A Book A Week Challenge – Week 24

I read an article only a few days ago with a premise that we humans might be socially programmed and discusses the consequences associated with it. (Sincere apologies for not being able to recollect the author).

This would essentially mean whatever you do as part of your social ecosystem, it is not you who is the hero of that story – Dwayne Johnson comically puts it in his latest release Central Intelligence, where he says “How can that be a possibility? You are the only one in it?”

Well, there might be others who control your social associations – if not in the means but to meet the ends. This is not the first time that this feature appeared in a dystopian novel – we read in “1984” and so we did in Well and Caché, But, what remarkably distinguishes Howard Jacobson’s 2014 Man Booker Shortlisted- novel “J” is its brilliant characterizations.

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Book #: 24

Title: J” by Howard Jacobson

Pages: 326

Before you even jump into reading the contents of this book – there are three aspects that demand your immediate attention. First being, the title in itself and the second being, the catastrophic event that everyone refers to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT EVER HAPPENED and the final one is the “argument” it makes.

First: The title of the novel is “J” with two lines crossing horizontally. It is associated with the lead character Kevern Cohen’s gesture whenever he had to use the letter J. He puts two fingers across his lips every time he had to use a work with J – Joke, Jog, Jump, and so on. Anything with J. It comes as an instruction from his father who induced it into his subconscious memory – the gesture just followed. What does that even mean? – we never know at least within the book. But, it definitely had to with WHAT HAPPENED.

Second: WHAT HAPPENED is the term that is used to refer the catastrophe that the world had to surpass and the setting of this novel is sometime in future, after surviving the catastrophe. What is this catastrophe about? – is it a viral disease that infected many people, genocide involving specific race with the name starting J – we never know.

Third: “Argument” – Howard Jacobson starts the novel with an opening statement – a ceremonial argument. This is the essential bone this novel around which brilliantly written characters transform into flesh.

“After that, I will have no option but to eat myself”

As for the writing of this novel, it is a straight linear narration. Of course, the story around in time to provide us the necessary background of the characters and whatever happened during WHAT HAPPENED. As they say even in the extreme of conditions, the thing that survives is LOVE. Aillian’s mother adds some wisdom to it by saying “Love, Hatred, and Disgust- are the three emotions that cannot be inflamed”

The reading of this book couldn’t have come with a better timing as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union- the future is filled with uncertainty and instability in Europe, as many predict, it could lead to a situation where the generations to come might refer to this event as “WHAT HAPPENED”. This is a straight forward question and reminds you a fact that despite this being a fiction novel – the reality is not far away.

This novel features some of the best memorable characters ever written – each and every character is supported with a detailed backstory as to how they lead up into the post-apocalyptic world that the story is set up in.

Kevern and Aillian are the lead characters who fall for each other – with distinguished characteristics. Kevern might come across as a bold, strong willed individual whose world comes shattering as he opens the letters box from his father. Aillian is a feebly built, sensitive woman grown in an orphanage with vulnerabilities all around her. Both fall in love – but it is not the destiny that decided it but someone drove that and she bears a child that is meant to bring “Normal Opposite” to the world that is wiped off disagreement.

Then there is Detective Inspector Gutkind, Historian and Barber Densdell Kroplik, Ferdinand Moskowitz, Lowenna Morgensten, Rebecca and many more characters that stay with you even after days you finish the book but my personal favorite is – Esme Nassbaum. This is one of the brilliantly written characters and would stay for a long time in my memory. The interesting aspect of the book is it takes off with amazingly attractive male characters- the flow, the narration is all centered around males with distinguished attributes – except for Aillin who struggles to fit into her identity in this novel. Come the second half, the female characters are written in a way that you would be eager to know more about them – forget the lead Kevern, forget the murder of Gutkind, you will stay amazed with these female characterizations.

Overall, “J” by Howard Jacobson can as well be the British dystopian novel of our time as described by John Burnside in his Guardian Review. For me, this would be remembered as a novel that I could use as a reference material for writing characters if I ever chose to write a book of my own.

