To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Book - 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor E. Frankl

For a good number of years, while being aware of Victor Frankl's book, I've been avoiding taking it up, in the (mistaken, as it turns our) belief that it's another one of those preachy 'self help' books full of homilies for the troubled mind, while being disjointed from realities.  Coming to know that it was by someone who survived the Nazi camps stirred some interest, but not enough to motivate me to actually read it.  Must say the loss has been entirely mine!  Getting on Audible finally led me to this gem of a (audio)book.

In my view, the unique thing about this book is that it's not based on an author's observations of others traits and behaviors, but in large part on his own life spent inside the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, while undergoing all the travails and tortures of that life but also retaining the sanity to be an 'observer' of his own psyche and that of his co-sufferers.  The second fascinating fact (perhaps one that enabled Frankl to add to his uncompleted manuscipt while at the camp) is that he was a trained psychologist, who rose to even greater heights post his tragic incarceration, pioneered a whole new discipline (Logotheraphy, a summary of which is given in Part II of the book), and wrote a number of books.

Part I of the book, which is entirely based on Frankl's experiences at the camp, is quite a moving account.  Besides alluding to the death (nee, murder by Nazis) of his wife who entered the camp with him, he gives a first person account of the minutiae of what went on at the camp on a day-to-day basis.  The food deprivation, the overworking in trying conditions,  the forced marches amidst freezing cold and snow, the swollen feet and emaciated bodies, the diseases and deaths in thousands, the incinerators with chimneys, references to the cannibalism which broke out in the camp towards the end - everything is brought out in full detail, albeit with compassion.

Frankl doesn't flinch from bringing out the 'deals with devil' by certain co-prisoners, warders and others, who inflicted or facilitated further tortures on others just to gain temporary respite from tortures and a few 'luxuries' like cigarettes.  Amazingly, Frankl demonstrates a clear eye and unbiased attitude even while explaining the psyche of the prison guards, many of whom, as he says, were probably traumatized and inured to human emotions by being exposed continually to the barbaric goings on at the camp.

But also brought out is the potential for redemption, for a man (Frankl was placed in the male part of the camp) to rise above the circumstances and both demonstrate compassion towards others and help them in any way possible, by sharing one's own sparse food, by words and actions, by (in Frankl's case specifically) by volunteering to help in the ward of sick prisoners, which came with a real risk of infection and death.  

Through it all, Frankl continues to weave his own take on existential questions concerned with the meaning of life.  One of the themes he propounds is that it's not what is the meaning of life, but what meaning we can impart to life.  At another point, he muses whether enduring the travails of life, while preserving one's dignity and humanity, is itself the point of life.  (In this, he's perhaps close to the 'Karma' concept of Indian philosophy.)  He tells of how some prisoners, many of them motivated by Frankl himself, learned to avoid giving up on life by thinking about who or what is waiting for them after the end of war.

The book is full of such insights and life lessons, perhaps much of them taken up and popularized in later years.  Part II of the book lays out a summary of the branch of psychology which Frankl pioneered - Logotherapy, seemingly more attuned to emphasizing the patient's own choices and responsibilities rather than following the set patterns of traditional psychology.  Part II has some interesting tools and techniques, but a large part could probably be of interest mainly to psychologists, though laypersons may probably try out some of those with no harm.

A must read for those looking to understand human psyche and motivation a little better.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Book - 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson

Truth be told, I've been a fan of Carl Sagan since decades, since the time I used to watch his TV series 'Cosmos'.  I've always firmly believed Sagan to be the high priest of popular science, the one person who brought together his deep knowledge in myriad disciplines together into one cohesive narrative, ably carrying forward the legacy of European polymath scientists and mathematicians of 16th century and later.  And 'Cosmos' perhaps epitomized that ability.

But having read (or actually listened to, on Audible) 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', I'm persuaded to believe that Bill Bryson walks in Sagan's illustrious footsteps surefootedly and  with an assured voice.  Bryson's book brings together updated knowledge and perspectives on earth sciences, astronomy, core sciences including genetics, archeology and paleontology, medicine, anthropology and sociology, among other fields.  On similar lines as Sagan, but with whole new perspectives.  Perhaps the only 'Sagan-like' thing missing in this encyclopedic work is the 'leaps of inspiration' strewn throughout 'Cosmos', which many may've been tempted to dismiss as 'philosophizing', but which actually acted as the fulcrum of Sagan's arguments.  Bryson goes some way on that path towards the end, especially when ruminating on the pernicious consequences that the rise of humankind has had on the 'disappearance' of thousand of species since ancient times.  But otherwise, he revels in bringing to the reader cutting-edge knowledge on how the earth and life on it (including, lately, mankind, which has been there for only a minuscule proportion of earth's age of 4.5 billion odd years) evolved.

