Thursday, December 29, 2016

16 Best Books of 2016

Forget new annual resolutions to make myself a better human being in the new year.  I would be satisfied if I could only re-discover some of my old good habits that have fallen by the wayside.  With this post, I attempt to reclaim one.

Every year, for many years, I would spend a few days in late December looking at various 'Best books' posts by magazines and newspapers I respect, to get a sense of the best books published in the year.  This would form a good part of my reading list in the year after.  After a couple of years of hiatus, I decided to take it up again this week.  The results follow.

There are many publications I admire for their book reviews and recommendations.  Top of the list is The New York Times Book Review.  Their annual Notable Books list is always a key source of inspiration.  Then comes The Washington Post, with their Best 10 Books of 2016 list, the Notable Fiction list, and the Notable Non-Fiction list.  The two other sources I have relied on this year have been The Economist Books of the Year 2016, and the Financial Times Best Books of 2016 list.

After reading the reviews, and considering the type of books I have a personal bias for, here are two lists I have culled out for my reading next year:

16 Best Books of 2016 - Fiction

  1. The Association of Small Bombs:  Karan Mahajan
  2. The Vegetarian: Han Kang
  3. Here I am: Jonathan Safran Foer
  4. Today will be different: Maria Semple
  5. Fixers: Michael M Thomas
  6. Heat and Light: Jennifer Haigh
  7. The Mandibles - A family, 2029-2047: Lionel Shriver
  8. Modern Lovers: Emma Straub 
  9. The nutshell: Ian McEwan
  10. The people in the castle - Selected Strange stories: Joan Aiken
  11. What's not yours is not yours: Helen Oyeyemi
  12. Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist: Sunil Yapa
  13. Zero K: Don deLillo
  14. Commonwealth: Ann Patchett
  15. The trespasser: Tana French
  16. Selection Day: Aravind Adiga
16 Best Books of 2016 - Non-Fiction

  1. All the single ladies - Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation: Rebecca Traister
  2. The Gene - An Intimate History: Siddhartha Mukherjee
  3. I contain Multitudes - The microbes within us and a grander view of life: Ed Yong
  4. Pretentiousness - Why it matters: Dan Fox
  5. The Rise and Fall of American Growth - The US Standard of Living since the Civil War: Robert J Gordon
  6. Weapons of Math Destruction - How Big Data increases inequality and threatens democracy: Cathy O Neill
  7. When breathe becomes air: Paul Kananithi
  8. You'll grow out of it: Jessi Klein
  9. Evicted: Matthew Desmond
  10. Secondhand Time - The last of the soviets: Svetlana Alexievich
  11. China's Future: David Shambaugh
  12. The Euro and the battle of Ideas: Marcus Brunnermeier
  13. Half-lion - How PVNarasimha Rao transformed India: Vinay Sitapati
  14. Alibaba - The house that Jack Ma built: Duncan Clark
  15. Progress - Ten reasons to look forward to the future: Johan Norberg 
  16. Hillbilly Elegy: JD Vance
There it is, then.  Looking forward to a solid year in reading, 2017!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The better angels of our nature: Steven Pinker vs Nassim Taleb

In my years of reading, there have been a handful of occasions when I have read a piece of non-fiction that has genuinely opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world.  Something that can truly be called to have created a landmark in my own mental landscape.

And practically every time that happens, you can bet there will be some expert somewhere ready to rain on that parade.

The landmark in this instance (which has shaken me out of a long self-imposed silence on Brick and Rope) is Steven Pinker's masterly book The Better Angels of our Nature - one of the best books of non-fiction I have read in my lifetime.  And the 'expert' in question is Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

First, the book.  

We tend to think of our current times as being racked with violence - all the stories of war, terrorism, gun crimes, rape and other such that dominate the news make it easy to imagine that these are really hard times.  It is easy to hanker for the 'good old days' when people lived in low tech societies without the means for mass killings, lived closer to nature, in smaller groups, where the neighbour was your friend and the grocer gave you credit.  Oh to be able to get back, you idly ache when another gory headlines lights up your screen, to those simpler times when violence didn't dominate one's life so.

Enter The Better Angels of our Nature.  Thee central thesis of the book is that violence in most forms has not increased but actually steadily and dramatically declined over time, and by most measures we live in just about the most peaceful times that mankind has ever known.  Pinker tries to demonstrate that with chart after chart of historical data on different forms of violence, and how they have trended over time - and in almost every case, things seem to move down.

Pinker's definition of 'violence' is expansive.  He is not speaking solely about wars and war-related deaths.  The book takes into scope homicides, human sacrifice, cruel and unusual punishments, slavery, genocides, lynching, corporal punishment of children, homophobic violence, violence against women, and the like.  Basically any form of violence which a citizen of the world might face during their lifetime - either from enemy states (war); their own state / society (torture, anti-gay laws, sati etc); or from their fellow citizen (homicides).  Along all of these dimensions, he makes the assertion that life in the 21st century is about the best it has been for mankind.

Pinker splits human history of violence into six major trends, each progressively more recent.
  1. The movement from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian one, with cities and governments.  He demonstrates how violence ridden the older lifestyle was, as shown for instance in the large proportion of human fossils found to have died violently (and young).  Human life in the hunter gather period was indeed "nasty, brutish and short".
  2. Between the late middle ages and the 20th century, the consolidation of minor feuding small kingdoms into larger states, with central authority and inter-state commerce.
  3. The abolishing of socially sanctioned forms of violence like slavery, torture, superstitious killings, sadistic punishments and the like.
  4. Post World War 2 - the historically relative lack of war and war related deaths.  The so called 'Long Peace' - more on this later.
  5. Post cold war - reduction (again in historically relative terms) in all kinds of armed combat like civil wars, genocides etc.
  6. The Human Rights movement since the second half of the 20th century -  Reduced violence against ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, children, and most recently, animals.

