The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali

The other day I read that they named a Himalayan thrush after Dr. Salim Ali, the ‘Bird Man of India.’ The better part of my childhood was spent cultivating a happy interest in birding. The interest still lingers, but it has been long since it has greeted the break of dawn and the flutter of the early risers. I remember one of the nature camps I attended when I was about eight. One of the introductory activities was talking about a topic you were assigned. My piece of paper had said, ‘Salim Ali,’ and I had been all ready – speaking not only about his contribution to birding, but cool stray facts, like his love for motorcycles. 
Salim Ali is a name that even the most amateur Indian bird-watchers have heard of. It is the name on the book most of us lug around on our weekend expeditions, tucked away between a bottle of water and a pair of binoculars. And with the name goes a skeleton of a creation-story – of a little boy who shot a sparrow, only to discover on closer inspection that it was not the usual sparrow at all. It had a yellow throat. The first spark of curiosity stoked a fire of passion within that boy who would grow up to be India’s greatest ornithologist. This book is about that first sparrow and the ordinary boy from Bombay who carved himself an extraordinary life. The Fall of a Sparrow is Dr. Ali’s autobiography.
There is much to be said about Ali’s rigorous effort, his attention to detail, his broad goals and the impeccable vision that made him bring leaping reform to the way birds were studied in India. The perfect demonstration of his skill and dedication comes through in how he organized and carried out the Hyderabad State Ornithological Survey. It is impossible to mention all his work in one review, but suffice to say, it leaves you  awed and inspired. 
An India Today review calls it “a story of the evolution of a bird hunter into a bird watcher.” That implies some sort of redemption which is far from the truth. One of the crucial aspects of this book is his unique perspective on conservation. Ali condemned the encouraging ‘ahinsa’ approach to wildlife conservation, which he considered akin to protesting the slaughter of the holy cow. Appealing to the religious sentiment in the effort to conservation was to him misguided and futile. He was not religious or spiritual. His love for animals was not of a sentimental variety, rather scientific and aesthetic. 
Towards the end of the book is an interesting chapter titled Scientific Ornithology and Shikar. Ali’s life work involved him killing and stuffing hundreds and thousands of bird “specimens” with innovative entrapments that he describes in the book. His methods of bird-study may seem cruel to a modern reader but they paved the way for decades of ground-breaking research in ornithology. Had it not been for his methodical study, we would not have had the knowledge we use for conservation today.
But more than that, ever since he was a child, Salim Ali loved hunting as a sport. The yellow-throated sparrow he shot was one among many of his sport killings. He was a frequent big game hunter and a sworn meat-eater. In the epilogue, Ali lists the differences between a sport hunter and a poacher. The etiquette of a sportsman, he says, prescribes:
1. no shooting in the breeding season
2. sparing the young and females
3. keeping within the bag limits
4. no shooting at night with blinding lights
5. no shooting at waterholes 
These methods are employed by poachers for illegal activities. Ali goes even so far as to state that the presence of a legitimate professional shooter is the most effective deterrent to the poacher, and criticizes the statutory ban on all hunting. An excellent perspective, but I doubt it is always as simple to draw a line between the two. Now, all this says nothing about his merit as a scientist, but the fact that he would enjoy killing helpless creatures while ignoring what he admits was the prick of conscience, is somewhat unsettling.

One surprising thing I learnt from the book is that Salim Ali was not a kind man, not in the conventional sense. The age old saying goes, you can judge a man by how he treats animals or servants. Salim Ali performs poorly on both counts. Example 1: He once got a servant harshly beaten for alerting him not to take pictures of a religious establishment. Example 2: On a trek in the Himalayas, Ali came across a lost pilgrim family. When they asked Ali for help, he refused, with what was some truly derisive humour, because they should have known better what they were getting into. Example 3: Ali mentions a stray dog who would sneak into his house and mess up his field notes, till Ali shot him dead, “with no regret whatsoever.”

