Speaking of books

As always, waiting for Anush to put up his list before I work through mine. But like last year, some cud chewing on the books I read.

I managed 45 last year. As against 47 in 2015. In terms of number of pages read, I was some 2000 pages short of 2015. That’s almost 6 decent length books short! How did that happen? I can only point fingers at the months of June and July. It was a pretty torrid time at home, and reading wasn’t on top of my list those months. It is a considerable achievement that I actually managed 45 when I look back.

And I also felt a lot more friction from some books. I went into Philip Ball’s Life’s Matrix: A biography of water, expecting a typical well-written non-fiction book. It was only non-fiction with a lot of chemistry thrown in. I worked my way through it for the most part. James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science” was somewhat similar, but he somehow salvages it. I just could not get in too deep into it.

But in terms of Non-Fiction, the number kept increasing and I managed a decent 15 of them, exactly a third of all the books read! Of course, they weren’t all “science”, but included a biography, memoirs, people’s real life stories about mental health issues, and some travel writing too. But still, it wasn’t someone weaving stories.

I really wish I had discovered more new authors though. It was the same beat as the previous years more or less. I wasn’t too impressed. Yes, I discovered Jorge Borges, but reading him isn’t easy. It takes a hell of a lot of concentration! There were the usuals – Murakami, Barnes, McCall-Smith, and a Terry Pratchett. I read Paul Kalanithi, the book. The tragedy of it being the only one he would ever write.

I missed Kawabata, and did not find any other works of Mishima. But I did discover Anjum Hasan. Sadly, only Cosmopolitans is left and it hasn’t reviewed as well. I finished the trilogies I started in 2014. The Alexander trilogy of Mary Renault, and the Gormenghast trilogy of Mervyn Peake were done and dusted.

When I look back, it wasn’t as great a year for reading, as 2015 was. I loved 2015 in terms of the books I read. So many of them have stayed with me – Kawabata, Ondaatje, Gordimer, Dalrymple, Gawande, Mishima, Munro, and oh, Salinger! Each one something to immerse myself in. It was a great year for reading!

I guess am being a bit uncharitable on myself. This was the year I went exploring. Whitaker’s work on psychiatric medicines was very enlightening. Burkeman’s book on “happiness” was extremely timely. Borges was hard work, but necessary. So many other works talk of his works, or refer to that. Siddhartha Mukherjee and Josy Joseph were among the best reads this year. Glad Mukherjee was writing again! Amitav Ghosh’s Derangement was an excellent and necessary take on the biggest crisis we are facing.

Yes, it wasn’t as enjoyable as 2015, but it was a good set nonetheless. Would I be gifting any books from this lot? Not too likely. They aren’t things people would really enjoy.

I do want to find more books that I’ll enjoy and remember. I want something like “H is for Hawk”, like “Em and the big hoom”, like “Levels of the game”, like “The Devourers”. Books that leave you with a tinge of regret, that you’re now done with them, and won’t read them for the first time ever again.

I want that feeling for 2017.

Being Mortal

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While reading I debated whether to write a review or not. In the end, I guess I’ll just note down some thoughts as I ran through the book towards the end.
It’s not easy to avoid thoughts. All those you loved and have lost, those grandparents, those uncles, keep floating in and you do end up evaluating the end of their journeys against what Gawande has to say.

I couldn’t help thinking of Thatha, mom’s father, who passed away at home, after struggling with all kinds of organ failures for months. I remember the talk of how the last hours of his life were peaceful and he got to eat and live normally for a few days. I thought of thatha (dad’s father), and his last days, and how he refused to be fed by his daughter, angrily insisting that he’ll sit and eat. More than that I thought of my Ammummais, both of them without any memory or consciousness in their last days, in hospitals, passing away alone as everyone else was at work, or just about reaching the hospitals from home. It isn’t easy, the business of growing old and dying. As he says, you have a trajectory of normalcy and then blips start showing in the graph and you go in a final flurry of suffering, tied to multiple machines in a hospital.

Am still in my 30s, but I can’t help being increasingly aware of my own mortality. Much more than when I was in my 20s, at least. I think of my parents and wonder about their support system in my absence. I know many who are close to me say that I obsess over them, and put them at a higher priority than needs to be, but I really wish I had an answer, or a balance. Unless you’re talking of clear moral rights and wrongs, how do you draw a line?