Pinker fills up The Better Angels of our Nature with 104 charts and tables that attempt to demonstrate each of the trends above.  Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000; capital punishment trends in the United States; 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history; deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500-2000; global rates of death from terrorism; child abuse trends in the United States; violence by intimate partners; opinion poll trends in attitudes towards women / gays / child rearing; vegetarianism.  The brushstroke is about as broad as you can imagine.

If you are the sort that is politically neutral, and have no particular fondness for one ideology over another, and you are genuinely interested in understanding the human condition, I can't imagine how you could come out of reading Better Angels without being enlightened, moved, changed.

So now, to the criticisms.

When it was published in 2011, The Better Angels of our Nature received broad acclaim, making the Best of the Year lists at some of the publications I have most often tended to trust at Brick and Rope - the New York Times, the Economist, Guardian, and others.  But, as is to be expected of any 800 page book on the social sciences, it also received its share of criticism.  In my mind the criticisms of the book fall into three categories.

First, the no-ax-to-grind, factual criticisms.  I agree with most of these.  For one, the book is too long!  800 pages of really heavy material can be quite taxing, even for the most ardent reader.  Also, while the chapters that describe and the demonstrate the reduction in violence are gripping and superbly written, I am a little less sure of the two chapters that deal with why violence reduced.  Some arguments are easier to swallow here than others.  And importantly, the evidence isn't strong for any of these.  (It is an important tell that the 'why' chapters have the fewest tables and charts).

Second, there are the criticisms by the political left - well meaning people who have been campaigning against gun violence, large military spending, war mongering, gay bashing and the like.  These activists are doing admirable work, but their continued effectiveness depends on the notion of a world that is getting increasingly violent ("be afraid, be very afraid!").  Efforts of groups like these are almost certainly to thank for the remarkable reduction in violence we have seen over the decades - particularly in the areas of person-to-person violence (women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, animal rights etc), but also likely in the increased pacifism of democratically elected governments everywhere.  But they are in the unenviable position of not being able to accept openly that they have indeed succeeded in their last few decades - because it runs the risk of current campaigns being derailed.  In the midst of a heated debate on the most recent gun control legislation for example, the left is hardly likely to come out and endorse a work that says violence is already down by a whole lot.  

There is one particular methodological criticism that this group most often levels on Pinker.  This is that Pinker's choice of metric in many of his charts is incorrect.  Over the course of history, the population of the world has steadily increased.  So wars or murders or other forms of violence today claim more absolute number of victims than those in the past.  But how can one know whether violence has trended up or down? To check this, Pinker often shows violence victims as a ratio of the relevant population at that point in time (number of deaths per 100,000 population, say).  A lot of people have questioned the legitimacy of this metric.  I, for one, am comfortable with it.  I recognize the weaknesses of the metric, but I can't see ready alternatives that can be trended over vast stretches of time.  I am willing to grant Pinker this one.

The third form of criticism leveled against The Better Angels of our Nature are of the 'statistical expert' variety.

On to Nassim Taleb, and his problems.  
A few months after the book came out, Mr.Taleb came out with a scathing criticism that he put up on his blog.  Pinker responded to the criticism with this own post here.

Here is my plain English translation of Taleb's major complaints with the book - 
  1. Yes, the world looks very peaceful since 1945.  But that doesn't mean we don't live in a violent world.  You might see a catastrophic, nuclear driven war break out that can kill millions of people.  You can't just extrapolate from the last 75 years.
  2. We have mass-extermination weapons now that ancient man did not have.  So our potential for causing harm is infinitely more.
  3. There is 'survivor bias'in the argument - if there had indeed been a massive nuclear war, Pinker (or anyone else) might not have been around to write this book.
My views on all these complaints is - "yes, but so what?"  These criticisms miss the point on two major counts - 
  • In my view, The Better Angels of our Nature is a descriptive book, not a prescriptive one.  Its point is not "we have cracked this thingy called violence, you are free to open your champagne bottles now".  It is more of "hey, did you take a moment and feel grateful for all the progress that you have made in these last few centuries?  Your life is indeed so much less violent than that of your forefathers."  In separate passages in the book, Pinker writes - "
"Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization.  With the knowledge that something has driven it down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect.  Instead of asking, 'Why is there war?'we might ask, 'Why is there peace?' We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong, but also over what we have been doing right."
"In this final chapter, I will not try to make predictions; nor will I offer advice to politicians, police chiefs, or peacemakers, which given my qualifications would be a form of malpractice."
  • 'Violence' as described by Pinker is not just warfare, which seems to be Taleb's major obsession.  It covers all forms of violence that a citizen of the world might face in his life.  Do I today face state instituted torture?  Breaking on the wheel?  Witch burning? Lynching?  Murders?  KKK?  Slavery?  Do children today get beaten black and blue by their fathers, or in their schools?  Do women face rape as a 'just spoils of war'?  Do women in India burn as often as sati, or as dowry deaths?  The arrow of history, in all these cases seems to move in the benign direction.  I appreciate Taleb's point that if war deaths are extrapolated as part of the same statistical distribution, given our current killing machine capabilities, we can imagine a tail event in 200 years that could cause (say) a billion deaths. And clearly, this type of event was not possible in the ancient world.  But that extreme severity of the tail event doesn't answer the question - Given a choice of living in any violence minimizing world of his choice, would Mr.Taleb prefer to be born in the 21st century, or in the middle ages?
Before I end, allow me to indulge in a bit of ad hominem, something Taleb decries but generously serves himself from.