Mean old man, that would be my verdict, if I didn’t know who I was talking about. But you or me judging him for things like these, in the wide picture, does not amount to much. If not a nice one, he did seem to have a big personality. Most of this book is interactions with people he made acquaintance with over the years. And what a large social circle he had, in spite of that mean streak. (I am not flinging accusations. An article by his grandson calls him ill-tempered. And one by a younger colleague narrates that even in company if he got bored of a topic, he would simply take out his hearing aid.)
He did not let politics affect his relations with either his Indian friends or the English. British India from his perspective is fascinating. He talks about Sarojini Naidu’s sense of humour and how she would refer to Gandhiji as Mickey Mouse, which he accepted as a compliment “with lighthearted toothless gaiety.” A whole chapter is dedicated to his favourite brother who was a District Magistrate. And another to Loke Wan Tho, a Singaporean businessman-turned-ornithologist who might well be the most interesting person in the book. Ali proudly mentions how Nehru gifted his book to Indira Gandhi, who recommended it to a US Senator, who then nominated Ali for an award that is like the Nobel prize for ornithologists. Needless to say, he won it. He talks about his achievements with an almost surprised pride, which makes him sound astonishingly humble.

Even as I write this review, I am reminded of a quote I keep quoting from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, about how writers can be wholly different from their books. This is not exactly the same, but even so, it is a case of discovering what your childhood hero was really like, stacking achievements alongside failings, and loving him for all of them. A crazy, beautiful read – is how I would sum it up. The Fall of a Sparrow has been on my wishlist for a long while and it was entirely worth my time. 

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.
One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi – a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose… I digress.
Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind – dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.
Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy’s experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy’s accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat… it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 
But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy’s accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors – the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I’ll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 
The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor’s visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 
Miracles are limited by place. “If you smile, you heal faster,” Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, “If you get cancer here, you die.” And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. “To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy,” he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That’s all he had. All he had were words. 
She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way – like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on… things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students “fossilize,” the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent’s a given, perfection’s impossible, and odds are you’re on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?

In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. “Dhoop khana?” I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. “Sunbathe,” she said smiling. “To bask in the sun.” My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that’s the short-form answer to the question of why you’d try. 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I wonder if, had I known my blog would actually find readers, I would have been more stringent about what I posted. My social media presence, blog aside, does not create even a tiny ripple in the vastness of online reality, and while I often find myself idly scrolling through Facebook and Goodreads, I am happy to keep it that way. 
Recently, Amazon renewed its book review policy to apparently include weird new requirements like, you cannot be following the author you review, because fans write biased reviews. Author bullying does happen. From snarky reviews offering no constructive criticism to reviewers pursuing a vendetta. Remember Lynn Shepherd who wrote a spectacularly malicious post on how J K Rowling should stop writing? She invited equal spite on herself with it and her books were methodically bad-rated on Amazon. Perhaps the policy change is drastic, but I appreciate the effort, to stop author bullying and reviewer shaming in one go.
These were the sort of things that floated up to the surface of my mind when I started So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I had some knowledge of online public shaming, I felt. Who hasn’t been subject to internet trolling? (Surely I must have done some myself.) Still, when I first read Denise’s post about the book, I had no clue how gory the picture would get. The book is framed around a series of interviews of victims of public shaming, not to mention, both the intentional and thoughtless perpetrators of such trauma. The virtual world coolly upholds citizen justice, and Ronson, in his half-amused half-stunned tone, looks at the consequences.

Ronson starts with an anecdote about finding a Twitter profile tweeting mundane oddities in his name, actually a spambot set up by some academics who, despite his requests, refused to take it down. A humiliated Ronson orchestrated a vengeance by recording an interview with the academics, which he posted online and, as they were swallowed up in a storm of online criticism, he brought them to smacking justice. It is this first-hand experience that makes Ronson’s writing powerful; he knows what he is talking about. It is a horrible read, but we must experience its horror nonetheless. The book is an intervention of sorts.

Early on, starting with the shaming of Abigail Gilpin in 1942, Ronson gives a history of public punishment in America. Of how it was practised, enjoyed, chronicled by the media; and eventually put an end to, not because it was ineffective, but because it was too brutal. He talks about LeBon’s theory of group madness, notes curious stories like that of Judge Ted Poe, who was known to dole out publicly humiliating punishments to criminals instead of fines or jail time. Alongside the interesting are disturbing incidents like that of Justine Sacco’s ill-advised humour and the vitriol fired at her. Read this NY Times adaptation from the book, titled “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.”

The book has quite a lot of quotes and very few paraphrases. It helps that Ronson never sounds preachy or self-important, and manages somehow to tone down the twisted with a farcical effect, without taking away from the gravity of the content. More than anything, he does a thorough job of examining the subject. I don’t want to mention more examples than I already have; for more I recommend reading the book. It is accessible, thought-provoking and highly relevant.

I left the Massachusetts Historical Society, took out my phone, and asked Twitter, ‘Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?’

