Saturday, May 30, 2015

VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE: Why Is Madness More Important Than Normality

A woman named Veronika decides to end her life. She carries out her decision. Veronika didn’t die. Her life changes forever.

Paulo Coelho’s inspiration has provided the world several mind-opening and uniquely appealing books, like The Alchemist and The Fifth Mountain. [I only included the names of two that touched my life; there are many more that readers like me might have felt close to their heart].

Someone saved Veronika and took her to a psychiatric institution named Villete. At the institution, Veronika realizes the difference between madness and normality. In Villete, many men and women get treatment for their psychological problems. The institution itself stands as a sign of the unquestionable status of normality. Normal is acceptable. Any aberration from normality is pitted against the harsh criteria of judgment that pronounces people mad.
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Mari, an inmate realizes at the end that “life inside is exactly the same as life outside.” Another character, Eduard finds his madness and starts living with it, accepting his true self. Veronika’s life passes through stages she never dreamed of before.

Veronika Decides to Die takes readers to a world of madness that co-exists with the world we have created with our intention for normality. Paulo Coelho takes his readers to an interesting discussion on following one’s true and higher intentions as opposed succumbing to conformism imposed by one’s society. Villete as a closed space with only mad people permits any behavior that is out of normal. Veronika realizes this and starts learning that many times she tried to live her life only to satisfy a norm or criteria put forth by someone else. Paulo Coelho has mastery over human mind when he writes about such topics as “living our lives to the fullest” and “chasing a dream”. The world has witnessed and submitted itself to this mastery in Paulo’s renowned bestseller, The Alchemist. Veronika Decides to Die shows this master writer’s capability to instill in his readers thoughts of self-evaluation.

Often, the norms imposed by our society and parents limit our personal growth as well as the growth of our consciousness. Every individual is stuck by the thought of what would happen to his or her reputation if called mad by the society. The characters in Veronika Decides to Die are specimens of such a society. These characters have fears and insecurities that engulf our enthusiasm at a very early age in life, to explore, to fight our good fights, and to dare to dream. Veronika Decides to Die helps an intellectually active reader to realize that being called mad openly or being labeled mentally abnormal has an advantage. This advantage lies in the fact that every one of us, once being called mad, never risk the stigma involved in being mad again. This status liberates the individual to perform beyond his routines.
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Paulo Coelho also appears in Veronika Decides to Die as the author of this book, in the first couple of chapters. He relates his own experience of being admitted to a mental asylum and thus renders elements of autobiography to this novel. Veronika Decides to Die, like most of Paulo’s works, teaches its readers a deep philosophical lesson. The didactic purpose of the book envelopes the reader with the apprehension that not just mental asylums or being admitted to one, but also every other challenge in life against living a meaningful life should be taken as an opportunity to lead oneself to that very meaning of life.

Those who are interested in knowing more about Paulo’s experiences with mental institutions Confessions of A Pilgrim by Juan Arias would be a good source. Theater has adaptations of Veronika Decides to Die. A movie was also made on this novel in 2009. Paulo Coelho wrote Veronika Decides to Die originally in Portuguese language. Margaret Jull Costa translated Veronika Decides to Die into English. One of my friends remarked when she saw this book in my hands that she read a translation. I replied that I too am reading a translation. This book is originally written in Portuguese, I said. Oh, then she corrected herself, I mean I read it in its Malayalam translation.

I am convinced that the best judge of the quality of a translation is readers’ comments. A reader’s feelings about a book asserts a book’s quality, however naïve that method may sound. My colleagues in the academia might not agree with me here. But I must say that you are free to disagree from what I agree upon.

There is more to it. I talked about Veronika Decides to Die to many people, before reading the book and after. Most of them made one specific comment in common about the book. As the book was about one specific subject it was not unusual for them to touch upon it, I thought.

Veronika Decides to Die haunts their mind, they said. One of them even said that this book instills the desire to commit suicide. I consider that at precisely this point, the book takes off into another level; goes onto reach a much larger canvas, that of higher consciousness. When one thinks about it, the idea appears clear in mind. It is not the book, as such, that prompts thoughts of hopelessness or anxiety, but the ideas that appear in this book. Like Veronika herself, the reader realizes the uselessness of a life controlled by routines. Most of us experience the same in employment or in family. Veronika realizes that it is not merely enough to please the authority at work and follow the routines. And so does the readers. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE EINSTEIN ELEMENT: Seeing Greatness the Indian Way

Note: If your mental capacity is underdeveloped for intellectual activity, this article may seem a bit long-winded. Thanks for stopping by anyway.
Observing is good. It’s not necessary to say that one is observing or that one has been benefited from observation. Simply observe your world within and without. You will take away bountiful treasures.