Watch his talk with Al Senter during Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

The Theory of Interacting Cricles

Almost two years ago, on a rainy weekend, me and my other two roommates, were having a random conversation. The topics of conversation went as random as it could get – from cricket, sports management, to business management, to HR policies and so on. But, the switch had been immensely swift that we didn’t have anything important to conclude with. Not until we came up with this question:

Human relations are established day-in and day out. But, is there a theoretical way that could represent these interactions?”

Then the conversation gained structure and over the next two hours as we skipped the dinner, we thought of some theory that we would want it to be called as “The Theory of Interacting Circles”

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I want to remind you straight away that we were not referring to any books or research material. The thoughts were not structured but by the end of it, we agreed that this made sense.

So, here is how the theory goes:

Every individual, either man or woman, will have their own circle. Imagine a circle encompassing your body- well technically it would be a sphere in three-dimensions.

So, every human, in a socially fit frame of mind, would have this circle/sphere that would define his or her social acceptability.

The way this sphere is shaped depends on the historical knowledge that he/she would gain from their experiences. It could be more horizontal- the extroverts and more vertical- the introverts. Now, this is very fluid shape- as for the social acceptance of an individual would change with every single book he might read, every single interaction he might have, every single news he might hear or every single accident he might encounter. Whatever might be the reason, the fluidic nature of this circle would define the “Stability” of his nature.

Kindly note, the instability is not a negative term in this context.

So, every human will have this ever changing fluidic imaginary circle around them.

Now, how do his/her interactions go?

Interaction might not necessarily mean the conversation that they have. It could be any form of knowledge that a person could gain on the other. This information would add “imaginary grains” into individual’s circles.

Here is where the catch is – the volume of “grains” that an individual fill in is not a function of his partner’s circle. It is purely dependent on the individual’s existing circle.

So, the way I populate the “grains” related to you has very little to do with your circle.

This is the reason why the same person might have completely different “grain” structures.

As for the relationship comes, here is where the two circles of individuals interact. It could be visualized the Venn-diagram with two areas. The space of interaction would define the strength of the relation. But, the proportion it forms in other individual’s life is completely in control of his pre-existing “grains”.

So, in spite of the fact that you and your friend would be willing to die for one another, there is a lot of grain content that you are not aware. This uncontacted grain zone would technically lead to the mishaps happening between the people in a relationship.

More often than not, individuals being aware that they entered other’s circle, would want to expand the “zone of interaction” – which would force them to push for more and more gains into others circles. But, the grains which you are populating might or might not be in alignment with those that he/she already have for you. The higher the mismatch, the higher the resistance to accepting. And therefore, this forced unwanted grain that you populate might eat into the existing grain.

This would reduce the existing “zone of interaction” and therefore the break-ups or splits in relationships.

This concludes “The Theory of Interaction Circles”

A word of caution is that this theory was evolved as a part of the conversation. So, no reference to any research was done. If there is something out there, which talks about the exactly same thing, then it’s a mere coincidence or we did not find anything new.

Image Courtesy: ShutterStock

If you agree or disagree with this thought, kindly let me know in the “Comments” section below.  If you like the conversation, please feel free to click “Like” or “Share” within your circle.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 23

Sri Lanka played a crucial role in Hindu mythology – and that too in a yuga – that technically supposed to have preached the best practices for human living. It is the only avatar of Lord Vishnu that describes God as a normal human. But, even in this ideal world, Sri Lanka was a land of conflict – the war zone. Many millions of years and two yugas later, Sri Lanka still witnesses a war. As some artistic interpretation of this island’s to be in the form of ‘tear drop’, the existence seems to be on purpose.

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Book #: 23

Title: This Divided Island” by Samanth Subramanian

Pages: 318

Samanth Subramanian’s detailed, eloquent, investigative, psychological narration of this island unravels the life of many millions who fell on the either side of the war. “This Divided Island” would be one of the most researched war stories I have read. The names of interviewees keep popping up every next page. Samanth Subramanian should be proud of himself for putting a war story as brilliant as none out there could do, at least for Sri Lanka.

1914 was when the First World War happened and 100 years of civilization passed ever since. But, the world learned nothing from it – if the data were to be fed into a machine learning tool, it would have directed a much better behavioral patterns than we humans currently do. We are to be the most sophisticated species and so we are complex and so we behave even myopic than the machines with limited data.