‘Not a kangaroo court,‘ someone replied quite tersely. ‘Twitter still can’t impose real sentences. Just commentary. Only unlike you, Jon, we aren’t paid for it.’

Was he right? It felt like a question that really needed to be answered because it didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff

“To some, advertising executives exist at the fringes of legitimacy. We are neither hard-core business people nor scholars. We do not control the levers of capitalism nor offer academic insight. In fact, a few believe our profession is inherently corrupt, profiting from base human desires by transforming them into products pumped out of factories like processed cheese.

On self-deprecating days, however, I remind myself that advertising people exist at the intersection of commerce and culture. Our ultimate goals have always been, first, to identify fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, and second, to translate these insights into revenue-generating consumer propositions. No matter what the product category or target demographic, insight and profit margin are inextricably linked. In order to transform a mouse into Mickey Mouse, we must be both amateur cultural anthropologists and unaccredited psychologists.”
I really like this book. It popped out to me in the Economics section at the university library, and in spite of its being so different from my usual reads (or possibly because) I picked it up at once. The introduction by Martin Sorrell and Doctoroff’s utterly unassuming conversational tone of writing meant it immediately appealed to me.
Tom Doctoroff is the CEO of J. Walter Thompson Asia Pacific. Based for more than a decade in China, he is considered a leading expert in Chinese consumer psychology. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer by Tom Doctoroff, reads the cover, with a blurb from Fortune that calls it “an invaluable primer on the culture and buying patterns of the Chinese.” It is a major plus that Doctoroff does not require the reader to be informed about China. To the curious, the book will provide dollops of facts and insight.
The book strives to be all encompassing and falls prey to some sweeping generalizations about the Chinese masses. But if taken with a pinch of salt, it sheds light on every tiny aspect of the Chinese psyche. What makes Chinese people tick?, Doctoroff wonders aloud. Their aspirations and expectations from life in contrast to the West, their history and how it has shaped them – the cultural insecurity, the obsession with brands, the stern hierarchy and lack of political flexibility, the anti-individualism – Doctoroff examines the effect each of these has on innovation in the Chinese context. He accompanies his observations and advice with stories of Western corporations that succeeded and failed in attuning to the Chinese interest and of local successes. 
Some interesting chapters, ones that I have already revisited more than a couple of times, are The Chinese Boardroom: Face and Fear, Illegal DVDs: Why Piracy Is Here To Stay, Barbie, Starbucks and Cofco: An Introduction to Chinese Consumerism and Car-Crazy China: Where Ego and Anxiety Collide. My favourite chapters belong to Part 4: Chinese Society. Here Doctoroff becomes more candid, describing some of his colleagues, his visit to the Shanghai Zoo, the Chinese Christmas. China is one, perhaps the only, culture which has remained unapologetically itself over the years, through globalization and advancement. He attempts to explain why. Here, it is strikingly evident that though often critical of its worldview, pointedly frank about its failings, Doctoroff is fond of China. He shows no scruples about being the master manipulator his industry requires him to be, but even so, he respects the Chinese, with all their stubborn foreignness. 

Joy in the corners: Happiness persists. The Chinese, despite limited means and honed self-protective instincts, are happy. The flip side of an insecurity-based worldview is an appreciation of minutiae. The con brio vigor of chess wars, muted by the buzz of gossip, is a delight. New York fireworks elicit howls of laughter. The morning bun hawker derives satisfaction from each sale. Old men take pride in their pet turtles. Every door is surrounded by plants, a sign of emotional investment in one’s abode. Weddings are a joyful community affair. Neighbors unfold lawn chairs to relax, often in pajamas, and watch the world go by. 

In an epilogue, Doctoroff quotes himself from another book,

“The Chinese are, simply put, the most striving, ambitious yet clear-eyed people on the planet and that counts for a lot. They are pragmatic, yet human, wary yet hopeful, patient yet quick to respond. They are the hope of their future. I’m betting on them.” 

Doctoroff has an odd writing style, an uncertain mix of corporate bullet points and bold titles and faux-academic droning on. Some sections looked more like powerpoint presentations than I like my books. A few more anecdotes would have done the book some good; it is obvious that Doctoroff has many unique little experiences in China, it is unclear why he has used his first-hand examples so sparingly. Instead, he gives the same lesson over and over with slight modifications, like a well-meaning school teacher trying to ram it into our heads. “And what was it I said before, class?” “The Chinese are obsessed with brands and status!” “Why yes, now let’s repeat that, on the count of three…” The book could have been cut down to half its size. That is the one complaint I have.