A book, recently, caught my eye. It was titled How To Think Like Albert Einstein. It is apparently, a highly controversial topic to imitate a genius, of whatever area of expertise one might be. Nevertheless, it was a book on success and was very strategic in its presentation. It may not be an exaggeration that if a reader stumbles upon the book he or she is tend to take it word for word as the true essence of the great Albert Einstein. However, arguments exist that reject such an overwhelming influence.

Imitation may hinder an individual's progress to evolve into a being of higher consciousness, because in imitating another person in thoughts or action, one is essentially following someone else's paradigm of living. This, at the same time, does not indicate the fact that elements of greatness whoever the carrier of those elements be, must not be followed in our personal life.

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To think that lessons learnt are greatly valuable, irrespective of the source, would be a lie. Indeed, the source matters. Therefore, we cannot neglect when a population adores and worships an individual for the capacity of growth one has exhibited in human form. It is, therefore, important to evaluate one of the greatest known persons on planet earth today, Einstein or Gandhi, whoever be it. An investigation into what might have helped an individual outperform his or her limiting circumstances could reveal invaluable lessons for generations to come. This is, perhaps, the take-away-goodie from How To Think Like Albert Einstein.

Imitation is not our concern. Our concern is to transform this generation into a bunch of geniuses. In this regard, this book, How To Think Like Albert Einstein seems to be fulfilling a greater purpose.

What makes a few people among us geniuses? Isn’t it an interesting question to ponder? I am not the first one to inquire in this line. I have even heard that they have Albert Einstein’s brain under scrutiny in order to study what the elements are that made him what he was. Some say his brain was bigger in size compared to the size of brain of an average human being. Is it the brain alone that made his personality and thinking process uniquely important? We must remember that Einstein’s contributions helped transform a generation.

I reviewed a book a few months back, The Proof of Heaven, written by Dr. Eben Alexander. This book enumerates the reasons to believe that consciousness can outlive human physical life. This indicates that thoughts have a life beyond brain. In other words, to be a brainiac is not the important thing, but to be able to tune into the frequency of cosmic consciousness in which thoughts exist.

Another criteria, some might say involved in proclaiming someone a genius, is credentials he or she gathers in the area of work they are specialized. One such individual comes to my mind. His name is Sachin Tendulkar.  

Sachin Tendulkar is the latest in the long line of geniuses traced back to Newton and Bethovan. Sachin was only sixteen when he first played his international match. This legendary cricketer played his Test debut on 15 November 1989. He played this match against Pakistan in Karachi.

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What delineates Sachin's personality from others' of his generation from the same field of activity? Sachin's cricketing career started back in the early 90s. As a teenager Sachin’s performance captured the heart and soul of India.

Sachin was a full-time candidate for greatness throughout the 29 states and 7 union territories in India. People responded by crowning him with the title of “Master Blaster”. As a teenager, I was a great fan of Indian cricket, this game nurtured by the British, but carried forward by its colonial subjects. Sachin Tendulkar's phenomenal reach into the Indian demographic, perhaps, owes to his ability to appear meek and amenable. When I observed him as an individual, I came across several qualities in Sachin Tendulkar that I believe, rewarded him with the throne of the “god of cricket” in India.

My attraction for cricket started dwindling down, later. This was the time of match fixing and corruption. Many Indian players were part of the scandal and actively took part in the illegal process. They did it just for one thing—money. Perhaps, Sachin Tendulkar is different from all those in this regard. He wasn’t charged with allegations, and stood by his values by fighting corruption in Indian cricket.
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At this point, a very important realization rises in my mind. Greatness isn’t necessarily the result of what one does in some field of activity, like Einstein or Tendulkar. Greatness could be those silent qualities an individual harbours and interacts with inside one’s higher consciousness. Then, perhaps, we all have a share of greatness in us, irrespective of our professional qualifications, nationalities, and colour.

Friday, May 22, 2015

SCION OF IKSHVAKU: Can Amish Write a New Story for Ram?

Who is Ram? The young prince who ruled Ayodhya and conquered Lanka? The warrior who defeated Raavan, the ruler of Lanka and saved his wife from danger? The legend of Rama is as old as the Indian civilization itself. Evidences are scarce to prove the earthly existence of this legendary king. However, the Hindus believe that Ram is one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of sustenance. Some scholars believe that Ram was a historical figure and not just a mythological character.