I loved Fooled by Randomness, but was very irritated and annoyed by The Black Swan.  (See Brick and Rope's review: The Black Swan: The improbably avoidable book of 2008).  Over the years, my view of the tough talking Mr.Taleb has not improved much.

Here is a recent Taleb interview, peddling his new book Anti-Fragility.  I reproduce below the specific part of the interview about the Pinker episode:
The Lebanese-born academic is not afraid to tear down the ivory towers, in which he himself resides. But he also displays an incredible sense of loyalty. After the 2002 New Yorker profile, of which Taleb complained that Gladwell “made me seem gloomy and I’m not gloomy,” the two writers became friends. In 2009, Gladwell told a C-SPAN interviewer that he feels an intellectual kinship with Taleb.
So, when the renowned Canadian-born Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker penned a critical review in The New York Times of fellow Canadian Malcolm Gladwell’s novel, What the Dog Saw, Taleb rushed to Gladwell’s defense. “I got furious. I feel loyalty for someone who does something nice for you, when you are nobody.” Taleb wrote a scathing critique of Pinker’s research in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedIn his critique, titled “The Pinker problem,” Taleb claims Pinker’s book is riddled with errors in sampling and doesn’t “recognize the difference between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements.” Pinker responded with his own paper in which he writes, “Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels.”
So let me get this straight Mr.Taleb -

You like Mr.A because he is "nice to you when you are a nobody".  Then you "get furious" at Mr.B because he writes a critical review of Mr.A's book.  So you go ahead and write a scathing critique of Mr.B's book.

Real mature.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

No country for young men

Not that long ago, Japan was the cynosure of the world's eyes - anxiously watched by the developed world, enviously admired by the developing.  It was, by all accounts, the center of technology innovation and hi-tech manufacturing prowess.  A whole cottage industry developed around Japan watching, and incorporation of Japanese principles into management.  What a difference a couple of decades makes!  At a conference the other day, someone asked a speaker "Is Japan the future of Europe?" That tone in his voice?  Closer to dread than envy.

The stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last twenty years is now a much discussed topic.  The demographic challenges of the country are also well known as one of the fundamental drivers behind the malaise.  I was as aware of the statistics as the next guy when I went for my first visit to Japan recently.  From the moment the plane landed in Osaka, though, the reality of the situation hit me as if for the first time.

If demographics is destiny, Japan is headed down a road to oldtown.  Let's look at the statistics first.  In 2011, 23% of the population was 65 years or older.  By 2050, that proportion is expected to grow to 40%!  Two our of every five people would be over 65! The very young, i.e. less than 15 years old population is only 13%, the lowest of major countries.  And it is going down, not up.  By 2050, this proportion is expected to be only 9%.  The population pyramid of the country, which shows the distribution by age group, has been tagged by some as going from Pyramid to Kite.

This isn't all with their demographic trouble either.  Apart from the distribution by age getting worse, the overall population of Japan, for all practical purposes, has peaked and has now started to shrink.  The population today is exactly the same as it was in 2001.

Now as I said, some of this was known to me, in broad brush-strokes if not in this detail.  But seeing it in person is a whole other thing.

Osaka is the commercial capital of Japan.  I have never been to Tokyo and I guess I was expecting the sparkling sights and bright neon lights of the capital.  The first impression Osaka makes though is not nearly as spectacular.  There are the obligatory tall buildings and well developed roads, but it all seemed just a little run down.  The hanging electrical wires, the mildly unsavory back alleys and the generally well aged buildings were my first clue that this wasn't going to be the Japan I expected to see.

The more I looked, the clearer the images got.  This is not a country for young men (or women).  Most everyone around seems just a tad older than expected.  I took the subway a few times during my stay, and by my count, I saw no more than three kids over all my hours of subway travel.  Clearly, there aren't enough children in this country.

It isn't uncommon of course, for high income economies to have low birth rates.  Much of Europe is a case in point.  The way most countries end up solving that problem, is through more open immigration.  Invite more ... let's say fertile, citizens from developing countries, and you solve two problems at the same time - those of getting enough labour force for all the work of running a country, and of making enough babies to have a country in the future.  On this front, Japan seems maddeningly closed minded.

This is not a country that is very foreigner friendly.  I don't mean the people are rude to foreigners.  Far from it.  In fact, I found the Japanese to be among the warmest, most helpful people I have ever encountered.  But somehow, the culture as a whole seems too ... self-sufficient.  Too internally focused.  Closed.  All signage in the city are in Japanese.  Or almost all, at any rate.  If you don't know the script, and have undertaken a foolhardy venture to explore the city by yourself, by subway, well - good luck to you!

I stand in line at a station along with many other patient locals, waiting for my turn at the ticket machine.  I reach there finally, only to find that every single sign on the machine is in Japanese.  I can't make out what buttons I am supposed to press to make a darn ticket pop out!  I exit in frustration, walk up to the ticket booth attendant to ask for his help.  Only to realize that he doesn't know a word of English either.  We do some sign language, I show him the ticket machine, say the word 'English' many times, and he finally gets it.  He directs to another machine on the side.  This one does have English sub-titles.  There you go!  I am sure I am on my way now.

