Category Archives: Random Thoughts

A bunched up Book Review

animalfarm2Catch-22_1slaughterhouse-five-cover

     

 

 

 

 

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I do not why I have lumped these three books together – there must be a method behind the apparent madness.

The first two are American, the last British. The first two are anti-war while the third is on political philosophy.

But they do have some similarities. They all are from the middle of the last century, all sad-funny, what is called dark-humor. All have an underdog at the center of it, though the ‘underdogs’ in the last are the farm animals ‘minus’ the pigs and the dogs.

All these books have sensational quotes; all of them can be read happily by children and adults alike without meaning anything to them; all of them are depressing, for they ask you to abandon hope and try to understand the society ‘as it is’. All of them are against regimentation through ideology.

***

The central theme of Slaughterhouse Five is on the bombing of Dresden; but is also about Vietnam and other wars that will follow. It is about a person who is ‘unstuck’ in time and exists at all times of his life, all the time. I understand that to be merely living in memory, for the science fiction bit in the novel is really not very important.

Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied forces, for no apparent reason, killing over a hundred thousand civilans – more than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So, the novel is partly autobiographical, and probably that is why it is so rich in detail.

The anti-war sentiments are spot-on and the most beautiful passage is where it describes a war movie running on a rewind.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed
.”

But like I said before, the novel is dark and offers no solution:

That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why
.

***

Another beautiful anti-war novel is the famous Catch-22. Here is how the novel describes the clause “Catch-22” –

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

The confused question of relevance of nationalism that has become so central to the ordering of our lives is brought out thus –

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

The book is scathing at places, and truly insightful –

“It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Again, as is common with all the books reviewed here, it offers no hope. The society wants a total submission and eventually the life of the individual; the individual instinctively resists, for it is not in his DNA to die for others; much persuasion and heartburn later, the matter remains unresolved. Such novels, after all, can only raise questions and warn against the prevailing lies.

***

The last in the list is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This one does not have a war as its backdrop, and I probably include it to underline the fact that it is not war that is at the root of our problems – war is only a symptom, an inevitable result of the way we have ordered our society and brainwashed ourselves.

Let’s begin with the story, for it is beautifully-childish. The farm animals overthrow the regime of a cruel man and take it upon themselves to run the farm in the best possible manner, in the interests of the animals. But the newly named ‘Animal Farm’ under the democratic rule of the pigs fast degenerates into a dictatorship of ‘Napoleon’, the brightest pig, and his family, who use a group of dogs as their ‘musclemen’. They mainly use ideology and oratory to keep the other animals satisfied, but have to use ‘muscle’ eventually, when even the dumbest start to understand the true nature of the new order. The last lines of the novel shows the animals peeping inside a cabin where the pigs are having a party with the neighbouring humans, and the author concludes –

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The beauty of the novel is that it simultaneously attacks capitalism and communism. And because of that, the novel comes to an inevitable dead-end, where human greed and cruelty comes out victorious once again.

Not surprisingly it was banned in both the US and USSR at one point of time. Written in 1944, it was before the excesses of Stalin era came to be, and so we can also salute the foresight of the author. But the worrisome part is not the “I told you so smirk”, the worrisome part is that the book is so ‘universal’ – reading it you know that this cycle of greed and domination will happen again and again. The way children pick up the same comics to read, again and again and again, despite knowing what will happen.

***


An incident in the park

imagination____by_punktlosThe child, about six years old, sitting on the park bench was looking curiously at me. It broke my reverie, and as an opening gambit, I smiled, but he continued to stare.

“What’s up young man?” I asked.

“What are you doing?” he asked, point blank.

That un-nerved me a little, for you never know what the kid was thinking. I played safe, “Just imagining things,” I said.

“What things?” he asked.

“All sorts of things,” I said, not really getting the hang of the conversation.

“Why?” he said.

Now there is little you can do when a young person asks you why. So I deflected the question, “My imagination saw your imagination there,” I said, pointing towards the sky.

That hooked him. We were on familiar territory now, in the world of imaginations.

“Where,” he asked. Perhaps he wanted to know the exact location of our imaginations.

“There, above the clouds,” I said, “Where lots of imaginations live.”

“Imaginations live above clouds?” he asked, curious.

“Not all,” I said, “but the better ones like to live above the clouds.”

“How do you know?” he asked.

“I have been studying imaginations all my life. I am an expert on them. My imagination meets the imaginations of so many people. That is what I was doing. ‘I was connecting’,” I explained.

The expression on his face turned to respect. It takes one to know one.

“Your imagination tells you everything?” he asked.

“Imagination can tell anything. Many things that even the scientists do not know,” I said.

“And they don’t lie?” asked the kid, for he wanted to be on sure grounds before proceeding further into the world of imaginations.

“Imaginations can tell you anything, it is up to you to believe them or not. They are not very particular about truth, but they are powerful none the less. They know the truth, which is sometimes difficult to find,” I said.

“But truth is easy to see. They are like facts,” the kid remarked.

“Not so. Most of the times truth is hidden behind layers of feelings. But imagination knows truth, for truth is sweet and imagination is powerful. I will give you an example. There are many poor children who have not seen the inside of a normal home. They imagine how it may be and are happy.”

“They can go anywhere they can imagine,” he asked.

“Yes of course, like you can go on an adventure, or on a spaceship, or fly with superman or fight the aliens. My imagination once saw a beggar child imagination what it would be to go around the city in a car. I decided to take him along with me in my car. And I did. At the end of the ride I asked him how he liked it, and he said, it was good, but he had been around earlier also. I asked him when, and he said, in his imagination. So, you see, imaginations can be pretty accurate.”