Ram also appears as the label figure on some of the right wing political parties. His fame and influence is present still, even in the modern Indian society. A temple dedicated for Lord Ram in Ayodhya is a constantly burning issue in the Indian political scene.

In one of my previous bog posts, I reviewed a book on Ram, also known as Rama, an additional vowel sound, courtesy of the Sanskrit word that is his name. Ramayana: The Game Of Life - Book 2 (Shattered Dreams) was written by Shubha Vilas. In this blog post, I also mentioned what some may call a new wave in Indian popular fiction writing. Mythological fiction has sprung from the landscape of historical fiction inaugurated by Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and the like.

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The forerunner in the marathon of mythological fiction is a young writer who grew up in Odisha. He never wrote a single short story before this idea struck him. This idea was about Lord Siva being an ordinary man, in what seems like the Middle Earth created by Tolkien. He wrote the story down. Sent it to many publishers who rejected him due to the same reasons they rejected almost all major authors of our time, some time in their career. So he went to a self-publishing company. Printed his book out and used his unbeatable marketing skills. In India, quality comes last. If you can market poison as healthcare medicine, you can buy a Ferrari selling poison. This young man from a humble family knew this as fact. He left his career in banking and became a full-time author.

The name of this young author is Amish, full name, Amish Tripathi. He published his first book The Immortals of Meluha thinking that it may sell about 500 copies.

But he was wrong, once in his life.

He did not sell just 500 copies. He sold books in numbers one cannot imagine a book could sell in India. No one envied him. Everyone knew here that it was a dreamy height. Who would envy a dream?

Amish Tripathi’s first book The Immortals of Meluha was about Siva, the god of destruction, according to Hindu mythology. Instead of narrating the story of the god with sentimentality and with overdone reverence, as it happens mostly in India when one talks about gods, Amish presented his lead character, Siva as an ordinary human being. Every ordinary man possesses the inner strength to reach the pinnacle of self-actualization, taught this popular novel.
Image Courtesy: Amish Tripathi

Two other books followed The Immortals of Meluha. The Siva trilogy assimilated a success never seen in the Indian publishing industry. Many are motivated and inspired by this success. The result of this success is the publication of many pulp mythological novels that bear the name of one clan or the other from any of the Indian epics. Ramayana and Mahabharatha follows a tradition that never disappoints story-seekers. These two epics are full of branching and unending stories that even today writers copy their plots from these grand narratives.

Mahatma Gandhi imprinted in the Indian mind an image of Ram that is of both a socially responsible man, and a divine figure. The divine image of Ram stays in the Indian mind to this day. Somewhere Ram, the human prince has lost its appeal. Perhaps, our penchant for divinity has conquered our sense of political correctness.

The kingdom of Ram is also known Ram Rajya. This Rajya is an ideal society. In its idealistic undertones, it may mirror paradise in the Judeo-Christian tradition or the socialist utopia of the communists. However, in India, many massacres occurred in the name of Ram Rajya. Bloodshed and arrogance of dominant communal powers stained the story of Ram, already. This figure, historical or otherwise needs to be heard.

Sita, his wife was abducted by Raavan, the legendary baddy from the southern kingdom, Lanka. Ram eventually forsakes Sita, but only after murdering Raavan. In the later years, the listeners of Ram’s story questions him, the husband, for his blind following of laws and codes of the nation in abandoning Sita.

Now, Amish, the man who wrote about the god of destruction has a new book to announce. He has already finished writing this new book. It will come out towards the second half of this year’s rainy July. Amish has announced that his new book is about Ram.

When Amish announced his new title after the Siva trilogy, and said this book will be about Ram, everyone got excited. He called this book Scion of Ikshvaku. Amazon was too excited that it came up with a pre-order package with a free metallic bookmark with Vedic inscriptions carved in it. I found another factor a tad surprising. This pre-order campaign has landed Scion of Ikshvaku on the number one bestselling position, even before its release.

The blurb quoted in reads as follows:
“Will Ram rise above the taint that others heap on him? Will his love for Sita sustain him through his struggle? Will he defeat the demon Lord Raavan who destroyed his childhood? Will he fulfill the destiny of the Vishnu?”

The real questions are; can Amish weave his ordinary man’s adventure story around Ram? If he can, would this be the beginning of a new narrative for Ram?