Except of course, I am not.  Turns out, the machine doesn't accept cards (or doesn't accept international cards, not sure which).  It needs currency.  And I don't have any Yen on me, having left the hotel confident in the ability of plastic to get me around the city.  But what is it I see there?  An ATM!  That should do the trick.  We are back to the patient line standing business now.  Get to the ATM finally, to discover ... yup, all Japanese.  Try to figure this guy out.  A helpful old (they are mostly old) gentleman recognizes my problem and signs me some help.  Not that it gets me far though, because the machine doesn't accept international cards either, even though it prominently displays the Visa and Mastercard logos.  Finally, I find a currency exchange counter (also manned by a lady who doesn't speak English), get hold of some Yen, and at long last get on the train.

Walking the street later that night looking for dinner, I am reminded again that this country would rather be just left alone.  I don't think my vegetarianism has given me this much trouble in any country as it did in Japan.  The Japanese, bless them, have a well evolved cuisine of their own, and give no room for vegetarians in it.  And going with the general trend in other matters, there isn't much in the name of international fare in the city either.

So yes, it can safely be said that this isn't a country that is going to willingly or easily welcome a horde of immigrants to solve its aging problem.

My short Japanese adventure over, I am on my Japan Airlines flight back, flying to Bangkok where a familiar Jet Airways to Mumbai awaits.  My seat doesn't want to recline, hard as I try.  I call the crew member.  An elderly Japanese lady arrives, recognizes the problem in one look, and nods knowingly.  She presses hard against the recliner lever while encouraging me to push back as hard as I can.  I do, and with a soft creak of protest, the seat gives up its verticality.  "It is a very old plane sir" offers the stewardess, smiling sweetly.

A few hours later, I am on Jet Airways, moving onward to Mumbai.  Some rows behind are what appear to be half a dozen screaming children, their noises melding into one another, till it is no longer clear whether their squeals are of protest, complaint, celebration or simply ticklishness.  We seem over-weight on our kids quota today.  Yes sir, we are flying back to India.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Books everyone seems to be reading

It has been an extended break from Brick and Rope for me.  The great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, explaining a long absence to his beloved, wrote -

Duniya ne teri yaad se begaana kar diya,
Tujh se bhi dil fareb hain gam rozgaar ke.

Which translates loosely as -

This world has left me bereft of your memories
More heart rending than you are the hardships of a working life

Such, readers, has been my state these last months.  No complaints though.  The rozgaar has been kind.

One thing that hasn't changed in this time - I have been reading some very good books.  On this, my return to the blogosphere, I thought it would be interesting to catch you up on some of the 'it' books - ones that everyone seems to be talking about and reading.  So here is my quick take on some books that have been part of my diet recently. Fair warning - It has been an extremely satisfying reading year so far.  Don't be surprised to see superlatives overflowing.

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahnemann
How do we think? How do we make decisions? What biases do we carry with us in different situations? How exactly does our thinking work? Nobel Prize winning economist (and behavioral scientist) Kahnemann takes on some big questions in this book. And he knocks them out of the park. This is the father of Behavioral Economics, and this is one hell of a book. Buy it. Read it.

At Home - Bill Bryson
How can you write a 500 + page book about the darn house you live in? Well, if you are as interesting (and interested) as Bill Bryson, quite easily, thank you very much. This isn't the most compelling Bryson work, but is quaintly interesting in its own way. Bryson moves from room to room in his house and takes us on historical journeys to tell us the story of how we came to live the way we do today.  Some rooms are interesting, some are not.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
The father of a young boy is killed in the 9/11 attacks.  The boy goes into a form of shock others don't seem to understand.  He withdraws into his own personal world. And then, he gets a sign from his dad - a key, to a very special lock.  The little boy sets off, on foot, across New York, to search for the lock. Foer's storytelling is breathlessly good.  His style and technique innovative like nothing else I can remember.  I don't say this lightly - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the ten best books of fiction I have read in my life.

The Eerie Silence - Paul Davies
Is there intelligent life out there in the universe? If so, and if they wanted to communicate with the rest of the universe, how would they do it? SETI is the NASA organization dedicated to Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.  Davies is their current chief.  The Eerie Silence is a passionate story of how to systematically think of the search for life elsewhere.  There are surprising questions I hadn't thought of before - for instance, did life start only once on the earth? Or is it possible it started multiple times? How could that be? How could we find out? And what implications might it have on the search for ET? An interesting book if you are into this type of thing.

Earth: The Book - Jon Stewart
Well, what can you say? It is the Daily Show team putting together their zany take on what new visitors to planet earth should know about our abode. Very funny in parts. Some crazy one-liners. But not exactly soul food for your intellect.

The Mind's Eye - Oliver Sacks
The second book on the mind on this list.  Master neurologist Oliver Sacks takes on cases of patients have strange maladies related to vision or skills of recognition (of things, shapes, colors, writing).  Sacks is a practicing neurologist of such repute that one suspects the trickiest of cases land with him.  His touch in describing these cases is delicate, his empathy deep and infectious. The book is a bit disjointed in pieces and isn't his best, but disjointed Sacks is better than most authors in their best form.

The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
There seems to be a newly emerging generation of really young women writers who burst onto the scene with stunningly accomplished novels (it is almost never a non-fiction book). Add Obreht to the list.  The Tiger's Wife is a novel by a writer with remarkable confidence. Snow covered lands, bombing in the city, an injured tiger, a deaf and dumb young girl in an abusive marriage, a messenger of death - these are just some elements of a hauntingly beautiful story. A shockingly good debut.