One theme running across the book is the huge number of occasions when one scientist discovered or invented something, and someone else ended up getting all the credit (and, lately, the Nobel that went with it).  As Bryson quotes one scientist, 'First they refute it, then they accept it, then they credit the wrong person'!  And this has been true not only of controversial cases like (allegedly misogynistic) James Watson et all being awarded the Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA, relegating Rosalind Franklin who apparently did most of the gruntwork in X-ray crystallography, and eventually died from the cancer she got while working with it and was thus could not be considered for the Nobel (which is not awarded after the passing of a person).  

But it's also happened in so many other celebrated cases like Charles Darwin being anointed the father of evolutionary theory of natural selection, even though he expounded only that it happens, not the how of it.  That work was done by the priest Gregor Mendel (it's amazing to know how many scientists and mathematicians of yore were members of the clergy!), of the famous pea plants, who got no credit for it during his prime years and eventually left the field and died unrecognized - his contribution was acknowledged only in early 20th century by another group of scientists.  The interesting story is that the detailed notes of Darwin from his HMS Beagle voyages across the world kept lying almost untouched for years, till he was motivated to write up his observations and conclusions when he got a manuscript from another scientist Alfred Wallace whose theories were too close for comfort to his own, all the time looking over this shoulders lest Church and country denounce him for even alluding that man evolved from ape!  To be fair, though, Darwin got his theory published alongside that of Wallace.

It's such stories which enliven Bryson's tome and take it to a level much beyond just the bare facts which are availably aplenty in the cloud.  And all through, while talking about evolution, Bryon cautions us that our very existence hanged by a thread and does even now, what with unimaginably powerful forces like the earth's magma chambers raring to explode as volcanoes, at such unexpected places as the Grand Canyon in US.

The other running theme is of course the multi-talented nature of many renowned scientists of those days, specialization only appearing towards the latter part of 20th century.  It seems the flowering of their mind was aided in no small measure with what such towering personalities did in their 'off time', whether it was music and arts or something else!  Alas, not only are such personalities long gone but, as a scientist tells Bryon, there is sometimes no continuity even in research into a discipline once someone working on it passes, no 'succession planning', till the field catches the fancy of the next group of scientists and, more relevant for modern times, till funding comes along, which may not happen for decades altogether.

Towards the end of the book, Bryson makes a fervent appeal for humankind to recognize the damaging effect it has had on the survival of so many species of life, from land animals to birds to amphibians to marine creatures, a process which is still continuing.  And this when hominids have been on the planet for a minuscule two million years or so, as compared to the tens of millions for which dinosaurs roamed the earth, and hundred of millions (or even billions) of years for which many other creatures including microbes have been the inhabitants of earth, and continue to be.  It's this which can perhaps be read as the overarching message of this great piece of work.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Book review - 'Caffeine' by Michael Pollan (audiobook)

 'Caffeine' by Michael Pollan (audiobook)

It's Pollan's name as author which initially drew me to this, the first audiobook I completed*, as I'm reading his rivetting 'Cooked' too.

In his own style, Pollan takes us through the history (and geography!) of caffeine.  One of the new things I learned is that centuries before tea (which also has caffeine, though less than in coffee), it's coffee which was the staple drink in Europe.  The ubiquitous coffee houses not only served the beverage but functioned as a place for intellectuals and scientists among others to get together and interact (Pollan contrasts those to the modern virtual version, the internet forums!), and reputedly the leader of the Paris Rebellion during French Revolution also frequented a coffee house and started the 'action' from one!

Apparently, coffee played a part not only in industry (coffee breaks, now a legally enforceable benefit in US, were meant to shore up the workers' energies against a midday sag), but also in wars - notably a Republican general during the American Civil War distributed quantities of coffee amongst his troops, which seems to have contributed not a little to their victory!

Pollan's narrative gains a rare kind of personal touch as he reveals towards the beginning that he abstained from his daily cuppa(s) while writing this book, as a way to understand the effects of abstention from what effectively keeps most Americans awake and toiling!

A thoroughly enjoyable listen.

(* Completed not in the perhaps more typical manner of a mobile device with headphone, but aloud on an Amazon Echo Dot using Audible membership.)

Friday, September 10, 2021

Work without hope...