This time, Amish hasn’t planned for a trilogy. Scion of Ikshvaku would be first in a series named “Ram Chandra” series.   

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Three Major Elements Of Higher Consciousness

Harper Lee. Image Courtesy:
In 1960, a thirty-four year old woman got a chance to publish her second novel. She was still in very much good relationship with her hope to be a published author. Oh yes, she had another volume, her first work, sitting in a closet in her house. Someone had suggested her after reading that first piece of her creative journey that she must pen down another story, perhaps she should even trace the back-story of the original that she had just submitted. Harper Lee, the young woman in her early thirties, decided should certainly take a chance with her creative powers. She did. She wrote a new book with the same characters in her first book, with just one crucial difference. In this book, she told the story of her protagonist when she was a young girl of twelve. The novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, just a year after the first edition published.     

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Another legend about To Kill a Mockingbird is related to Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, another bestselling author. The story goes that the young boy who appears as the friend of Jean Louise, the protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird carries similarities with Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s childhood friend. Another story might convince one that there may be a certain truth about these autobiographical elements in To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is about Truman Capote’s work. When Truman was working on his book, the first non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, Harper Lee accompanied him to interview the people related to the 1959 murder of the family from Holcomb, Kansas.  

The reason I included To Kill a Mockingbird in my summer 2015 reading list was a friend of mine who recommended it and said one does not want to be over with reading his book. To Kill a Mockingbird commands an intimately personal experience from the reader. This personal connection, I believe, is in no way derogatory to the spirit the book carries. The gestalt To Kill a Mockingbird forms with the reader is deeply connected with our higher consciousness. This is the reason why we immediately see injustice and feel the pain of hurting a fellow being, and observe ourselves doing so, as if hovering from a higher space all the while.

Interestingly, I discovered three major elements in To Kill a Mockingbird that are harmonious with higher consciousness. They are; 1. Innocence 2. Love and respect for everyone 3. Following one’s conscience.          

1.       Innocence: Innocence of To Kill a Mockingbird is tangible as the pages of a book are. Under the skin, something invokes our sensitivities and we realize the innocence of the speaker, experiencing it and walking with it until the end of the book. From the opening scene in the book, innocence cannot be separated from narration. In other words, language and narrative strategy is the cause of what we experience as innocence of the protagonist. However, the innocent observations of Jean Louise, the protagonist reaches into the realm of our soul. The voice of Jean Louise takes the story into a level of perfection that would be near to impossible otherwise, in terms of storytelling strategies. To Kill a Mockingbird opens with a scene describing a young boy’s broken arm. The voice that describes the incident and the boy is that of Jean Louise. Minimum space is devoted to introduce characters. They appear from nowhere but the reader learns that they had always been there in the vicinity of Jean Louise. Her neighbors and aunt just appear one by one to populate and inhabit this Alabama small town named Maycomb. Such narrative strategy would have brought a lot of frowns had the narrative voice been a bit more mature. Sometimes, the innocent realizations of Jean Louise are lifesaving miracles for some. Harper Lee’s narrative style builds the innocence of the story, and in return, the innocence of the story weaves its own thread of language, a language that communicates beyond words.   

2.       Love and respect for everyone: “Most people are, [nice] Scout, when you finally see them.” Atticus Finch is a symbolic Samaritan. His observations on human nature and his acts on accord of his professional integrity reveal his respect for everyone. This excluded no one. The colored and the white, the good ones and the bad, all fall within his vision of respect. For a generation of people in America who grew up with reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch represents an ideal lawyer hero. I heard many writers and readers remark on his personality; how much it influenced them. This is the story of a good lawyer tested by time and destiny alike. There is a story that circles around the publishing world that Harper Lee titled this second book Atticus, first. However, the book isn’t an exclusive character portrait, like for example, Tess of D’Urbervilles. Atticus Finch has had his influence upon me too. The other day, I saw a John Grisham legal thriller in a bookshop’s used books section at New Bus Stand Kannur. I immediately purchased it. The book was The Last Juror. When I checked for the book’s reviews, I observed that this one is classified number 4 of Grisham’s all-time bests! My feeling after seeing a legal thriller was unique. It was something I never felt before. I had a new light under which I saw this book.

