Thursday, April 27, 2006


"He was aware of a great happiness mounting within him.

Where does it come from, he asked himself? What is the reason for this feeling of happiness? Does it arise from my good long sleep which has done me so good? Or from the word Om which I pronounced? Or because I have run away, because my flight is accomplished, because I am at last free again and stand like a child beneath the sky?"

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a brilliant classic about the search for wisdom by a young Brahmin boy who lived during the time of the great Buddha. After running away from his home, he wants to become an ascetic but is unsatisfied with mere thinking, meditation and the expiation of material weath. The rest of the book is the story of his journey to search for the missing element that would make him at peace with himself.

The utter passion in which the book is soaked is a great inspiration. I turn to this book in times of despair or boredom. When confusion runs rampant, Siddhartha speaks through words with clarity, whispers wisdom that is always relevant to any predicament.

Sometimes, all that a man needs to feel happy and content is to sit with the best of his friends or with his loving parents - without speaking a word, without wishing to move, strong, quiet and absolutely certain. Most of my moments of great pleasure were times when silence seems to permeate the room (or the phone line), when you know the thoughts of the other person, and when you love them utterly without needing to speak a word, when you do not want to walk away from the moment but etch that memory in your volatile mind to preserve it, to treasure it and recollect it, long past the day when you have last spoken to each other. And reading this book offers a sense of contentment, hope and love that is just like that. An absolutely superlative book, this one.

Dear Readers,

This would be the last review I write on this blog for a while. The reasons are aplenty, but inconsequential and hence, I shall not bore you with them. I was invited to this blog by ligne after she created it in mid-2005. Ligne being my friend and neighbor from the past, at champaign. Perhaps, we shared a common love for reading. Perhaps, she just needed some company to write. After the initial tussle over the background color on the page (I hated the color; She loved it), I had to overcome my laziness and the thesis writing hassle to post my first review. And what a joy it was!

Despite the fact that our tastes were very different and sometimes, we bickered over whose taste was better (of course, mine always is :)), this blog has flourished thanks to readers like you, who have taken the time to read our opinions, and in some cases, search for the books and read them too! Your comments and opinions will be acutely missed by yours truly.

Much love,

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Search in secret India

I suppose everyone goes through a phase in life when they wonder what they are doing on this planet. It happens when your basic needs have been met, when you start integrating yourself into the world and watching people both better and worse than your current state. When these differences cannot be deciphered using a logical thought process, and you start attempting an explanation of these inequities without according a random status to them.

At this point, people either profess complete faith in a supernatural power and abandon any further quests once and for all, or begin to look for knowledge by rummaging through the experiences of other people.

I had my share about three years ago. With wonderful company provided by unrelenting solitude and a couple of unfailing and faithful friends - each a thousand miles away - to help refine my thoughts, I started reading books on spirituality. I read the Gita and understood clarity from the profusion of generality, I read Ayn Rand and the wretched pain of understanding extremes made me feel sick (twice while reading Fountainhead. Never finished it... Atlas Shrugged was a no problem.), I read the teachings of a Buddhist monk, C. T. Shen, and never felt completely satisfied - it was too complex and too diffuse, I read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and felt a wave of happiness, I read Vivekananda and Ramakrishna, and Ramana and felt likewise - but the questions still persisted, like faithful saints on a singular path of meditation. I never read Nietzsche or any of the other great western philosophers, although I did try reading Descartes and gave up in utter peril - it was mind blowingly complicated or atleast, my mind was not mature enough to appreciate what he wrote.

It was then that I realized the possibility that no single system might have all the answers to the myriad number of questions that flow in a never-ending fountain within a contemplative mind. Further, each of these systems is the distilled version of the experiences of many people over a thousand years. How could I possibly understand the systems without going through the experiences first?! So, I began to read about the experiences of people who have bravely and with great love, undertaken this journey towards the understanding of themselves and the world around them (The purists amongst you would point out that there is no dichotomy between a self and the world around the self. Now, that, dear reader, is opening up a whole new debate in itself!)

I thought, perhaps their experiences would tell me the truth as it is. Is there God? Is it possible to stay in a state of eternal bliss? Is magic real? Are Yogis and Sidhdhars real? What would a saint do? What does he seek? Is he ever successful or are the stories we hear, merely made up stories? What is the purpose of my life? Is Karma merely a concept that makes people believe that their life is not wasteful or is Karma a true concept? Why is pain an uncertain feeling - a feeling that we do not wish to keep? Is the "I" in me even justified in feeling pain or is it simply an illusion ("maya" as they like to call it) that should be abandoned? These are some of the questions I sought to answer. I took on the stance of an open-skeptic and "guilty until proven otherwise" was the sieve I would use to pick the wheat from the chaff.