The Language of The Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook by Victor Klemperer

The German Literature Month, a favourite bloggy event! We are closing in on the end of November and I have only finished my first read. I stumbled upon it in the Linguistics section of the campus library and would highly recommend it to those interested in this chapter of history, language, etymology and philology. I don’t think familiarity with the German language is requisite. The Language of The Third Reich is part memoir, part compilation of diary entries, very insightful and wholly absorbing. 
About the book: The Language of The Third Reich is a book by Victor Klemperer, who after serving in the First World War, worked as a professor of Romance Studies at the Dresden University of Technology.
“Under the Third Reich, the official language of Nazism came to be used as a political tool. The existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language. Originally called LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, the abbreviation itself a parody of ‘Nazified’ language, the book was written out of the conviction that the language of the Third Reich also helped to create its culture. The book is translated by Martin Brady, a film historian and artist.”
My thoughts: Klemperer dedicates this book to his wife, and the crisp dedication ascertains the tone of the book – sincere, heartfelt, with the humourless smile of a survivor. He starts with the word heroic and its nazifierte meaning, how for a whole generation of Germans heroism wears a soldier’s uniform. The LTI, as Klemperer calls it, breeds military-worship. Heavily romanticized words like heldenhaft (valient) and kämpferisch (gladiatorial) replace the more accurate and narrow kriegerisch (warlike.) Over and over he ironically quotes Schiller, calling the LTI a language that thinks and writes for you. A poison you inadvertently unthinkingly drink, that runs through your being.
In a chapter titled The Star, Klemperer states how from all the suffering in the twelve years of hell, the single worst day for the Jews was 19 September 1941, when it was made compulsory to wear the Jewish star. Over the following chapters, The Jewish War, The Jewish Spectacles and The language of  the victor, Klemperer describes with growing despair how the LTI enters the speech of those who on the face of it don’t support the Nazis and even the Jews, how no one escapes the constant venom that has no antidote.
“In the evening I was on air raid protection duty; the route to the Aryan control room passed just a couple of metres from my seat. While I was reading a book the Frederick the Great enthusiast called out ‘Heil Hitler!’ as she walked past. The next morning she came up to me and said in a kind tone, ‘Forgive me for saying “Heil Hitler” yesterday; I was in a hurry and I mistook you for someone I was supposed to greet in that way.’ 

None of them were Nazis, but they were all poisoned.”
Kemperer calls the Nazified German a language of faith. He reflects on how, in those days, people would express not a leidenschaftlichen (passionate) belief in things but a fanatischen (fanatic) as if fanaticism were a pleasant mix of courage and loyalty. In I believe in him, one of the best chapters of the book, he notes speeches where Hitler calls himself the German saviour, demanding this exalted status from his followers. Excessively used in the National Socialist vocabulary are words that radiate an aura of permanence, like einmalig (unique,) historisch (historic) and ewig (eternal). It is as if the Third Reich were not only unprecedented but infallible, even holy. Klemperer says, “Nazism was accepted by millions as gospel because it appropriated the language of the gospel.” 
And then he talks about the people, the cult of followers. The prefix ‘Volk-‘ enters the LTI vocabulary – Volksfest, Volksgemeinschaft, Volksseele, the people’s festival, the people’s community, the people’s soul and even today we still have the people’s car. Klemperer talks about the Nazi leadership herding its followers like cattle. Every message must be simplified and the bold underlined golden rule is not to let the Volk think critically. One direct consequence of this is the introduction of foreign terms into the language. An impressive defamieren (to defame) kicks out the German schlechtmachen (to run down.) The LTI prefers using Terror and Invasion to their German equivalents. Foreign words are scarier, they stupefy and drown out thought. 
In the beginning, Klemperer’s diary entries bleed a steady against-all-odds optimism, soon a weary hope and finally you find him clinging on to his intellectual instinct as some form of strict self-preservation. Through the book, he attempts to trace the roots of Nazism, muses on his experiences in the First War, on patriotism, fascism, Zionism, race, identity and ideas that were once exotic and largely impersonal. He mentions how as a boy the term ‘concentration camp’ sounded colonial to him, utterly un-German, and wonders whether it will now forever be associated with Hitler’s regime. 
Klemperer analyses every aspect of the politics of language in a methodical Orwellian fashion. I mentioned the irony already and the humourless smile, that is the pull of his writing. He shares many experiences he had, people he met and was in correspondence with over the years; some bring up terrifying images and others helpless sympathy, most incidents left me shaking in disbelief. But he says it all with this recurring clever dark comedy that made me feel at once intrusive and small, and overcome with awe. I’ll leave you with one of the early entries, dated 12 August 1935 –
I received from the Bls the first news since they emigrated. I find it very depressing: I am envious of these people’s freedom (…) – and instead of just being happy they complain about seasickness and being homesick for Europe. I have knocked off a few lines of verse to send them:

