Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Curious Minds

This little feller was in class VI when the story starts - tempestuous, enthusiastic, curious, a devil for his mom to deal with.

That sweaty afternoon, he was perched on the storage shelf (paranai) of his room, suspended near the roof, with a less-than-minimum-length shorts and an undershirt (banian) covered with sand from the recent game of push-me-off-the-mound, hair riddled with cobwebs and eyes eagerly searching for ancestorial treasures from the past, banished to the dark confines of the paranai by the wise-women in his household. The war with the annoyingly hyperactive silverfish was finally won as he dug out a tattered biographic compilation of Edison, Bell, Morse and a long list of other brilliant inventors. The pages were brown and about to break apart but the book itself begged to be devoured on sight. Compliance was prompt. The next year, he built a fountain for his garden, a model crane to remove iron filings from sand (Mittal, beware!) and a model winch to carry his workers to the mines...

I still remember this book 15 years later. It was uttely fascinating then, as it is now, and inspired me on a geeky path of wanting to peer into the unknown. "Curious minds", a similar book, is a collection of short autobiographical essays by various scientists (including David Buss, Robert Sapolsky, Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson and V. S. Ramachandran) - physists, sociologists, primatologists and neuroscientists among others. Each of them writes about childhood influences that prodded them on the path they have followed since. Most of them are colorful, some raunchy, some very honest and modest but all of them wonderfully inspiring. Ultimately, it is clear that providing the right and stimulating atmosphere for children (without demanding excessive performance or placing unreasonable burdens upon them) is essential to nurture their curiosity. A good environment fosters creativity and ultimately, the kids end up being happy. This is all simple and almost trivial but it is surprising, how few people figure it out and put it into practice. Prime examples being countries like Korea, India, and China, where little kids spent most of their time awake, thrust upon anvils and hammered with science, mathematics and arts into their asphyxiated and unresponsive brains. Perhaps, we are merely creating large, living, moving RAM assemblies instead of developing humans. And most certainly, it is not making anyone happier... Read this book and you will change your mind about pushing your kids into such brutal and destructive paths.

In summary, Curious minds is a perfectly good book that will brighten your days. But works only if you happen to be curious.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Drama in Real Life?

Arthur Hailey was one of the first of big ( big here probably just stands for well known) authors that I started reading. And as was my habit then, I read a whole lot of Arthur Hailey books, till I got Overloaded literallly and otherwise. Other than that one book which I hated, I would recommend all his books.

I suppose Airport, Hotel are pretty well known books. The amusing thing is that even though there are so many things happening to so many different people at the same time, which often sounds far fetched or dramatic. For instance, very recently Bombay Airport had a situation similar to the airport manager (?) in Aiport. One of the planes wandered off the runway and got stuck with its tail or some part sticking out into the runway, making the runway unusable. And thus begins Arthur Hailey's Airport! Its possible the Bombay Airport incident didn't ensue more drama from the book. But it does put these books more into "maybe some of this can happen to " zone :)

His books are definetly fast paced in terms of things happening and interesting with much drama. Of course too keep all the characters straight its good not to leave the book alone for too long.

Some small incidents kind of stay in my memory. There was this (one of several) story lines in Strong Medicine (?) about a young girl and guy romance. Its all very happy, they want to get married until the girl looses her legs (either due to an accident or some illness, I forget!). The young man very much in love with her, wants to go ahead with the marraige just as planned. The girl on the other hand is worried that he doesn't really understand what it might mean to live with a physically handicapped wife. So she tells him, that he should take a week away from her; imagine what his future with her would be like and whether he really wants to do this.

So, the young man goes home, imagines all sorts of difficulties ahead. Whereas the girl over the week things about how much this guy is in love with her and that she is being silly with pushing her away. You can imagine the irony when he comes back to see her to tell her that she is right, he cannot handle it!

For weeks after reading this I wondered if its possible that they really would have managed alright if the guy hadn't gone home and imagined his future away? After all our imagination can go places where real life rarely does! So was she stupid to have done that? Did they loose what was going to be a perfectly nice happy twosome?

Guess, it doesn't matter it is just a story after all. But, one wonders how far is drama from reality after all?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Life from a Child's Perspective : Part II

The whole process of a child transforming into adulthood is strange. The way I see it it make a black and white picture coloured. And suddenly everything becomes more complicated.
We spend our childhood thinking how smart we will be when we get older. Dream about the things we will be able to do when we grow up without ever realizing what the future really holds in store for us.
The Pact is one of the many stories where an 8 year old boy narrates the story. Its a simple tale of a family going to through rough times. The advantage of narrating it from a child's point of view is that the story is straightforward and simple. Possibly a reason why so many authors (well not really that many!) choose this style.
The story revolves around Mike and his newly acquired very shy friend who has recently moved into the neighbourhood. The problems adults are going to through is very subtle yet not lacking in impact.
Its amazing that one forgets what a big responsibility bringing up a child is. And what an effect a parent who has lost his self confidence and taken to drinking can have on a child!
The book is a about friendship, a much confusing life that adults lead and the turmoil that they throw they unsuspecting children into. Its funny, heartwarming at times and tragic at others. In all its a page turner.
Its written as a part of Minnesota Voices Project by Walter J Roers .

