& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Farewell 2008

Just before immigrating to Toronto, Canada, in July 2008, I made a farewell card that I thought I would send to a few friends.
I never did.
I realized that it really didn't matter to them or to me.
Aristotle said: "O my friend, there are no friends..."
I think the card is good. So, here it is.
A farewell to the year that was...
And a message to my "friends": I'm fine.

Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher

He will have to learn, I know, 
that all men are not just, 
all men are not true. 

But teach him also that 
for every scoundrel there is a hero; 
that for every selfish politician, 
there is a dedicated leader… 

Teach him that for every enemy there is a 

It will take time, I know; 
but teach him, if you can, 
that a dollar earned is of far more value that 
five found… 

Teach him to learn to lose… 
and also to enjoy winning. 
Steer him away from envy, if you can, 
Teach him the secret of quiet laughter. 
Let him learn early that 
the bullies are the easiest to lick… 

Teach him, if you can, 
the wonder of books… 

But also give him quiet time 
to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the 
Bees in the sun, 
and flowers on a green hillside. 
In school teach him 
it is far more honourable to fail… 
than to cheat… 
Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, 
even if everyone tells him they are wrong… 

Teach him to be gentle with gentle people, 
and tough with the tough. 
Try to give my son 
the strength not to follow the crowd 
when everyone is getting on the band 

Teach him to listen to all men… 
but teach him also to filter all he hears 
on a screen of truth, 
and take only the good that comes through. 
Teach him, if you can, 
how to laugh when he is sad… 

Teach him there is no shame in tears. 

Teach him to scoff at cynics 
and to beware if too much sweetness… 

Teach him to sell his brawn 
and brains to the highest bidders, 
but never to put a price tag 
on his heart and soul. 
Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob… 
and to stand and fight 
if he thinks he’s right. 
Treat him gently, 
but do not cuddle him, 
because only the test of fire makes fine steel. 
Let him have the courage to be impatient… 
let him have the patience to be brave. 

Teach him always 
to have sublime faith in himself, 
because then he will always have  
sublime faith in mankind. 
This is a big order 
but see what you can do… 

He is such a fine little fellow, 
my son! 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance

On the second-last day of the year, I'm thinking of the most interesting book that I read in 2008.

Without any doubt it definitely is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. Published in the mid-1990s, the book is set in the Emergency era (1975-77), and has characters that stay etched in one's mind long after the last page of the book is read. 

It is tragedy on an epic scale -- Dickensian in its content and form. I recently read in the Globle and Mail that the book gets heavier and heavier with every page. 

The four characters -- Maneck, Dina Dalal, Ishvar and Om -- are puppets in author's hands. And he is the unrelenting God who is merciless in the treatment of his characters, often leaving his readers genuinely seeking respite. 

The misery that the characters experience lifts the novel to an altogether different level; a level that comes from a specific mastery over the art of story telling. 

Read the book if you haven't yet.

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Crangle for lending me the book, and also Mistry's Family Matters

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jesus, Jinnah and Atal Behari

I bet the headline is interesting.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Atal Behari Vajpayee share their date of birth with Jesus Christ. Isn't that an amazing coincidence?

I want to talk of three books that reveal their (Jinnah's and Vajpayee's) moderate style of politics and personality.

Ayesha Jalal's The Sole Spokesman Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan is, in my view, the best book on the politics of Jinnah, and Stanley Wolpert's Jinnah of Pakistan is probably the best biography of the creator of Pakistan.

I read both the books nearly a decade ago. They were published in the mid-1980s; Jalal’s book by Cambridge and Wolpert’s by Oxford.

Jalal writes objectively but polemically -- almost as a lawyer. If one has grown up on healthy dose of Indian nationalism, Jalal’s Jinnah is bound to make one uncomfortable most of the time, and really seethe with anger some times.

Wolpert’s book has his trademark style. Wolpert is one of the most readable historians on South Asian history of the British era. The depth and range of his work is awe inspiring. Wolpert is clearly an old school historian and takes it upon himself to make the subject of his book likeable without losing objectivity. Jinnah benefits from Wolpert’s affable style.

One of his lesser known, but a substantially more important book is Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India. It is an engaging discussion on the two directions in the development of Indian nationhood exemplified by Tilak's orthodoxy and Gokhale's liberalism. 

