is not, in itself, an undesirable quality in an author, Ms. Thapar should realize that there is a lot of difference between being dispassionate and being uninteresting or even worse, disinterested,
The book reinforces my belief that Indian authors of non-fiction should be made to read Sagan, Shubin, even someone as polemic as Dawkins to get some idea on how to present their subject matter in a readable, engaging format.
For me, I’m pretty sure this is the first and last Romila Thapar book I’ll buy.

P.S. All the diagrams in the book (and they’re precious few) are unlabelled. Have fun deciphering them!

Kaurava – Volume 2 of the Aryavarta Chronicles

This is a highly imaginative retelling of the Mahabharat. The author tries to balance the characters on both sides of the battlefield at Kurukshetra, seemingly considering the original text of the epic as a propaganda piece for the victors. What if Duryodhan wasn’t the epitome of evil he is made out to be? What if Yudhisthir wasn’t the paragon of virtue he’s considered today? These and similar assumptions are what the author starts with. To be fair, the original Mahabharat does present its characters in a more balanced fashion than modern, popular fiction portrays them, but here, the scales are driven more towards equilibrium. A very welcome attempt indeed.

The author also reverses many roles, making originally marginal characters the central players of her story. Ashwatthama, Shikhandi, Sanjay, Dhrishtadyumn and others are more centre-stage compared to the Pandavs or Bhishm, to name a few. In this process, the reader’s suspension of disbelief does get stretched now and then, but not to breaking point.

I’m generally not a fan of introducing entire sets of new characters in an established story universe, especially one already well populated as the Mahabharat is. Ms. Udayshankar however, not only introduces such groups (yes, in the plural), but is able to link them into the existing network of characters; the links being at times tenuous and at others more substantial.

Trying to stay true to the major turning points of the original epic, the author is forced to elide over some parts of the story that she finds impossible to explain in her alternate version, most notably in this volume the “Dyut Kreeda” episode where the Pandavs lose their empire.

Ms. Udayshankar is a lot more sensitive to female characters, fleshing them out a little more than they are in popular imagination where they serve more as wallflowers than players. Again, I must point out that the original epic was nearer to the author’s depiction than to popular imagination. That said, I do feel that Draupadi’s “Vastra Haran” carried on for a little longer than it might have.

All in all, a good effort at the rather challenging task of retelling a very well-known story. Ms Udayshankar reimagines many characters, introduces some new ones and re-interprets some events, but still succeeds in not straining the reader’s credulity too much.

I’ll definitely be buying the other two volumes.