I came across the book at the public library quite accidently. I should warn you that it is bound to touch your heart and give rise to disturbing questions of the ever fading line between the right and the wrong!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

In Praise of Slowness

My paternal family carries the choicest of genes - but not the ones marked for laziness. But it seems to be dormant in me or so I claim: Grandma cooks an entire meal in one hour even before the roosters wake up to announce dawn, Father finishes up his office work before noon and lazes around during the rest of the day. When questioned, he claims to "think" and Sister tries to outrun him by walking way ahead of her rather smart class. Their task completed and nothing else to do, I get mocked for being "slow". I used to vigorously argue and tried hard to espouse the virtues of slowness. It all turned out to be unintentionally comic but now I have an international bestseller to back me up in the war against these fast people! And oddly enough, I discovered this book as I was rapidly advancing towards my concourse in O'hare to catch a flight back to Champaign...

Carl Honore's book "In Praise of Slowness" explores the cult of speed that produces mindless machines out of humans: racing all the time to cram more into life than they were designed to handle. The book argues that Fast food, fast trains, fast healing, fast track careers and even quickies have taken the pleasure out of the activity and placed the focus on completion. Instead of rejuvenating the mind, the activities of seeking food, work and sex work in reverse and produce a strain. We dread to cook and eat, dread to 'travel to work' when we should, in a happy world, enjoy each of these activities. Arguing for slowing down, he cites numerous examples of situations where slow and not speed has produced benefitting results and therein lies the crux of this work.

A good book to read with many interesting sections, like the ones on Medicine: Doctors and Patience and Children: Raising an unhurried child. Interestingly, some villages and small towns in Italy have adopted this policy of not working for more than 6 hours a day. While the efficacy of this mode is very debatable in the context of global competition, it is still worthy to remember that people wish to spend their time in the company of friends and lovers instead of staring at a computer monitor for the better part of their waking lives, in an attempt to reach the unrealistic expectations of a greedy society. There is also a chapter devoted to sex titled, "Sex: a lover with a slow hand" that a miniscule population of the readership might be interested in. Should I mention that I had absolutely no interest whatsover in this chapter, although some of the thoughts expressed sounded sensible.

I read this book a couple of months back and started writing this piece soon after. Needless to say, in finishing it prompty, I have taken the author's advice to heart!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Tales from Indian Epics

At a time when folk music wafted slowly across the fertile plains of India, when birds and bees sucked delicious nectar from the rainbow of flowers on the shores of gigantic rivers, when men and women had plenty of food and clothes, when treasures of pearls, sapphire, and gold were found in abundance, when just and strong kings ruled over people with kindness and compassion, and women were treated with love and respect, talented poets and charming storytellers walked across India creating intricate tales upon the laps of which Indian mythology flourished. The stories have been passed on from grandparents to grandchildren for a thousand years, teaching them the path of right and wrong, the virtues of Dharma and the simple joys of contentment.

From the only copy of a handetched, palm-leaf manuscript of the Bhagawata by one of his ancestors, Holalkere Chandrasekhar composes the book "Tales from Indian Epics". The book starts with the story of how Valmiki's outburst of grief, upon seeing a hunter's arrow piece the heart of a male crane in the midst of passionate love, morphs into a verse in the meter of a Sloka, a four-line poem, with each line containing eight syllables of equal weight.

The book then starts its spectacular ride through high mountains covered with snow, dark caves illuminated by the red glow from the eyes of serpants with hundred heads, through the antechambers of palaces carved out of sandalwood, across mighty oceans and swift rivers, to magical worlds with trecherous demons and resplendent heros, across vigorous wars between mighty kings and through lands of tranquil peace. Stories of angry Ganga countered by the strength of Siva (He balances her furious force by letting her fall on his head first); of Prahalad's devotion to Vishnu despite his Asura lineage; of the love between Pururavas, the King of Hasti, and his beautiful and devoted wife Urvashi; the anger of Durvasa and Krishna's clever ploys; the hilariously stupid acts of Bhasmasura; the tricks of dwarf Vamana and the integrity of King Bali; the churning of the ocean of milk and many, many more stories transport the reader to a different world, on a neverending journey that is pleasantly exciting right through the last page.

While a perfunctory read will amuse, excite and make your day, an indepth read will lead you to question the meaning of Dharma and beckon deep philosophical thoughts to be slowly ruminated upon. Overall, this book is a wonderful read any time of the day, especially if you have little kids roaming around the house searching for mischief. For a brief while, you can captivate them with stories of flying Garudas and slithering Sheshas, watch their gaping mouths and sparkling eyes in amusement and let the old couple next door catch their first morsels of daytime silence in years!