Basically, I was armed with two books. Both written by westerners - a brit and an american. One was a seeker since his early days and remained one until his death, while the other became a seeker in his mid-thirties, was a fine reporter and did a wonderful job of collecting fringe experiences in America that straddle eastern and western belief systems. The first book was titled "Search in secret India" and was authored by Paul Brunton. The second, "What really matters" was written by Tony Schwartz. I loved both these books. Now, I will tell you a bit about the first and you can tell me about the second whenever you get around to reading it. :)

Search for secret India is a book written by a Brit explorer about his experiences during his stay in India in the late 19th century. Attracted by the fables and the mysticism that drifted from this fascinating land, he arrives in India by ship, stays for an extended duration and seeks out holy men and has many experiences with them. His experiences are wonderful as is his style of writing. Amongst others, he meets Hindu holy men in the presence of whom he feels an extraordinary sense of contentment, a Muslim holy woman who talks about his future accurately, saints in the himalayas that can brave the cold without a problem, and a yogi who can stop his heart at will, stay without a pulse for a few minutes and restart his heart slowly, as if it is merely a machine under his command! It made a wonderful read three years ago and instilled in me a great deal of respect for India and the Indian way of thinking. While I could rave about the book and give you more snippets, perhaps its better to not say anything, for the journey is even better when the suspense is kept till the end! Happy reading!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Phantoms in the Brain

The standard operating procedure in the field of medicine is to study the average: what medicine helps the most number of people? How should a surgery be performed to help the greatest number survive? What diseases should be cured to save the largest number of people?

But, Vilayanur Ramachandran points out (correctly) that very interesting insights can be obtained into the operation of a human mind by studying, not the ordinary and the average, but the extra-ordinary. In the field of psychology, this is not new. Afterall, kids and grown-ups do get attracted to wierdos!

His contributions arise from his scientific investigations of how our thoughts and our hormones are connected. It is not quite drab as I make it sound, as VR takes us on a fascinating and often brilliant journey to understand the origins of phantom limbs, laughing disorders and even the origin of the concept of a "God" through the interactions between the various glands embedded deep inside our brains. Infact, you could read the book, Phantoms in the Brain, simply for his superlative explanation of how each person's devotion to God could infact be the result of various hormones working in tandem with each other rather than any social conditioning (of course, the social conditioning might feedback on the glands that produce these hormones too.)

If you are the kinds that is curious about the hows and whys of how humans think, the mechanisms of our own perception, have spent hours analyzing and are proud of this strange habit of enjoying your own thought process, then, this book will provide enough raw materials for a few more days of happy thinking. Highly recommended and cleverly written!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I bet there are many fans of Michael Crichton amongst you readers -- you are charmed by his style of story telling, his genius to weave scientific facts with a fictitious storyline and perhaps, by his charming looks. But do you know that he was a doctor and gave up his profession so that he could write full time?! Or that he never got any writing offers for a long time, lived in hollywood with pimps and drug addicts for a while before he made it?!

As for me, I get excited by his many remarkable qualities: his infinite curiosity, his patience, openness to new ideas and new adventures, and his perseverance to seek rational solutions under seemingly irrational circumstances.

His book - Travels - chronicles his adventures thus far. He talks about diving with sharks and being swept away by a rushing tide, about his experience with psychics in london in a club that counted amongst its members the good ol' Arthur Conan Doyle, then talks about his trips to the mountains in the karakorams, his movie making episodes in Ireland and Britain, amonst a dozen other real-life exploratory trips. I was piqued by the descriptions of his experiences with reiki, talking with cacti and some other fringe experiences. It is fascinating when an otherwise scientific person tells you that he could infact see yellow and pink lines emanating out of another person's body!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves such stories and also to people that are curious about psychics, extra-sensory perceptionists, mind-readers and phenomena like Reiki. Fabulously entertaining and if you are looking to add some spice into your otherwise dull existence, this is the book to read next!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Quit India Movement

There are several Indian authors who have made it big. Some who are really NRIs..others who are not native Indians but write about India a lot.

I really haven't tried reading too many. But I came across this book by RK Narayan at a second hand book store here. The " Waiting for the Mahatma" was a wonderful read.
The style of writing is plain and to the point. In fact, the simplistic nature of the book made is very enjoyable for me.