Earlier this year I read Lal Krishna Advani’s My Country My Life. Most of Advani's biography, especially the last chapters, make for laborious reading, but what lifts the book are the passages on Vajpayee. It is Vajpayee’s portrayal and the deference with which Advani treats his senior colleague that takes the book on an altogether different level.

Advani writes: “If I have to single out one person who has been an integral part of my political life almost from its inception till now, one who has remained my close ally in the party for well over fifty years, and whose leadership I have always unhesitatingly accepted, it would be Atal Bihari Vajpayee…”

Just as both Jalal’s and Wolpert’s books reveal the true, tolerant personality of the creator off Pakistan; Advani’s book also shows the expansive and inclusive style of Vajpayee’s politics.

Jinnah in his times and Vajpayee in our time are moderate leaders trapped in an intolerant ideology that the Muslim League and the RSS represent. These ideologies cage the free-spirited leadership style within narrow confines of hidebound belief systems.

Incidentally, Jinnah’s date of birth coincides with Jesus Christ. He died on 9/11 (September 11, 1948). How's that for significance?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reading & Gaming

Anyone with a child who is a young adult (11-17 age groups) knows that reading is not a priority. Not for the parent and definitely not for the child. Reading is something that s/he does occasionally, and almost always on the computer.

Reading a book is such a rarity. Recently, when my son finished the Island trilogy by the Canadian author Gordon Korman it was a cause of a minor celebration for us. 

Looking at the reading habits of the younger generation I'm completely convinced that books may not survive for long. Of course, reading will last longer. Books won't. They don't need to.

Books were a technological innovation that emerged from Johann Gutenberg's printing press of 1439. As a technological innovation, books have outlasted almost all technological innovation of that era. 

Books changed lives, and were a precursor to mass popularity of the written word. In a sense, books democratized knowledge, and enabled common people to access ideas hitherto reserved only for the privileged sections of the society. 

That popularity eventually led to mass media of the 20th century. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man by Marshall McLuhan is a brilliant exposition on the printing press's enormous overall impact. It is the book that first spoke of the global village. 

The globalization process and the advancement of technology (at a pace that outstrips advancement in science) brought about more democratization of the media. 

The internet has provided access to information and knowledge from across the world and blogs have made it possible for common people to express their views inexpensively through blogs. 

Undoubtedly, we are in the middle of a revolution that will change the way we consume and produce media. 

And books will die. Unlamented, perhaps.

It is in this context that I read the report published by Toronto Star's Ideas section last Saturday (December 20, 2008) that a California-based gaming company -- Electronic Arts -- is developing Dante Alighieri's epic Italian poem The Divine Comedy as a video game for kids called Dante's Inferno. The report Abandon hope, all ye who game here makes for interesting reading. But more than anything else, it sort of reconfirms my belief that books will have to mutate into other (more accessible) variants to survive. 

Video games are perhaps the best mutation for books. Books as video games will make them accessible to kids. The purists will disagree...nobody really cares for them. 

We’ll revisit the subject soon. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why read?

(The posts for the next few days will be a sort of dry runs)

Actually, before we attempt to answer that question, it would perhaps be pertinent to read a brief history of books. And since this is an informal medium, we needn’t look outside of the worldwide web. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book

While that gives substantial information about the history of books, it does not really explain why we read books.

Why does one read books? Everyone has a different reason, and a different answer.

I read books because I associate the activity that not only gives me pleasure but also gives me a sense of satisfaction that I’ve spent my time well in some sort of intellectual pursuit.

Watching a movie or a documentary on television may also give me pleasure, and on occasions be perceived as an intellectual activity, but is not the same as reading a book.

With the exception of Gone with the Wind and Godfather (in Hollywood) and Devdas (in the Indian film industry; not sure I should call it Bollywood – sounds so wannabe and almost derogatory), where the movies were infinitely better than the books, I have not seen a movie that has done justice to a book.

Incidentally, Margaret Mitchell actually won the Pulitzer for Gone with the Wind. Sharat Chandra Chatterji who wrote Devdas was a major literary force in Indian literature of the pre-independence era. He is instrumental, along with Premchand, in shaping Indian sensibilities of the modern era, especially towards women.

Saturday, December 20, 2008