Thank the Lord with all your might
For furnishing your means of flight
Across the sea from grief and fright – 
To where your woes are truly small;
To spew a little in the sea
From a ship that cruises free
Is hardly worth a word at all. 
Lift your weary eyes to view
The Southern Cross beyond the blue;
Far from all the woes of the Jew
Your ship has bridged the ocean. 
Do you yearn for Europe’s shore?
It greets you in the tropics more 
For Europe is a notion!

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Summary: Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was originally titled, Nevertheless, Say “Yes” To Life, which I think makes a much better title for what the first half of the book recounts – Frankl’s experiences during WWII as a prisoner in a concentration camp. The second half is an introduction to Frankl’s theory of logotherapy. The basic premise of logotherapy is that the will to find meaning in life is a person’s main motivation to go on.
My thoughts: I struggle with books like these, non fictional accounts of tragedy and survival, because I can afford to be impersonal towards them. This does not go well with people. I have ineptly invited criticism on myself before, for instance, by accusing a certain teenage victim of the Holocaust of being too maudlin in her personal diary. This is why, of course, I had some reservations about “reviewing” Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. But now I find myself overcome by a need to rant.
Before I talk about the content of the book, let me say a bit about the style of writing. I went in expecting not to like the book, mostly because of my somewhat disappointing experience with the dramatically tear-inducing Night by Elie Wiesel. Man’s Search For Meaning makes for quite a different experience. It is unforgivingly cerebral. In the introduction, Frankl explains how he wrote his account, as a scientist and a memoirist –
To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. 
Frankl consciously tries to be objective and it is this tone that leads to reviews on Goodreads that accuse him of being too clinical. I disagree with the readers who call him dry and unemotional, because it is this very clinical precision that makes his writing visceral and honest. Frankl begins his narrative with a description of how some of them were chosen as prisoners, while others were sent off to be killed, their lives dependent on whims. How, upon arrival at the camp, all sense of dignity was stripped off and how awfully soon they got accustomed to their bare new existence. Much later, Frankl talks about becoming impassive to all the deaths. He adds that he would not even have remembered them now had he not been analysing his own reactions as a psychiatrist. A reader would have to be profoundly obtuse not to recognize how steeped in emotion such a confession is.
There are incidents in this book that I wish I could unread. Dreadful images have now permanently set up home in my mind. The German SS officers and guards in the camps are villains out of distastefully gory thriller fiction and their fiendish sadism is difficult to digest as Frankl’s reality. These are things that will keep me away from books of this kind for a long, long time. But he also writes moments of great tenderness worth stumbling around in the darkness for. I keep going back to the parts when Frankl talks about his wife, when he passes by his home town and fights to get a glimpse, when he chooses to stay by a dying patient’s side when he could have escaped the camp. I cannot hope to justly convey the treasures these bits carry, so let the words do their work – 
“In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now; Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and my image of my beloved.”
The problem arises for me in Part Two, when he begins to preach. This is a man who has lived through a war, writing to men of that age, people who want to hear that their suffering was not for nothing, that having struggled on and survived through it with the right attitude gave their lives meaning. To form a method of therapy out of the undiluted terror they faced and to apply it to the considerably happier masses is rash. Simply put, his suggestion is to find a purpose at every turn in life to feel positively about, which sounds right. But based on the assumption that every happenstance has a meaning, including unavoidable misery, logotherapy is hopeful at best, and dangerously misleading at its worst.

Because, like all self-help books, it is subjective. Disillusionment is the biggest vice to the former prisoner. Yet this disappointment felt when circumstance unchangingly delivers pain can be overcome, the book seems to say. But often, hope is a feeble self-deception in the face of an inevitable loss of control. The diligent search for meaning in everything could prove fruitless to an introspective cynic. And I could not, even if I wanted, apply to my life all the advice Frankl hands out in the latter section (the parts that do ring true and earn my utter admiration are evident in the first half anyway.) Add to this his ample criticism of Freud’s psychoanalysis. In an age where questioning Freud is hardly new, Frankl’s stubborn defence seems tedious.