Long back, while in college, I read this blurb at the beginning of a course reading 'Nectar In A Sieve', a novel by Kamala Markandeya on the travails of a farmer family in India:

'Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And hope without an object cannot live'

I was reminded of this while reading a passage in the 'Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda':

But isn't that the very thing that's a lifelong struggle for a householder, at least those driven by an overriding sense of duty and responsibility - the unrequited striving, in all arenas of life?  To keep doing one's duties without any (or commensurate) appreciation, not to talk of return, for big and small things?

Seems Karm Yog suggests a way to rise above the often resulting frustration, to wash away not only the physiological but also the Karmic consequences of the negative feelings generated: offer (उत्सर्ग) everything to God, the work as well as both good and bad 'returns', and live in this ephemeral world like a water lily...

{From 'Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda', Vol. I, Karma-Yoga}

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Can plants talk

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Book review - 'Lone Fox Dancing'

'Lone Fox Dancing - My Autobiography'

Just finished reading the story of 'Ruksan' in his own words, and it's difficult to come out of the aura created by Bond through his magical pen.  Words at par with the gentle stories he weaves, so authentic that the reader just wants to believe that Bond actually lived each story!

From his early life to ripe old age, Bond has laid out his whole life, though he admits towards the end that for some personal anecdotes he has changed the names.  One thing that comes through is his deep love for his dear departed dad, whom he lost in his early teens, and the undertones of a strained equation with his mom, with whom he tries to make up on her deathbed.

And the other theme is his deep love for India.  He does hop over to England for a couple of years at the beginning of his writing career, also taking up odd jobs to support himself.  But he gets restless and comes back to India, to his beloved Doon, to the friends of his younger years and some new.  His early struggles as a writer vouch to his abiding love for the art of writing, and he keeps at it for well nigh four decades before starting to get a degree of recognition.  

It's amazing that Bond has continued to live in and around Mussoorie almost his whole life, that he continues to delight in and get inspiration from the trees, the birds, the wildlife of the hills, even as life around him has changed beyond recognition over the decades.  And he continues to live with and support his adopted family of a man of the hills, his early support, over three generations.

A rewarding story of gentle love and deeply humanist outlook.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Book review - 'The Order of Time' by Carlo Rovelli

Having earlier read 'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' by eminent physicist Rovelli, I had high hopes from 'The Order of Time'.  Not only have those hopes been fulfilled, but Rovelli has gone much beyond.  This book would be favoured by readers who like to be challenged.

Rovelli starts with the seemingly innocuous fact that "time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level", something empirically proven but perhaps not known to the majority of common people.  He goes on to prove that this is true across the universe, well-proven a hundred years back by the curved space-time equations of Einstein (later revealed to be a gravitational field), who postulated that time slows down the closer one is to the source of greater gravity.

Next, Rovelli demolishes the idea that time is unidirectional, establishing that it's increasing entropy and a phenomenon called 'blurring' which gives the impression of time progressing, and that heat exchange is the only event which is unidirectional and thus giving rise to 'thermal time'.   On the way, Rovelli puts paid to the concept of cause and effect, and even to past and future. (Did Einstein really write that "the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion"? Rovelli provides the context for that famous saying in chapter 7).

Coming to the 'present', Rovelli next establishes that "the present of the universe does not exist", using the example of interstellar travel.  What effect this has on genealogies is an interesting aside.

Ultimately, Rovelli says, 'The world is made of events, not things'. And as Aristotle said: 'Time is nothing other than the measurement of change' in those things.  Along the way, Rovelli also refers to the concept of 'loop quantum gravity' which is one of the approaches in quantum theory on which he works.

And all this is explained by about the middle of the book.  The rest of the chapters touch upon more complex, seemingly esoteric, concepts like 'indexicality'.

The range of sources across centuries accessed by Rovelli for this tome on time (though a slim volume at less than 200 pages) is mind-boggling, from Mahabharat to Ecclesiaste to the Greek philosopher Anaximander (the title of the book is from one of his writings) to the the Persian poet Shirazi to Aristotle to Newton and much beyond upto 20th century - reminds one of Carl Sagan's legendary 'Cosmos' which also had similar breadth of references.

This is not a book for casual reading.  I usually read parts of 4-6 books on a typical day, but for this book I had to ensure complete peace and focus, else one may tend to lose the train of thoughts.  But once the reader is able to focus, a rich harvest is assured.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Book review - 'The Hidden Life of Trees'

 #trees #woodwideweb

'The Hidden Life of Trees' by Peter Wohlleben

That trees in a forest communicate with and nurture each other through a vast underground 'mycelial' network of 'mycorrhizal' fungi, sometimes spanning hundreds of miles, is only one of the more astounding facts we learn from this treasure trove of a book on something so close to us and yet so far in understanding. 