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
The Booker Prize winning novel of 2011. Tony Webster is a middle aged man who is forced to rethink and rediscover his college days. Days when he and his little circle of buddies met a notably self assured man called Adrian Finn. Intellectual depth seems to radiate from Finn and the friends are vying with each other to earn his friendship. Years later, layers of their mutual relationship are revealed, slowly, reluctantly. Barnes has a masterful handle on emotional nuance. Every page drips with emotional understanding reminiscent of Ian McEwan. Some of the dialogue and repartee from the college days are sizzling and memorable. Great book!

Imagine: How creativity works - Jonah Lehrer
It seems unfair to beat someone up when they are down. But hey, this books deserves the public's new-found revulsion much more than it ever deserved it's fascination for all these days.  Imagine claims to unveil some mysterious workings of our mind that we can understand better to make ourselves more creative.  I could have called it another mind and neurology oriented book on this list, but that would just be an insult to Sacks, Kahnemann and Ramachandran. This is scientific babble at its worst - throw around a bunch of jargon, add some interesting sounding anecdotes that are cherry picked to demonstrate whatever crazy theory you have come up with, put a cheap punchline on, and we are in business. Forget the piece about making up Bob Dylan quotes for which this book has recently become infamous and Lehrer has lost his job at the New Yorker.  The intellectual dishonestly is not what should keep you away.  You should not read this book - because it is terrible.  

Breakout Nations - Ruchir Sharma
Asking the big questions publicly requires guts in the investment business.  And "Which developing countries will achieve breakout growth in the decades to come?" surely qualifies as a really big question.  This is another book everyone and their uncle seems to be reading.  I have had many friends recommend this book to me over the year.  Is it worthy of all the noise?  I think it is.  Breakout Nations is an extremely well researched book, with lots of data that the nerd in me just loved.  The anecdotes on different countries are tellingly selected. The attempt here is to look at a very wide set of countries under the 'developing' tag, and take a clear 'up or down' stance on whether they are headed somewhere big.  It is to Sharma's credit that he takes a clear stand everywhere, which is tough to do with macro-economic trends.  The one complaint - his cop-out on India. Maybe it was too close to home for him to be objective about it.

The Magic of Reality - Richard Dawkins
There are books that you gobble up in an almighty gulp. Others that you want to savour in a slow, sensual session.  Yet others, of course, that you want to spit out as soon as you start on them.  The Magic of Reality is in that class of books that beckon you back, again and again, for a second helping, and a third, and another. This is a book targeted at young adults - kids who know a bit about science, and could be interested in a series of extraordinarily provocative and interesting questions - like 'Who was the very first person?'; 'Why are there so many different kinds of things?'; 'What is an earthquake?' and so on. Dawkins of course is one of the foremost scientists of his time, so his answers to the questions, while written in language accessible to the young, are not simplistic homilies of science.  This is the real deal. Real science, presented in the most engaging manner you can imagine.  And if there is a better illustrated science book in all of published history, I would like to see it! (Word of advice - buy the hardcover version)

In the Woods - Tana French
I don't usually do thrillers.  I don't have the stomach for them, and they don't appeal to the better side of me.  I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at record speed for me (I am a very slow reader).  And I felt sick afterward. So it is surprising that I bought In The Woods, Tana French's acclaimed book. The reviews were just so good.  Three kids go into the woods to play just like other days.  Hours later, one of them returns, bloody, and in amnesiac shock. No trace is ever found of the other two kids.  Years later, the third kid, now an officer with the police, returns to the wood to work on the case of a dead girl. Cut to multiple flashbacks, and psychological thriller music. I should have ignored the reviews and gone with my first instinct.

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
No book in recent memory has likely received the kind of bated breath expectation, and universal critical acclaim that Franzen's Freedom did when it was published in 2010.  The Franzen Frenzy was so high that it put me right off the book and I decided never to read it.  After all the euphoria cooled off over this period, I finally decided to give it a spin earlier this year.  The verdict?  One of the hallmarks of great literature is that they make me want to be a better person.  Freedom did that to me.  The psychological astuteness of this sedate drama that plays out over years in American suburbia makes you look for yourself in the characters, and for them in you.  Hats off.

The Tell-Tale Brain - V.S. Ramachandran
The third (or is it fourth?) brain / mind book on this list.  I became a big fan of Ramachandran last year when I finally read his Phantoms in the Mind.  This book is his most recent work, and he has moved on from being a practicing physician to being a full time researcher.  His understanding of the human brain is unparalleled.  His ability to tell the story is stunning.  Richard Dawkins has called Ramachandran the Marco Polo of neuroscience for all the unique exploratory experimentation he has taken on, to understand the mind better.  If you want to know the most up to date picture of how our brain works - read this book.

So there you have it - a quick walk through of my key reading over the last few months.  As I mentioned before, it has been a singularly satisfying year so far in reading.  I hope the months ahead remain as exciting!  And I hope my rozgaar gives me even time to come back to you and share what I am choosing to read.  Happy reading everyone.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A roof for the night

It was past midnight when my flight landed.  Late enough that the line for prepaid taxis was just a few people long.  I was out onto the parking lot, two slips in hand ('the white one is for you, the blue one for the driver') looking for license plate number 8445.  The driver turned out to be the chatty uncle variety, my absolute favorite kind of Mumbai drivers.