3.       Following one’s conscience: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (116). This attitude is the impetus behind all Atticus’s actions. Harper Lee exhibits an immense understanding of human psyche. This point draws my attention towards another dot in my awareness. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, analyses the concept of conscience in his body of psychoanalytical works. His researches that appear in Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning carry enlightening revelations on human conscience. These enlightening revelations assert that conscience is not just a cliché one resorts when old age knocks on the door rendering one helpless to take rough choices in life. Conscience has a greater meaning. Viktor E. Frankl argues that conscience has strong connections with the unconscious territory of human mind. In his terms, human unconsciousness is a spiritual territory, the stuff that makes humans different from animals. “Love also parallels conscience with respect to the uniqueness of its target,” (42) he writes. Harper Lee contrasts Atticus’s active conscience with the passive conscience of the Ewells and the like.                      
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To Kill a Mockingbird is a book on childhood. It’s a book about a man who could not stand being a different person at home from what he is on the street or at work place. It’s also a book about standing by your values. The way Harper Lee wrote about relationships in this book brings upon it a significant psychological achievement. Another work of fiction written in our century or even in the history of literatures written in English language hasn’t reached the standards set by Ms. Lee in her novel. Never has a novel such a success in using a child’s perspectives to express life and the way of the world.

Tom Robinson becomes a painful memory, as if he is a real human being and not just a character in a nicely told story. The truth may be a bit unsettling. Tom Robinson is not just a character at all. He is a symbol of discrimination that happens even today. My students often ask me what the significance of fiction is. Here is my answer. What one can learn about the history of discrimination reading To Kill a Mockingbird cannot match any factual retelling of those events in history books. And this is perhaps one more reason to read fiction, the good ones, especially.            

The book Harper Lee wrote first, the one that she silently kept in her closet—someone discovered it. The title of this book is Go Set a Watchman.

Monday, May 4, 2015

SYRIA CRISIS: How Smuggling May Help Academics

In 1997, a Taliban commander by the name Abdul Wahed proclaimed that the enormous Buddha statues of Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan would be demolished. This was even before he could call his mission of entering the valley a reality. However, the terrorist organization finally enacted their ominous promise. In 2001, dynamites and anti-aircraft missiles fired their might towards the silent statues, the witnesses of many centuries of human activity and culture, and demolished them. Today, after fourteen years, even this act of extreme intolerance has become history. It seems very much politically correct to call it a history, right?

Fourteen years later, the free world has something to ponder over about those acts that I just addressed extreme intolerance. Were those acts of demolition actually the results of intolerance?

Back in 2001, the Taliban leader, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar released his edict against all un-Islamic idols and images. Because of being un-Islamic, it was a necessity to cleanse the region of any such 'malice'. The argument had a strong fundamentalist ideological base.

Fast-forward fourteen years. Similar to the rise of the Taliban, another terrorist organization evolves-the ISIS. News have come out that illegal smuggling of antiques have been in vogue recently in the conflict stricken areas of Syria. According to a recent newspaper report, ancient manuscripts and other items have already reached many European countries. Although it may sound a Eurocentric view, these antiques are better kept safe, smuggled or otherwise, rather than being dynamited by some religious fundamentalist group.

Historical artifacts are often of immense academic value. However, to remove antiques and artifacts of any historical significance from their context may be deemed a sin in the academia this act may at least help preserve the relics of time and space. In order to link the past with the present the physicality of time is important. To establish human relationship with time it is important to study the results of that interaction, which is available to us now in the form of ancient documents, crafts and relics of human culture from a past time.

Perhaps, piracy and smuggling must be understood with a wider meaning in the twenty-first century. The same way online book piracy helps to make available banned books in various parts of the world, including in India, where a recently banned book on Hindus is available online in pdf-book format, smuggling ancient artifacts and antiques serves a historical purpose. Perhaps, the renaissance men too were condemned of smuggling their books and manuscripts into Europe. At the cost of this "movement of objects of history" out of a demolition zone, human history underwent remarkable changes.
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At the onset of the current upheaval in Syria and in the Middle East, it is safe to assume that the artifacts and historical art traded across the boarders would certainly turn immensely beneficial for those who study them and connect the dots in the growth and evolution of culture.

Sadly, though, the ISIS and other terrorist organizations operating in the region also get their cut of the income drawn from the illegal selling of historical treasures. It's a slippery slope when we keep ourselves entirely blind towards what happened to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. I was a teenager back in 2001. When I watched the event in TV, I had the feeling that something was terribly wrong. When art is aimed for extremist agendas, the horror of destruction is transformed into the destruction of sensibilities. Fourteen years later, when I read the news of illicit smuggling from out of Syria, I consider it an advantage over the past.