Contrary to the impression given out by the subtitle 'What they feel, How they communicate', this book is not only about these things, but also about other facets of the lives of trees - how they talk (using scents and sounds), how they walk (across generations of course, but over vast distances of thousands of miles over ice age progressions), how they fight back attackers (by synthesising specialty chemicals and by attracting other predators), how they nurture their 'young' (the 'old' being upto a thousand years of age or even more!), and the like.

The format of the book is also quite inviting, with short chapters dealing with different aspects of trees' lives.

It can be guaranteed that anyone reading this book seriously will not only get invaluable knowledge and insight into our closest neighbours everywhere, but would also gain a large measure of empathy for the oldest living inhabitants of this earth.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

A biased question on the Chinese...

 The late Sardar Khushwant Singh, who passed only a year short of a century thanks to his robust lifestyle and his daily dose of the tipple, was well known as a formidable and outspoken character, full of wit.  Indian of my generation would probably remember that in the last couple of decades of his life, having given up editorship of venerable newspapers and magazines and mostly focusing on writing his later books, he still used to pen a regular column in newspapers such as the Hindustan Times.  In the moniker for that column, his image was shown sitting inside a light bulb, almost as if inviting brickbats to be thrown at him, and fittingly the title of the column was 'With malice towards one and all'.  So Singh was very upfront about his views and hardly gave two hoots that people would accuse him of writing maliciously.

In the same vein, let's get this out of the way first thing: This post is written with a pronounced bias as regards the Chinese character, and yes, it has a lot of generalizations.  So those looking for some politically correct and totally balanced narrative, kindly look elsewhere.  The titular question I'm asking today is: When was the last time you met/read about/heard about a generous Chinese?  A down to earth Chinese, yes.  A gritty Chinese, yes.  An aggressive Chinese, by all means!  A crafty Chinese, of course!  But a generous Chinese?  In real life?  In anecdotes?  In literature? Ummm.... well...  Is that a contradiction in terms?  An oxymoron, perchance?  

More seriously, does it have something to do with the ethos of 20th and 21st century Chinese people?  In the early part of this century, when I traveled to China a few times on work, I was intrigued with certain expressions used by English-speaking Chinese.  To be fair, they stated that the English terms they spoke were only close approximations of certain Chinese language terms, and not really equivalent.  Even so, one particular expression that I remember is: "clever".  So where in the normal course of conversation someone in another part of the world may use a term like 'intelligent' or 'wise', my Chinese interlocutors invariably used the term "clever".  I was fairly new to the country and its people at that time, so didn't consider it polite to either point out the dissonance or ask their reasons too clearly.  But the few times I referred to it, they just couldn't make out any difference between 'clever', as they used it, and intelligent or wise, one who could have a thinking mind yet not use it for personal advantage, for instance.

Much later, it struck me that the Chinese considered cleverness as the singular facet of intelligence.  For certain Chinese, not to generalize, it's the cleverness, or perhaps the ability to use intelligence for personal gain, which is the foremost.  And perhaps they just cannot fathom why someone who has the brains would forego personal gain and use it to benefit someone else, which is the hallmark of generosity.

And this is not to trivialize how the Chinese thinking may've evolved to such ethos.  They've doubtless passed through many travails since the ancient times that Chinese civilization was one of only four, along with India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, progressing westwards.  After their empires petered out into weak monarchies, like many others before and around them, they were dominated by a series of forces.  Even as late as 19th and early 20th century, they were pushed around by such powers as the British, with the Opium Wars imposed on them and turning a few generation of Chinese into addicts, and the Japanese during the second World War with a series of untold horrors including Nanking.

So have such travails inculcated in the Chinese a core ethos of cleverness, a conviction that the world will take them for a ride unless they deal 'cleverly' with all?  Is that the reason that the Chinese are so dichotomous, spouting homilies for peace and a just order with a straight face and then turning around and heaping exactly the opposite on their supposed opponents?  Is that why they've been at loggerheads increasingly with everyone, starting with Mao who was an expert in pitting Chinese against Chinese to foster an internecine war in the interests of a communist 'Cultural Revolution', another complete contradiction in terms as there was nothing cultural about it but only a revolution by the seemingly uncultured with a thin veneer of intelligentsia?  And it's not only in the geopolitical arena that the Chinese have acted 'cleverly', but also in the commercial arena, lulling the then world economic powers by providing a 'factory to the world' and later trying to dominate the very economic machine of the world by leveraging its demography.