The first part of the book, as I have written already, is amazing. This second part is, as it helps, tiny. But I would advise you to read up on logotherapy before you decide to read it. Finally, I don’t know if I want to recommend this book to people, it is a rather painful read. If you are interested in history or the war, do read it. For I must say, of the books on the Holocaust that I have read, fictional and otherwise, the memoir-ical half of Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl is by far the greatest.

Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell, who in this photo looks somewhat like a stout twinkly-eyed wizard, happened to be born in India. He was an English naturalist who believed that zoos should primarily act as reserves for endangered species of birds and animals. He founded a unique zoo to capture, collect and raise rare animals facing extinction, aiming to breed and perhaps eventually release them back into the wild. The wikipedia page of the Jersey Zoo, now called Durrell Wildlife Park, is worth a perusal. 
Summary: In this memoir-like book, Durrell has returned from a trip to Australia, only to find his zoo in shambles. In Catch Me A Colobus, he recounts how they set up the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, found sponsors and eventually built the zoo back into shape. The first half of the book is a compilation of vignettes expansing about seven years at Durrell’s Jersey Zoo. From escaped chimps, pregnant tapirs and bullying parrots to stories of the strange characters that visit the zoo, like a woman who sat on a bird. Durrell and his staff care deeply for their animal cohabitants, which shows how his zoo is a long way off from the cruelty that is commonly seen in such places.
The second half of the book follows Durrell’s expedition to Sierra Leone to collect the rare Colobus monkeys and make the eponymous BBC series. The travelogues detail the conservation efforts or lack thereof across the world, the lives of tribals and forest officers, the customs problems Durrell faces when transporting animals across oceans and the difficult job of adapting the wild to a life of captivity. When Durrell speaks about conservation in the final chapters, he speaks with an admirable passion. 
“The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web, and like a spider’s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we’re not just touching the web, we’re tearing great holes in it… 

When asked why I should concern myself so deeply, I reply that I think the reason is that I have been a very lucky man and throughout my life the world has given me the most enormous pleasure. People always look at you in a rather embarrassed sort of way when you talk like this, as though you had said something obscene, but I only wish that more people felt that they owed the world a debt and were prepared to do something about it.”

My thoughts: Durrell’s dedication to his zoo is remarkable. In this pre-internet age, he conducts his research through a vast library of books on flora and fauna. He highlights the shortcomings of most books of science and explains how he combats them by maintaining intricate journals on the behaviour of the animals at his zoo. He also often reaches out to his contacts for assistance, from veterinarians and human surgeons to other zookeepers. Their readiness and the lengths they go to help out say a lot about Durrell himself.
I had read a book in my mother tongue once about a similar conservationist’s zoo, and I had a few issues with it. The main problem was, the writer kept attaching human qualities to the animals that made their behaviour a little misleading to the uninformed reader. The leopard threw a tantrum, he would say, and purred to me that he was upset with me. It was cute, but not quite scientific enough, and I kept wanting to remind him that it was a wild animal he was referring to. Durrell, on the other hand, displays his love for animals and their unique personalities quite well, while explicitly reminding the reader not to mistake a chimpanzee for a friendly little pet. 
Disappointingly, the book has no pictures, only cartooney illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. An annoying unnecessary addition are some rather absurd fan letters that beg the question – do people put in any thought before they put pen to paper? 
But Durrell more than makes up for both shortcomings. He has some engaging writerly tricks up his sleeve. My favourite is how he attaches animal qualities to the humans that populate this book. So we see someone “spread out in his chair like a ship-wrecked giraffe,” or another “clung to his bed like a limpet,” and we get these profiles of the BBC crew – 
“Chris has heavy-lidded, green eyes, which he tends to hood like a hawk when he is thinking, and in moments of crisis retreats behind his nose like a camel. And there was Howard who was short and stocky with dark curly hair, and enormous horn-rimmed spectacles which made him look like a benevolent owl.”