Every culture, in itself, associates its behavior to a well-referenced and unique mythology. But, it is strange that every mythological reference more often than not points to violence – man vs. man, man vs. woman, race vs. race, caste vs. caste, land vs. land. The preaching comes at the end quoting not to involve into any of these but we were lost by then. For Sri Lanka, it is even more ironical. It was a culture that was built on the mythological references to Buddha- who renounced the violence and set out in an attempt to enlightenment.

But as Samanth puts it brilliantly in this book:

“Sri Lanka is, as decreed by the Buddha himself, the ultimate refuge of his faith, so any measure- even violence – is permissible in the protection of Buddhism”

We all live now in societies inured to violence, but the violence of a full-fledged war is unique in its refusal to hide, in how openly it declares its intent to harm other men and women. The war in Sri Lanka is not a present day one as mentioned above, it goes way back to the Yugas and then to the years of Mahavamsa, the 101 of Buddhism, and to the present day conflicts. The present conflict unfolded at multiple levels – Sinhalese oppressed Tamils (for the land that no one knows who landed first) then Tigers fighting for a separate Eelam and then Army fighting against Tigers (to protect whom?).

The end of it is a history that was marked with tears of millions of lives who do not even know who they want to even trust. “Once the war begins, there are no choosing sides and the lives that fall cannot be distinguished from which side you fell” It takes everyone equally.

Samanth’s narration of this war story and its after effects is as eloquent as a grandmother’s story under the pleasant night sky. The story is not as pleasant to make it to that list of grandmother stories but it keeps the reader engaged all through it.

As years of Sinhalese oppression passed, a youngster with a group that is motivated by “The glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world” to propose the “only other alternative” for the Tamils. “Tiger” Prabhakaran might be a man of angry blood but he did his homework – he read the war books for techniques and ideologies- he practiced hours together- but that is where the good part of his side of the story ends.

In the early days of “Tigers”, the people seemed to be more comfortable with them than the government itself. As some interviewees put it “There are no crimes, people felt comfortable to walk around the city, the doors were left unlocked” but as with all the movements driven by a man than ideology, LTTE transformed itself into a beast of its own. The objective is no longer the Eelam but the protection of its leader.

The government didn’t do much good to it either – as the governments changed and the army’s power increased – the ends were met with horrible means. The control was to be taken back but it adopted measures that would remind you of George Orwell’s dystopian world in “1984”.

Samanth describes it as: “life becomes an act, to be performed for the satisfaction of the audience”

The war might have ended with the killing of Prabhakaran but the normal lives of people never returned. Physically conditions might have improved, they no longer needed many checkpoints to be cleared, they no longer had to be 2000 rupees to buy a tin of milk but the mental exhaustion might take many years to return to normalcy. Citizens were still under the fear of narrating their side of the story fearing the government.

In the new Sri Lanka, demolition was a vital tool for nation building. But, it didn’t just stop there. The demolition is accompanied by a relief of false success- to make it complete- wipe off all the demolition and physical memories of war. But, who can wipe those years of anguish to losing the loved ones in a war that’s fought where both the sides ended on a losing cause.

The victory monument: A soldier with a flag pole bearing the Sri Lankan flag in his left hand and AK-47 with a dove perched upon it in his right hand. The dove looks as if it might take a flight in any second, its wings, unfurled, but the soldier’s grip upon his AK-47 was firm and unyielding. – summarizes the war situation with absolute brilliance.

Samanth Subramanian’s “This Divided Island” will remain as one of the monumental narrations of life in Sri Lanka for many generations to come. It involves real people pouring their hearts out with their versions of “told truth” and it should be believed as “factual truth” since war never keeps its stories alive by itself.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 22

When Ramana Maharshi published his path-breaking preaching seeking the answer for “Who Am I?”, he shared his thoughts in the introduction as:

“As all living beings desire to be happy always, without misery, as in the case of everyone there is observed supreme love for one’s self and as happiness alone is the cause for love, in order to gain that happiness which is one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep where there is no mind, one should know one’s self.”