I thought of different inputs over time. That wasn’t hard. I do actively seek out topics like this. There was The Ballad of Narayama(1958), told in Kabuki style of a village where when a person reaches 70 years, he/she is taken by his/her son on his shoulders and left in the mountain of Narayama to starve to death. A constant cycle of birth and death, strictly controlled in a village where food is a scarcity. And yes, I wept through most of the movie.

I thought of Summer Hours (2008), about a lonely parent and faraway children, and the very clichéd, but quite true – life goes on – in the face of inevitable death. The endless cycle in a way. How else would we be alive today, from some ancestor thousands of years back.

There was Tim Kreider’s excellent essay on growing old and the lack of romanticism in incontinence and dying memory. Ah, how much I relate to him!

There was, of course, Michael Ignatieff’s Scar Tissue, which deals mostly with Alzheimer’s and memory loss, but nevertheless evokes strong feelings for me.

I thought of Jerry Pinto’s Em and The Big Hoom, mainly for the strong bonds that sustain families and get them sailing through rough waters.

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About the book itself, even though the topic is heavy, the author does a great job of keeping it flowing. There are more case studies and actual patients than constant lecturing, which helps. With medical non-fiction, have always liked a “show and tell” approach, and it works surprisingly well. Maybe we just relate to people and their experiences better than to concepts. I found it touching that he actually practised the whole idea of letting his father have a choice in how he wanted to go and did ensure he had a good last few months, at least as good as could be allowed. Am not too religious, but I somehow liked the ending being in a boat in the middle of the Ganga.

I do understand the idea of letting people choose, but as he himself points out, it isn’t always easy. Yes, there are ways to ask the questions, but can everyone articulate a correct answer? As he shows with one particular patient, the tradeoffs aren’t always clear. And more importantly, how easy will it be to let go and say “I did the right thing”? Won’t there be regrets? Or worse, relatives who want another approach to be taken, and can be surprisingly aggressive about it.

In death, as in life, I guess there are no easy answers.

What can I recommend for you?

“Recommend a book for me” asks a friend. I get such requests from cousins too. For someone who finishes close to 30 books each year, I really struggle. Not that there’s a dearth of good books I read, but these requests usually come with a rider, like “something light, the previous one was heavy.” How do I go about this business?

To be honest, every time someone asks me for a reco, I open up goodreads diligently, go through the list and draw a proper blank. This year, the reading has been especially heavy. Last year at least I buffered hard ones with lighter ones. But even then, the lighter ones were mostly Sci-fi and RKN. This year, I got bitten badly by one RKN (The financial expert) which, all of 220 pages, seemed extremely difficult to finish. Somehow I never got interested much in Margayya’s financial doings.

Of course there was also the epic ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ last year, but am usually wary of recommending such books to friends. It’s not up to everyone’s taste and needs a special kind of bookworm to bore through 6 books set in 10th Century Tamilnadu. The Kannada books of course are not recommendable to most friends or relatives as most don’t read much Kannada.
Continue reading “What can I recommend for you?”

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

I believe I’ve passed the stage where it was just a super-cool story, a famous author name and paper turning thrills that drew me to a book. These days there are different things, mostly little ones. Like the language, the choice of words, the metaphors and a myriad little things that I can relate to. Sometimes tiny paragraphs that make you want to re-read them, just for the joy it gives you! Sometimes the book is a plod, like ZAMM, but when you can relate to it, it just moves somehow at whatever pace. I guess eventually, you measure a book by what it has than the number of pages in it and they are never linearly related.

A gift from my sis meant that I started reading this book : Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. I don’t think I’ll be doing a proper review kind of post for it, but will leave you with this excerpt.

Squirrels and Rats

Two similar problems. Two very different solutions.

Ever since the sparrows vanished from de Saram Road, squirrels have taken their place, scurrying into our homes and helping themselves to fruits. Kusuma and Sheila position a stool under the araliya tree and place  a tray of nuts upon it. They convert a broken clock into a makeshift bird bath. As the man of the house I should be helping, but I have typing to do. They sit on the veranda and coo at the bushy tails helping themselves to my beer snacks. ‘Aney darling, sweet, no?’ says Sheila.