Now, I would not have called an owl benevolent myself, but I can totally see it. It is silly and very entertaining, and only the tip of the giant iceberg that is Durrell’s warm, endearing humour. The glimpses of his personal interactions with his wife Jacquie and his assistants make him out, perhaps self-flatteringly, to be a thoroughly lovable guy.
Durrell is also pretty good at imagery. I mean, the man can really write. He sees the world with the eyes of an expert, notes even the tiniest of details, and yet, his conversational tone assures that we never feel overwhelmed by factual information. Check out these few passages on Durrell’s first sighting of the Colobus monkey. I have never seen a tree or a monkey described with so much care and fascination.
I was standing, looking out over the misty forest, when I heard some noises in the valley just below the house. I knew it was monkeys because there was that lovely sound as they leap into the leaves, like the crash of surf on a rocky shore. They were heading for a big and rather beautiful tree that grew a couple of hundred yards from the veranda just below us. It had a sort of greeny-grey trunk, the leaves were a very vivid green, and it was covered, at this time of year, with bright cerise-pink seed pods about six inches long. 

There was another crash and rustle amongst the leaves. And then, suddenly, it seemed as though the whole tree had burst into bloom, a bloom of monkeys. They were red and black Colobus, and they were the most breathtaking sight. They had rich, shining, chestnut-red and coal black fur, and in the morning sun, they gleamed as though they had been burnished; they were magnificent. 

When I looked back at the tree, they had all disappeared. As I sat sipping my tea, I remembered a stupid woman I’d met at a cocktail party in Freetown, who’d said, ‘I cannot understand why you’re going up country, Mr Durrell. There’s absolutely nothing to do or see there.’ I wish she could have seen those Colobus.
I cannot believe this is the first I have heard of this man. Catch Me A Colobus by Gerald Durrell is a treat for animal lovers, amateur naturalists, ornithology enthusiasts, and pretty much anyone with a liking for wordy English humour.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

A long time ago, I read Freakonomics and decided “pop economics” was not my breed of non-fiction. This was a mistake, because my problem with Freakonomics had mostly to do with aesthetics. Dubner’s writing was gimmicky, overeager and his cult-like devotion for Levitt was plain creepy. The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford came recommended as a simple but interesting book on economics for people who know nothing about it, i.e. me.
In this book, Harford fancies himself a detective, going undercover to unearth the big stories behind simple daily interactions. But it is his approach that makes the book so appealing, especially to beginners. Like every teacher ought to, Harford steps down from his pedestal, takes your hand and guides you through the investigation. You are the undercover economist. Where Dubner spends the introduction of Freakonomics effervescing with praise about Levitt, Harford makes you the star of his show-

“My aim in this book is to help you see the world like an economist. (…) It’s detective work all the way, but I’ll teach you how to use the investigative tools of the economist. I hope that by the end, you’ll be a more savvy customer – and a more savvy voter too, able to see the truth behind the stories that politicians try to sell you. Everyday life is full of puzzles that most people don’t even realize are puzzles, so above all, I hope that you will be able to see the fun behind these secrets.”
His writing is witty, engaging and full of life. With non-fiction, I know, writing style faux pas might easily be forgiven. But when an author nails the style, it is worth the mention.

Where Dubner and Levitt show how economics can be fun and wacky, Tim Harford talks about things that are a lot more relevant to people all over and gives you an economics-way of looking at things. The Undercover Economist explains the basics of economics and why you should care. The book is well organized. It starts with concepts smaller in scope, like the cost of coffee and orange juice. The initial chapters discuss price-targeting and the power of scarcity through everything from high rents in London and the price of popcorn at the cinemas to trade unions and resistance to immigration. For instance, have you ever wondered why wine is more expensive in restaurants?

“Because one of the big costs in a restaurant business is table space. Restaurants would therefore like to charge customers for dawdling, but because they can’t do that, they charge higher prices for products that tend to be consumed in longer meals, like wine, appetizers and desserts.” 

Whenever Harford introduces economic jargon, the technical terminology comes with lay explanations. It is not until the fourth chapter that Harford attempts to define economics, and even then, what he says is comforting, if naive.

“Most economics has very little to do with GDP. Economics is about who gets what and why. There is much more to life than what gets measured in accounts. Even economists know that.”

With every chapter, Harford goes on to more macro concepts, from health insurance to globalization, until it ends with an awesome coming-together of all you’ve learnt till then. He may not do any ground-breaking theorizing of his own, but in the final three chapters, Harford cites the works of other economists, and expands on three globally pertinent topics – the impact of the spectrum auctions, trade barriers and poor countries and a brief history of China under Mao’s rule and its later economic reform. The last chapter is attractively titled How China Grew Rich and the book ends on a positive (though fairly controversial) note. 

“In the end, economics is about people – something that economists have done a very bad job at explaining. And economic growth is about a better life for individuals – more choice, less fear, less toil and hardship.”