Driving through Mumbai in the deep recesses of the night has a surreal, post-nuclear-destruction sort of feeling. Streets usually bustling with chauffeur driven cars, dusty BEST buses, reckless taxis, and young men on motorcycles, lie now barren.  The odd stray dog walks triumphantly in the middle of the road, as if inspecting its spoils.  Streets where the airways are normally choked with honking cars, blaring music, hawker shouts, the whine and growls of non-stop traffic, lie now hushed.  The triumphant dog barks hesitantly, half-heartedly, as if to convince itself that it isn't dreaming, and it seems to disturb some deep stillness around.  The streets where the mass of humanity that calls Mumbai home jostle everyday, elbowing everything in their path so they can get to the 7:47 local, lie now empty.  No one to shoo the dog away, no one it needs to run from.

"Kis taraf nikaloon sir?" asks the driver.  He has left the airport area behind, and is now looking for specific direction.  We perform the little verbal pirouette we Indians do all the time in conversations, mixing dimensions in unspoken understanding.  Ask us a question about distance, and we will answer with time.  The right answer to "How far is the temple from here?" is "20 minutes", not "2.3 kilometers".  Similarly, the right answer to the driver's 'direction' question is not 'north', or 'to the left'.  The unspoken pirouette demands that 'direction' questions be provided 'landmark' answers.  "Near ITC Hotel" I say, and he nods in acknowledgement.

"Sir, do you know what the problem of ITC hotel is?", he asks after a minute of silent driving.  I didn't know there was a problem, I think to myself as I ask him, "what?"

"Location", he tells me confidently, like he has given this a lot of thought.  "See, good passengers want one of two things in a hotel".

I can't help noticing how his generic word for customers is 'passenger'.  "They either want some peace and quiet, a nice garden, baag bachicha; or they want to be right in the center of the city, or right next to the airport.  The problem with ITC is, it is neither.  That is why very few passengers go there."

Now, my apartment community is right next to ITC, so I am not taking too well to this 'poor location' prognosis.  So I try to look for any little chink in his story.

"What do you mean by good passengers?", I ask.


"You know, you said good passengers want one of those two things.  But what do you mean by good passengers?"

"Arey what sir, good passenger means 7,000 rupees wala."

"Huhn?" It is me this time.

"The rate at ITC and other hotels like that sir.  Rs.7,000 for one night.  Even more sometimes. Good passenger means someone in that category."

This gets me thinking.  If that is what the 'good passengers' want, what do the others want?  I ask him.

"Oh, that is simple.  Everyone has a rate sir.  And Mumbai has something for everyone, at any rate.  And you know what sir?  Passengers only know hotels in their category.  Ask them about hotels in any other category, and they wouldn't even know where it is.  Even if they pass it every day, they don't see it! It is only us taxi drivers that know hotels of all types."

"So what are the other types of hotels that you take passengers to?" I ask him.

He thinks for just a few seconds.  "Haan, just the other day, I had a passenger.  He asked me to take him to a good hotel.  'In what range?' I asked him.  And he said he wants something under Rs.2,200 a night.  Now tell me sir," he dropped his voice, like an expert raconteur, "where will you get a good hotel for under Rs.2,200?"

Where indeed, I thought, and tried to think of a hotel that might be in that price range.  I was drawing a blank.

""You know where I took him?" he said, after giving me a few seconds, "I took him to Subhash Hotel, in JB Nagar."  Clearly, his theory on selective visual impact was true because I had never heard of, let alone remembered seeing, any Subhash Hotel.

"It is a good hotel, sir.  Old.  But not so old that it looks very bad.  The passenger was very happy."

"But what if someone doesn't have even 2,000?" I push him.

"Below that sir, you can rent just a bed.  You know, not a room.  But there is a large hall, and they rent out individual beds on it.  I can find you one for Rs.550."

"What if I don't even have 500?" I push him harder.

He is getting into the game now.  I catch sight of a broad smile as we pass under a lamp-post.

"Below that sir, you get bunk beds.  You know, like in the trains?  They have three beds one above the other.  You can only sit on them sir.  If you try to stand you will bang your head.  But they are really cheap.  Only Rs.250 for a night."

About this time, incongruously, I am reminded of Antilia.  Mumbai, where 'passengers' are out searching for a bunk bed for $5 a night, also houses Antilia, the 27-floor building in South Mumbai which is home to billionaire Mukesh Ambani, one of the richest men in the world.  It is estimated to cost about $ 1 Billion, and is by far the most expensive private residence in the world.  The 27 floors are home to Mr.Ambani, his wife and three children, and his mother.

So, Rs.250 a night for a bunk bed, huh?

"What if ..." I start, but the driver cuts me off, laughing now.

"Less that that sir, there are a lot of places.  There is the railway station, the footpath, the pedestrian bridge.  Akkha Mumbai, sir!"  he says, taking great pride in his wit, having placed the whole of Mumbai at the disposal of the penniless. "It is a little noisy, and there are a lot of mosquitoes.  But you know what the rate is, sir?  Nothing!  Zero!"  he laughs heartily.

We are home now, and I have one last question.  "Where do you sleep?"

"Oh, apun ka night duty hai sir.  I work nights.  I will sleep right here", he pats his seat affectionately.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The grandmother at Zumanity

Let's talk about what happened at Vegas.

Nearly two years after moving back to India from the US, the family has decided to return for a short vacation.  When you can occasionally afford it, the 'American spring for the Indian summer' trade is one that is pretty easy to make.  What is less easy is the decision on where exactly to visit in the US.  Particularly heavy debate centered around a couple of free days on the itinerary.  The wife plumped for something kid friendly, I for Vegas.  In an increasingly rare victory for our youthful urges over parental instincts, we put our chips on the strip.