Rats have been enjoying free dinners from our kitchen bin. Every other evening we hear Kusuma’s shrieks as a well-fed pig-rat escapes into the pantry. We respond with carpenters who mesh-wire the windows and lay poison behind the cooker and rat-traps in the cupboards. Three days later, when the kitchen starts to smell of corpses, I am called to locate and dispose of twitching bodies.

It is while scraping bloodied fur wrapped in tail and innards into rubbish bags that I spy three squirrels fighting over my manyokka crisps. I realize that humans respond to squirrels and rats on a primal level. One makes us want to squeeze cheeks and go aney, the other makes our skin curl.

Sheila and Kusuma tell me that rats are disease-carrying vermin and that squirrels are nature’s little gatherers. But these are not true reasons. We post-justify our prejudice. We respond to rats with revulsion as we do to certain people, without any idea why. We gravitate towards humans with bushier tails for reasons we cannot fathom. Puchipala may get away with murder, while my friend Jonny may be falsely accused of it.

Ari plays me a spool of an Indian batsman complaining to the umpire that the crowd is shining mirrors at his eyes. The umpire’s response is clear and his voice is somewhat familiar. ‘Play on. This is not Calcutta.’ The sound quality breaks up and we hear a young Sri Lankan voice insisting that the umpire apologize to the batsman. Ari claims the voice belongs to Pradeep Mathew. I am sceptical. We hear the Skipper’s voice asking the bowler to shut up. The spool is marked ‘Indya test seris 85’.

Pradeep Mathew was perhaps more rat than squirrel. Not so much the polecat beast that roams our roof, but more akin to the grey kitchen mouse that no one fears, but no one wants to touch. The world mistook his shyness for contempt and misinterpreted his passion as belligerence.

There have been many times in my life when I have wished I was more of a squirrel. These days I’m glad I’m not.

I guess what differentiates and stands out authors is not so much what they say, but how they say it. When you have two wizened old drunks trying to make sense of their lives through cricket and the pursuit of a mysterious bowler who played a few games for Sri Lanka, its a heady cocktail that you just can’t shouldn’t miss. 

Book review

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

It was mid September when I made a trip to Coimbatore and Palakkad during my break, between Masters and job, in Bangalore. In Coimbatore, at my aunt’s place I picked up Shantaram. 

 had recommended this book during my last trip to Bangalore, end of 2006 and early 2007. After reading a couple of other books which I had picked up at my aunt’s place, I decided to start off with Shantaram

The first paragraph, which I’ve quoted above, grips you and takes you on a roller coaster ride, raging through the slums of Bombay, the city’s underworld and then its a heart wringing story of love, betrayal, death, depression, the stoic revival of a soul from the depths of heroin addiction and eventually war where an entire belief system is shaken. The best thing about the book is not that it is non-fiction, but the author’s gift with words. Its almost a miracle someone as gifted with words as Gregory Roberts was put through all those experiences. The way the author reaches into his deepest thoughts and feelings and pulls out words to match them is simply astounding and makes for compelling reading. Sample this:

“One of the reasons we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help youfind them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.”

When I started out reading this, I thought it was like Maximum City. However, while Maximum city was about the city of Bombay, in Shantaram the city becomes a character by itself, like a silent spectator watching the events as they unfold, but with a constant and influential presence in the background which you just cannot forget or wish away. The ending really made me feel empty as if arriving at a reluctant destination at the end of a refreshingly beautiful journey. It didn’t help that I was coming to the very end of my vacation in Bangalore at the same time.

Unlike most books dealing with love between a man and a woman, Gregory Roberts also explores and dissects the love he feels for a friend he reveres as a brother and a mentor in whom he sees a father, and the reluctant love for a child he is forced to mentor. If you thought “The Da Vinci Code” was the best book you’ve read, you’ll like the story and its pace here. But well, if you thought it was just a piece of pop-fiction trash, not meant for serious readers, you’ll end up living his experiences through his thoughts.

The book’s end is a bit abrupt, but later came to know that the author is planning a sequel or rather has almost finished penning the remaining of his experiences in Bombay.

For more stuff on Shantaram and to get a better perspective about the book, watch these videos:
Shantaram: Part 1 
Shantaram: Part 2
Shantaram: Part 3
Shantaram: Part 4
Shantaram: Part 5
 
(Thanks to 

 for the video links).