Yesterday I finished another book called The Articulate Mammal by Jean Aitchison. It is a simple and interesting introduction to psycholinguistics to those who know nothing about it. I am not those people. To me, the book is simplistic and biased, Aitchison focuses a lot on Chomsky, and little on his critics. I mention this because the same may happen with The Undercover Economist if you are not new to economics, unlike me. Especially if you are not in favour of some of the things Harford holds an obvious bias for, like free markets, or if it infuriates you that he concludes the book stressing that “sweatshops are better than the alternative”. Dear econ-nerds, discount him his stronger opinions and appreciate all the knowledge he has packed into this book. For the rest of you lay people, this is a must read. The Financial Times blurb on the first page says it best, “The Undercover Economist is an excellent Undercover Introduction to Economics. If you think that sounds boring, you probably ought to read it.”

(Participate in the 2015 Non-Fiction Reading Challenge over at The Introverted Reader.)

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I’d highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn’t you like to know where all those words came from?
I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.
The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It’s a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 
Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I’m no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word ‘east.’ The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both ‘fauna’ and ‘faun.’ Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!
In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was “Achilles heel.” But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you’ve seen any of these used, “the apple of discord,” “to sulk like Achilles in his tent,” “I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts.” Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included “to cut the Gordian knot” from a story of Alexander the Great, “to throw a sop to Cerberus” inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.
Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can’t wait to get my hands on that! 

A Blue Hand – The Beats in India by Deborah Baker

Allen Ginsberg lay in a sweat-drenched puddle of self-pity. He had so wanted to be a saint, but what was he supposed to suffer for? (…) Could anyone hear him? Saints, sadhus, rishis and all compassionate ones, he begged, “What’s to be done with my life which has lost its idea?”

The name Deborah Baker rang vaguely familar until I realized from the dedication that she’s the wife of Amitav Ghosh. I spent the whole of yesterday buried in the book. A Blue Hand – The Beats in India by Deborah Baker follows the events leading up to Ginsberg’s visit to India and his time spent here, trying to find his spiritual connection and get himself a guru; almost as an escape from the rage of the publication of Howl, ‘the epic work that branded him the voice of a generation’, which opens:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, 
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, 
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection 
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night,” 

A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker focuses mainly on Allen Ginsberg, his “wife” Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, and the mystery girl, Hope Savage. Then there are frequent references to William Boroughs, Lucien Carr, Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The people they meet in India include, among others, young Bengali poets Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeb Bose and various swamis and maharshis. Also described is Indian politics of the time, along with opinions about India from Christopher Columbus to Walt Whitman, right up to Jackie Kennedy’s India visit. The Indianisms explored by Ginsberg and his Beat friends include Buddhism, meditation, the idea of Hindus having multiple Gods catered to each character and personality trait, overcoming the fear of death by spending nights alongside funeral pyres and simple spiritual liberation – the accounts both horrific and moving.

The journals and letters condensed down only to the most quotable parts, is of course, what makes the book most accessible and interesting. While I would never have dared to sift through them all myself, I did find myself smiling at bits like: when referring to the God Ganesha and Indian imagination, Ginsberg wrote, “How can da Vinci beat an elephant on a mouse?” At one point, in Dharamshala, while Ginsberg was encouraging a twenty-seven year old Dalai Lama to indulge in psychoactive drugs for heightened visions, Dalai Lama playfully commented, “If you take LSD, can you see what’s in that briefcase?” Baker’s writing is hardly dry, which makes all the drug induced visions and dreams far more interesting and far less delirious than, say, On the Road in its entirety.

What I loved about the book, and what I imagine was its point was the uncensored, and more importantly, non-arrogant and non-cynical look at India through the eyes of an opinionated but fair outsider. The book paints an unexpectedly accurate portrait of India, that is much better than most Indo-Anglian attempts I’ve read, which flit between skeptical and overly exoticized.

It is unclear who the intended reader is. The shifting timelines and the myriad of points of view, which cut up and reassemble the narrative, may prove too confusing as an introduction to the Beats. And, the bits of story stuffed into the thin book could be insufficient for a Beats enthusiast, who’d rather read the actual journals. I suppose it’s a book for someone (not unlike me) who knows enough not to be bogged down by information and just needs an engaging afternoon read. Unlike your everyday biography, the book has a good flow. I would have liked more pictures, though.

Is it a book to go search for? Perhaps not. But if you happen to come across it, I see no harm in picking it up! For anyone who’d like an outsider’s glimpse into India of the sixties, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker would make a nicely tragicomic read.