So here we are, on our kidless night in Vegas, and the show we plan to catch is Zumanity.  For those unfamiliar with it, Zumanity is an 'adult oriented' Cirque du Soleil show that runs at the New York New York hotel.  It has the familiar Cirque acrobatics and athleticism, but is spiced up with a heavy dose of Vegas style cabaret sensuality.

The turnout is big and the crowd is all dressed up in their finery.  The evening is young, the audience - less so.  After all, at $100 a pop, the show isn't exactly up your average college student's alley.  The lights dim, the pretty girls come out, and we are off.  Over the next two hours, we have act after act of extremely skillful acrobatics performed by scantily clad, universally topless women, and scantily clad, universally well endowed men - though the latter needs to be inferred, and isn't as readily verifiable as the former.

Now, needless to say, this isn't the sort of show that plays regularly at the Prithvi theater in Bombay.  The wife and I are one part thrilled at the delicious naughtiness of it all, and one part open jawed at the proceedings on stage.  But most of all, I think we are just a bit awkward, if you get the drift.  I turn to her to say something like "Wow! How did she do that??" and she returns a benevolent smile and a shake of the head that says "Yes, I am sure you were admiring the technical difficulty of that maneuver".

In the midst of this, two of the performers (needless to say, topless and well endowed respectively) call out for some audience participation.  They jump into the front rows, search around - and while I am trying desperately to avoid eye contact, they pick a woman from row three.  She says her name is Debra (or some such).  She is dressed in a baggy pair of jeans and a generously large white T-Shirt.  She looks old enough to be a grandmother a few times over, and she is blushing like a new bride.

So this hunk on stage sidles up to Debra, rubs his crotch suggestively on her hips while his nubile partner, wearing scarcely anything more than her smile, looks on with seductive encouragement.  "So Debrrra", he purrs, rolling his r's, "what do you do?"  If she was blushing before, now she is positively mortified.  Giggling uncontrollably, she hides her face in her hands, and mumbles - you can't make this stuff up - "I am a school bus driver."

The audience explodes in laughter.

And I start thinking.  Here, in vignette is a commentary on so much that is different about the American and Indian social constructs.  This setup on stage would never, ever be witnessed in India.  "Why do you say that?" asks the wife when I mention it to her after the show.  Well, let us think, I say, and we come up with the list below.

Top 10 reasons why a schoolbus driving grandmother named Debra will not be found on the stage of a risque cabaret show in India:

[Caveat:  All generalizations are false, including this one.]
  1. Women don't drive school buses in India.  So if she were making career choices in Hyderabad, the Indian Debra (let's call her Debrani) wouldn't be picking 'school bus driver'.
  2. If Debrani were to be working in her youth, she would certainly not be working at this age.  Her kids, if she had any, would consider it a daily public insult if their mother were to be off doing physical labour every day.  "Why do you have to, mom?  What are we here for?  Are we not able to provide for you?", her well meaning if inadequately sensitive kids would ask.
  3. If she had indeed worked and saved up money, Debrani would never spend $100 on herself for a night of pure pleasure.  A gift for the grandkids?  Investment in a fixed deposit? A pilgrimage?  Sure.  But a trip with the husband to Vegas (or equivalent) and a $100 ticket for an evening show?  You've got something else coming.
  4. If she did convince herself to spend $100 for an evening out, she would not attend a sexy cabaret show.  Why?  Because that would mean an explicit acknowledgement of her sexuality, and hey - Debrani would never do that.
  5. If she were to magically make herself turn up at such an event, and the hunk called on her, Debrani would never step up on stage.  Or the hunk would not call on her knowing full well that he wasn't going to get her up there.  A public acknowledgement of her sensual side?  Control yourself!
  6. Debrani wouldn't find many of her peer group in the audience.  All she would see would be faces of prurient men and bashful young lovers.  Hardly a socially 'safe' atmosphere for her to come out in the open and on stage.
  7. The said prurient audience would much prefer to see one of the 'bashful lovers' variety be called up on stage.  Where is the gallery demand for grandma Debrani and her ilk?
  8. If, through a series of unlikely events Debrani did land up on stage, the hunk would drop much of his levity and replace it with gravity and respect.  "Tho Debrani-ji, kaisa lag raha hai aapko Vegas me aakar?" he would ask from a respectful distance.  She is an elder hey, show some respect bro!
  9. If the hunk had been dropped straight from Mars, did not know the rules of engagement, and tried to suggestively rub his crotch against Debrani's hips - well, let us just say it would not end well for him, 'redness of cheek'-wise, or 'continuity of paycheck'-wise.
And of course, the final reason why a schoolbus driving grandmother named Debra will not be found on the stage of a risque cabaret show in India -
  • 10. There would be no risque cabaret show in India.  The self-appointed keepers of our morality and 'Indian traditions' would burn the tent down after the first show.
So there you have it - the Top 10 reasons I thought of - in the process ruining a perfectly wonderful show of Zumanity for myself.  Sorry girls!  Maybe next time.

As I mentioned at the top of the list though - all generalizations are false.  Case in point - The Vagina Monologues has had an extremely successful run in Mumbai - at the aforementioned Prithvi among other places.  So maybe it isn't India that has a mental block - just my outdated image of it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2012 - A quick bite

I am not much of an arts and culture person.  I wouldn't know a great wine if I were swimming in it, chanting 'There is no 'P' in our pool'.  The only opera I have ever heard is the one on youtube where that fat guy from nowhere shocked Simon Cowell's pants off on Britain's Got Talent.  My considered view on Picasso is that he was anatomically challenged.