Even though his words are implied for spiritual self-inquiry; for many years’ scientists/biologists/revolutionaries/political leaders joined the league for their own specific interests – which might have or have not contributed to the greater good of human existence.

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Book #22

Title: The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Pages: 608

This perfectly sets the backdrop for Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene: An Intimate History” where he explores the evolution of study towards understanding the basic element of humans – Gene. He draws parallels of Gene with the most fundamental elements of components that influenced our lives forever – in the league of atoms and bytes.

The writing is unforgivingly personal as he explains the situation that his family had to experience, specific to mental illness and the contribution of heredity (later addressed in terms of genes) towards it. He takes you back in time from the era of Aristotle’s “information transmission” to Mendel’s “peas” to Darwin’s “Survival of fittest” to the modern era of “Nazi clan” followed by the present or future generation’s “The Human Genome Project”

As a scientist, the approach appears to be largely simple – Build a hypothesis, test it in experiment zone, log the readings and make the conclusions. This is the approach used by Siddhartha Mukherjee – a biologist/scientist himself. It is this inquisitive behavior and more research-based writing makes this book brilliant.

He spends quite some pages on explaining the evolution of Jewish killings during the barbaric times of Hitler. Started off as a mission to sterilize humans with ‘incorrect’ genes so as to prevent the future generation to not be ‘unfit/ useless’ to the society, ended up being a pursuit for race extinction.

This is how he describes the transition:

“In the end, the Nazi program to cleanse the “genetically sick” was just a prelude to a much larger devastation to come. Horrific as it was, the extermination of the deaf, blind, mute, lame, disabled, and feebleminded would be numerically eclipsed by the epic horrors ahead— the extermination of 6 million Jews in camps and gas chambers during the Holocaust; of two hundred thousand Gypsies; of several million Soviet and Polish citizens; and unknown numbers of homosexuals, intellectuals, writers, artists, and political dissidents.”

Scientists have a great responsibility to the society in which they operate – they are around with immense hopes vested on them to solve the real world problems but not for the greed of certain sections of society – wealthy, political and so on. Sid Mukherjee makes his stance clear, right at the top, and doesn’t take a step back to bash those scientists who were involved in attempts such as the ones mentioned above.

As the scientists started to break the human existence and held “Genes” being the ones contributing to the dominant behavior, he poses a question in front of everyone:

“Maternal Twins have exactly same gene structure corresponding to them but why the difference in behavior?”

He brings in the fundamentals of Nature versus Nurture coined by Galton- this discriminates the effect of these two individual factors (hereditary and environmental) that shapes the behavior of individuals.

But, in order to be separate the impact by two different factors, the human body needs to be broken down to the level of DNA and genes. It might bring you the answers but at the cost of “never going back”

Here is how he describes the complexity of role of the scientist:

“You can only decipher the meaning of a sentence by deciphering every individual word- yet a sentence carries more meaning than any of the individual words” he begins and draws parallels with what eagerness of scientist can do: “Scientists divide. We discriminate. It is the inevitable occupational hazard of our profession that we must break the world into its constituent parts— genes, atoms, bytes— before making it whole again. We know of no other mechanism to understand the world: to create the sum of the parts, we must begin by dividing it into the parts of the sum.”

Now, we know how why we need to read Genes- then what next – sum it up to make a meaningful sentence. The sentences are formed based on brilliant phrases that constituted by words. In this particular case, “DNA” are those phrases that made the sentence beautiful

“In DNA, the four “leaves” (or bases) were adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine— abbreviated A, G, C, and T. In RNA, the thymine was switched into uracil— hence A, C, G, and U. 1 Beyond these rudimentary details, nothing was known about the structure or function of DNA and RNA.”

Humans are nothing but the combination and sequencing of these AGCTs in our DNA.

Now we know how to read and interpret the gene, where do we go next? – These genes can be tied back/divided with the millions of genes in a human body- either to cut off bad genes that cause illness or join with those that makes you more desirable or athletic or intelligent. But, there is an opportunity that stares right down at this with a lot intimidation when we cannot control who manipulates it?