Know thy enemy, the 'clever' advised, perhaps including that mythical Chinese general Sun Tzu.  So any effort at first understanding deeply the psyche and ethos of the Chinese, before engaging with them in any arena, seems the most 'clever' strategy to adopt for anyone...

With Malice towards... (with due apologies to Khushwant).

Saturday, October 10, 2020


It sometimes happens with probably all of us that we're thinking of something and then, either instantly or after a short time, we see some manifestation of our internal thoughts in the material realm i.e. the very thing happens or is seen by us.  (And I'm not talking about supposedly random marketing links appearing on our Facebook page or stream right after we've viewed, and not even clicked, a certain product on Amazon! 😁 That's the art and science of AI-driven user manipulation as so tellingly expounded by industry insiders in the recent Netflix documentary 'Social Dilemma'.)

There are various spiritual explanations for this phenomenon.  Some hold that all of us are just flowing in a collective stream of consciousness, and so seemingly random thoughts are not really random but are plucked out of that same stream.  And so, since the collective consciousness, for want of a better word, is aware of such plucking, we're then presented with the next logical evolution of that thought in the material world, either as a thing discovered or a happening.  This is perhaps why it's said that 'Watch your thoughts, they become... your destiny'.  This view also holds that all inventions are actually discoveries, of things or properties of nature lying dormant, sometimes in plain sight, till someone seemingly stumbles upon them in a flash of inspiration, even though after a lot of research and efforts.

Lately, I've been ruminating on a few minor... ummm... injustices life seems to have handed me.  Typical thoughts in a mid-life crisis (on the lines of 'I've done so much for others, what have I got in return' yada yada yada), which have the potential to turn any once energetic young person into a bitter old man, snapping at those around him to take out the frustration seemingly for minor slights or irritants, mostly unjustified considering life's bounties and good fortune.  To avoid continuing down the usual path of self-pity and then anger, I started to train my mind on Bhagavad Gita's core philosophy of 'Karmanyevadhikarastay ma faleshu kadachana...' i.e. you only have a right to the action, not to the fruits thereof.  it's good to remember that this, probably the most well known verse of the Gita, also extolls the virtues of ceaseless action (after all, we all have to 'pay our dues' to this earth) by ending with 'Ma tay sangoastvakarmani' i.e. don't let yourself fall prey to inaction.

Now, one aspect of Karm Yog, epitomised by the above action, is the rising of the Karta inside us.  Action often fuels the feeling of 'I have done this' in our ego, much against the admonition in the above verse of not taking credit for our actions.  In this, what may perhaps come to our rescue is the other side of the coin, Bhakti Yog, which advises us to dedicate all our actions, and the results of such actions, to the almighty.  (There's a beautiful song by Ramprasad, the 18th century devotee of goddess Kali: 'Shokoli tomari ichchha... Aami jontro tumi jontri...' i.e. I'm only an instrument in your hands.). Once we deduce that, one, nothing is actually done by us but we only pluck the actions out of collective consciousness as an instrument, and two, that as a corollary we don't have a right to the fruits of such actions, then the rising ego should be well controlled.  So the right way seens to be to dedicate all our actions, and the fruits of such actions, to the almighty, while continuing to act out our part in this worldly drama.  (And just a drama it is, as the Maya philosophy tells us.)

Now, while I'm in the process of thinking all this through, what should I come across but the very thought in writing which aligns with the same throught process!  Having 'coincidentally' risen a bit early and thus having a few minutes extra in hand before my morning walk, I decide to read an extra page of my daily Gita read. (I tend to 'ration' meaningful readings, so as not to cram my mind but be able to understand a bit as I go along.). The last verse on the last page I read today (of 'Yatharth Gita', an interpretation by Swami Adgadananda) is verse 29 of chapter 13, which goes like this:

Voila - what a coincidence! Once we understand that it's nature which performs all actions, and that we're actually non-doer or non-agent, that opens up a whole new way of looking at and dealing with the world.  Now to actually put this in action (pun intended) is the challenge... Didn't someone say that life is a lifelong self-improvement project? (Well, that someone's wife also said that a husband is a lifelong improvement project for a wife, but let's not go there at the moment...😁)

Now, that I was inspired to put pen to paper (or, more aptly, keyboard to screen) to put down these thoughts, is that also a mere coincidence or...