Waiting for the Mahatma is one man's journey influenced by the changes happening around him. Caught willingly/unwillingly into the flow of the movement of freedom struggle. Perhaps the motives and even actions are questionable. But the situation is all very real. In a way the book is a by-standers account of the freedom struggle. And in a way its nothing to with love for the nation, but love for a woman and the influence of a leader.

The end was kind of disappointing for me. Possibly because it was not hard to anticipate. But regardless of that, the book makes a good read. I have read excerpts from several of RK Narayan's novels I liked this one the best. Other than Swami and his friends. The intention though is to eventually find and read rest of his book :)

PS-title is just to reflect the period of the book.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Illusions: The adventures of a reluctant Messiah

I read this book when I was 17 and it changed my life. I know a book should never replace your thinking but there are some statements that you hear once and everything you ever thought is
transformed forever. This book is full of statements like that.

At a story level, this is about the writer's encounter with a modern-day spiritual guru, a Buddha or Christ dropping into the twentieth century in a sparkling new biplane. Yes, Bach is an aviator first and a writer second, so be prepared for long descriptions and titbits about flying and aircrafts. The metaphors work well though. The verbal bantering between the two of them is light enough to make the book an interesting read and profound enough to give you something to think about every time you read it.

Oddly enough this isn't his most popular book. Johnathon Livingston Seagull (also a fantastic book) is perhaps better-loved and more widely read. This could be because the ideas that Bach propounds are set in a more fantasy setting which makes it seem like you are reading a semi-fairytale. Illusions, on the other hand gives you a something chilling, sometimes ecstatic feeling when you read and wonder...could this be true?

Illusions is full of quotable quotes. My favorite one is

The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.
What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.

For a curiosity factor, this is also probably the only book ever, to end with a comma. Possibly the best thing about this book is that it talks about deep ideas, about life, love, the world, frienship and all such things we all ponder about. And it does it in a light-hearted, 'enjoy yourself while at it' kind of way. Read the book, you're really missing something if you haven't.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I found this book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, in the New York Times Bestseller list and browsed through the first few pages in amazon. It sure caught my fascination... So I drive to the library and borrow it, to read over a weekend.

The book was on 18 other bestseller lists too including Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Washinton Post. You would think that as an impressive achievement but I beg to differ.

The book is about USA's hegemony over other nations by using economic tools. The loans that US extends to developing nations (for example Indonesia) through world bank, USAID and other such organizations are marketed by arguing that their long-term benefits far outweigh the interests paid by these nations. The prick is in the calculation of the long-term benefits for these countries, which is where economic hitmen (they are basically consultants) come into the picture. By cleverly manipulating numbers, extending unrefusable benefits to the ruling families and more such insidous means, they force the acceptance of their loan terms and guarantees. Inevitably, those numbers are wrong or hide sinister details about the final cost-benefit analysis. Thus, the countries default on the loans 10-15 years after they receive them. Once defaulted, the country is held hostage by the US for UN votes and are forced to serve as pawns in their foreign policies.

We all knew this at one-level or another. It is the reconformation provided in the form of a first person account that makes this book interesting. It actually makes a not-so-bad read but I had problems with the fact that the author confuses his emotions with cold logic. He would suddenly write about how he cried about all the non-sense that goes on in the world one day and the very next page, he would proudly describe how he conned some royal family into accepting a multi-billion dollar loan for the "benefit of their country". This is ok, except for the fact that it diverts attention from the message he is trying to convey and becomes a pathetic attempt to justify what he has done all his life.

He also tries hard to portray himself as a nice guy who is tormented by thoughts of right and wrong, but when he had the opportunity to quit, he did not and continued to be an economic hit man for another 2-3 decades. This hypocrisy makes the book very annoying to read at times.

The very many contradictions (probably the result of editors modifying his book to make it more juicy) and the confusion of facts with emotions make this book painful at times. But mostly, it is a stunning exposition of how a degenerate capitalistic economy is ruining this world. And this analysis of a fundamental system we swear by everyday is what makes this book worth reading. The realization that the votes I cast are not what run this world, but its the oil that I pump into my car that does it (through the tedious machine of corporatocracy), is alone worth sitting through some painful lectures. If you are not well aware of politics (like me), you would be surprised about how much of South American politics is influenced by the US. And then, you would start understanding the dirty details in the recent skirmishes between Hugo Chavez and some oil companies in Venezuela. And this wisdom alone makes this book a worthy but painful read (in more than one way).