The implications- reduced control on how manipulates them would make it extremely difficult. Too tight and you make no progress. Here is where this whole project ends – with the stage of gene manipulation. We are not there but getting close and when that day comes everyone needs to be prepared to fight for those rights to protect the purity of these genes.

Overall, THE GENE by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a masterpiece, at least in the genre of “medical research”. It invokes a reason for dialogue that demands maintenance of control in the areas of research. – from both the hands of policy makers and scientists simultaneously.

For me personally, this is one book that is going to stay in my library for many long years to come. I would track the technological advancements in gene manipulation (either for illness eradication or hubris of individuals) in the next few years.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 21

During the times of war or chaos, the outside world would be informed only of the number of lives had gone missing or fled away from the troubled land or even left to dead- these numbers could vary from thousands or to many millions. But, what lies beyond these volumes are many lives – people like you and me- in blood, skin and muscle- that add up to those volumes. Every single life is accompanied with dreams and aspiration – every single story of them deserve a telling. 

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Janine Di Giovanni’s “The Morning They Came For Us” – an unflinching journalistic narration of what happened in the lives of thousands of Syrian’s during Assad’s regime and civil war focuses exactly on those lives.

Book #: 21

Title: The Morning They Came for Us” – Janine Di Giovanni

Pages: 224 

There are some books that leave you with a sense of joy and excitement- something to look forward- with happy endings. And there are some that motivate you to be part of a bigger change that could make this world a better place. And then there are some books, that makes you feel disgusted about, make you feel anguish and even at times more makes you feel helpless. But unlike above two, this more often is not a fictional story. This is the taste that Janine’s journalistic account of how the lives of many Syrians changed (ing) during all these civil war years leave you with – and it is exactly how you should feel when you read those stories.

“All we want is our stories to be heard” – is what she writes about some Syrians who lost everything for no fault of theirs- families, lifetime earnings and even struggling to access basic needs.

“Please don’t write about this hospital because they will come to demolish this” – is what a doctor eager to save as many lives as he can hope for. Because they would come for them.

The contrast is what comprehends the horrible life that these people have been experiencing for many years now – only with that hope that one day the situation returns back to normalcy – where they could walk on streets to get groceries, they could turn the taps and water flows, their children could sleep at night without the music of bombings, the sick could get the medication they need. But, will that day ever comes- no one knows. Not even the parties that were involved in the conflict knows.

“This is not done by our people. Syrians don’t do this to other Syrians” is the common phrase you hear from many individuals to whom the narrator spoke to. That is the glimmer of hope you would want to hold onto yourself.

The book starts off describing drive into the city of Damascus, the key war zone.Once you walk through the border, there is no coming back. You witness shattered buildings, piled dead bodies, sharpnels, bomb marks, and everything that could be tagged as ‘horrible’. It is an account of a journalist who moved between cities legally and ‘illegally’ who met with people from both sides of the war. Seven months and Eight cities – no story is different. There is war everywhere. There are tortures everywhere and rapes everyone witnessed or experienced.

You cannot help yourself but draw parallels with the regimes of the holocaust or Stalin or Hitler but none of them could hurt you as much as this one does – because this is happening right here, right now. Right in front of your eyes. This is even before ISIS took control of the area which would mean that there could be no relief in those lives for many years post the narration took place. There is only one way that their lives could end – the war was never going to end- anytime soon.

This is relatively a quick read with less than 300 pages but enough to shake you up. The reason I wanted to pick this up is to understand what was happening in Syria. My initial intention was to take the leads from this book and do a secondary research. But, you just have to read through this and you don’t need any other story – this is it.

Janine perfectly pours her emotions in the ‘Epilogue’ of this book – which would as well be what goes through the minds of each of us- once u finish reading this:

“I swore to myself, after Bosnia, that I would never live through another war that would consume me. I swore to myself that I would not feel again the terrible stirring of guilt so profound – The feeling of we did nothing”

The war described so intimately, Janine di Giovanni’s book takes us to those people who you might never meet in your life and those streets you would never want to walk. It leaves us with an emotion that every single life of those is as important as ours but is there something that we could have done or can still do?