Be that as it may, I still found myself complaining in my first year back to India how there isn't much of an arts and culture 'scene' in Bombay.  You know, like one might complain of how there just isn't enough broccoli in the supermarket.  Yes, yes, I do know Bombay streets are an unending series of festivals strung one after another - between Ganesh Chaturthi and Mt Mary festival and dahi handi and eid-ul-fitr and Diwali, and countless other celebrations of forgotten mythologies, it feels like our streets are always being prepared for an upcoming festival, or being cleared of debris from a previous one.  But that is not what I mean - I have been missing a secular, art and culture celebration, readily accessible to the masses, where you can hang out over a weekend day, look at some pretty stuff, eat something 'local', edify the kids' character - the sort of thing that is the mainstay of springtime in America (or fall in New England).

Well turns out, once again, that I have underestimated the city.

The Kala Ghoda Art Festival was first held in Mumbai in 1999 and has since become an annual ritual.  In years past, my suburb-living self, reclining on a comfortable sofa at the end of the week, would consider a visit to Kala Ghoda with the same level of enthusiasm as a stewardess might have for cashing in her air-miles.  So the festival would come and go, and I would read about it in the papers with an other-worldly detachment.  This year, from a geographically more advantaged position, I was more amenable to the suggestion.  So off we went on Sunday, to visit the 14th edition of Kala Ghoda Art Festival.

We decide to walk it up from VT.  Like many things in Bombay, the Victoria Terminus, now reclaimed by the maanus as Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is an astounding beauty that largely gets ignored in the bustle of daily life.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is 125 years old, and it has one of the most impressive facades of any building you will likely every see.  But for everyday Mumbaikar life, it is just a railway station, and a darn crowded one at that.  When you are in a leisurely frame of mind though, and are strolling gently with kids in tow, the beauty of the structure hits you.  We stand for a few minutes across the street, taking in the view, seeing VT as if for the first time.

A short walk leads us to Flora Fountain.  Another iconic point on the map of Bombay, Flora Fountain is a site of strangely co-existing memorials.  First there is the fountain, after which this spot, and much of the surrounding area take their name.  Older even than VT, the sculpture is of the Roman goddess Flora, or so I am given to understand.  But right there, vying for space, is a much newer memorial, one dedicated to the people martyred during the formation of Maharashtra state.  Jai Maharashtra yells out the sign on the grass.  There is an eternal flame burning nearby that has been sponsored by one of the gas distribution companies, maybe HP.  Under the flame, the sign says 'HP salutes'.  In keeping with the confusing nature of this monument, it doesn't bother to explain whom HP salutes.

Our walk takes us past Kitaab Khana.  The newest bookstore in this past of town has been in the buzz since it came up.  I am wondering if I can get away with a quick sneak inside, when the daughter says "Appa, I want to go to the bookstore."  Attagirl!  Turns out, this is the first truly bookstore experience I have had in this city.  Kitaab Khana is a wonderfully laid out store, with enough lounge space for adults and kids alike.  The collection is a bit strange I have to admit.  But the store is certainly worthy of a longer visit.  Note to self ...

Finally, we are at Kala Ghoda.  

The thing that strikes me right away is how many people there are.  They seem, happily, to be from all walks of life.  From domestic servants to foreign tourists, not quite wed youngsters to toddler children (to which we add our own), every part of the spectrum of Bombay's humanity seems to be represented here.

We hang out at the sculpture exhibits, which is where the festival seems to begin.  My lack of artistic nuance is apparent right away.  I am not sure at all whether the exhibits are brilliant or derivative, subtle or just plain boring.  I go on, nodding intelligently at the large exhibit dedicated to the domestic crow.  There is the shocking exhibit of a super-sized ashtray, made entirely of bones, with mega sized cigarette stubs sticking out.  And the upside down table and chair arrangement, with cash, booze, jewelry and other allurements stuck to the underside, the tide, file laden top of the table reflected on a mirror flat on the ground - the arrangement is called 'under the table'.  And so it goes on.  The sculptures are very Indian in their context and content.  And clearly, the viewing public is having a great time trying to figure out what is what.  This is not a shy crowd though.  They have no problem admitting they don't understand the concept of an exhibit.  "Yaar ye kya hai" you can hear them asking one another, quite unabashedly.  

As you go past the weird guy playing the flute through his nostrils, you get to The Wishing Tree, as it proclaims itself.  Visitors have been playing along, hanging out their wishes on the branches.  "A clean Mumbai", hopes one.  "Safety for my daughters" wishes another, with feeling.  "No more hunger" prays a third.  And then there is the truly heartfelt one - "Ek achhi si girlfriend", pleads Raju, address unknown.  

It is a warm day, though not hot by any means.  Nonetheless, the Bisleri stall seems to be doing brisk business.  I walk over to buy some bottled water.  There are three rates listed on the price list - 1 litre: 20 /-; half a litre: 10/-, and (only in India!) if you get your own bottle and just want it refilled:  5/-.  We get our bottles refilled.

We walk around for a couple of hours, take in a street performance, some dances, and some children's theater.  I know we have barely scratched the surface of Kala Ghoda festival.  There are special screenings of movies; an acclaimed Heritage Walk; high voltage artists coming in to perform.  But I have had my fill of culture for today.  A feeling of holiness suffuses me.  Broccoli did taste good.  

Next time, I promise myself, I will do better justice to Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

We go home, put on some brainless TV, and order Dominoes.