“Wonderful!” he exclaimed.

“No, but remember, not everyone is blessed with such great imaginations,” I cautioned, for I knew that he would feel that the world doesn’t need anything more than imagination. “Moreover, the soul needs imagination, but the body needs more worldly solid things.”

He was disappointed, for he seemed to detect a fly in the ointment. “My dad was saying it is all fool’s paradise,” he said.

“Not so. Newton to Einstein, Aristotle to Marx, Leaonardo da Vinci to Picasso – all the great men have had great imaginations, ones they believed in.”

“What was my imagination doing?” asked the boy.

“I don’t know. Did not talk to it. It seemed busy,” I said.

“Yes, it was. It was catching snakes. Huge snakes,” he nodded and said.

“Ah, that explains it. Your imagination was looking very preoccupied,” I said.

“How did you recognize it was my imagination?” he suddenly asked.

“It looked like you,” I said simply.

“Oh,” he said, “there must be millions and billions and gillions of imaginations up there?” he said.

“Not so. Only few imaginations soar so high. Mostly those of kids. Only few adult imaginations go there. Most adult imaginations can not even cross the clouds, let alone reach space. But the one that can go into space can go anywhere in the universe. No, even beyond the universe, but that needs more power,” I explained.

“What’s beyond universe?” he asked.

“Don’t know yet. Have not been able to go there. Imaginations of saints and really good people are so powerful as to break out of universe. But I have talked to some of those who have been beyond, and they say it is wonderful, for there it is without rules and limitations and free,” I said.

We were silent for a while, as we tried to imagine beyond universe. The little boy’s sigh told me that this time he had failed. And that is the danger of growing up. “Boy, never give up imagination even though at times it will not be able to take you where you want. The imagination of the adults becomes feeble only because they stop believing in them. They start believing too much in the real world, which, I am sure you know, is also imaginary,” I concluded with a smile, and decided to let his imagination figure out the rest.

***

 ((Pic courtesy: punktlos from the net))


Awesome nature: Kandy, Sri Lanka

Natural beauty of Kandy, Sri Lanka lies in its greenery. The trees of Royal Botanical Garden and the winding, snaking roads lined with awesome trees makes the place a photographer’s delight.

Some of the pics here were taken from the car – since the scenes were too tempting to ignore. Imagine what one can get if one goes with a dedicated mission of capturing all of its beauty!!!
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Dark Knight Rises Review: A conversation with my ten year old son

((Warning: Reveals the plot. So those who intend to watch the movies please do not read any further))

It was late in the night when I came out of the theater, having watched the latest Hollywood flick, The Dark Knight Rises, with my ten year old son Tintin. Both of us had had a whale of a  time – great action, superb story and some tasty popcorn.

Tintin: Awesome. (He gave his verdict.)

Me: Yes, great movie. Less humor than Spiderman, though.

Tintin: That Miranda Tate was a villain. I was so surprised. She was the kid in the well?

Me: Yes. And the Catwoman was not so bad after all.

Tintin: (With a scowl of disapproval) She was bad. She got Batman into the trap of Bane. Imagine if he had failed to escape. But why did Miranda hate Batman?

I explain the plot to him. That Miranda was a victim of the ‘system’ and hated it. Batman was the defender of the city of Gotham. She wanted to destroy Gotham and Batman was in her way. I also explain that Gotham city symbolized the World, but more specifically the Western Civilization, while Bane and Miranda can be equated with today’s terrorists and Maoists.

Tintin: (Confused) Why were the poor people being tortured and put into prisons?

I realized that I had opened a Pandora’s box. I decided to change the track to bang-bang.

Me: Did you notice that Batman rarely uses guns. Most of his fights are hand to hand.

Tintin: That’s why Catwoman said she did not believe in his no-guns policy, when she shot Bane?

Me: Batman wants to restore order with minimum of bloodshed. He normally wants to put criminals into jail, and not kill them.

Tintin: But they said jails were full. Why?

Me: (falling into the trap again) Jails are full because there are extremely rich and extremely poor people. When the poor are exploited, they resent. When they rebel violently, they are thrown in jails.

Tintin: (with conviction) That’s wrong.

Me: (trying for a quick course correction) That is what the movie says, but people cannot be allowed to kill innocent children. For example, even if our system is wrong, you are not responsible. Why should a terrorist kill you?

Tintin: (thoughtfully) The terrorists are wrong.

I sighed. No one really understands who is wrong and who is right any longer. Up till now such dilemmas were part of the vocabulary of the ‘bleeding heart liberal’ intellectuals. But now such questions are being posed in the popular culture by superheroes. Difficult times ahead for the next generation.

Me: Yes the terrorists are wrong. By the way, Alfred the butler was really happy to see Batman living a normal life as Wayne at the end of the movie. (I tried to draw his attention to the good ending.)

Tintin: Ye…es, but what will happen to the people who were in the prison?

I realized the movie had had a deep impact. I quickly changed the subject to the upcoming flick Superman, to avoid getting deeper into world politics and ruining the moment.

But I could not help but thinking that the movie had damned both the system and the challengers. The movie itself gave no answers – Batman could only just restore the fragile old order. It raised questions that probably the next generation will have to answer. For me, that was not a ‘good’ enough ending, but I guess, for the moment that is where we are. And in that sense it was an honest movie, definitely a cultural milestone.

***


Why Social Networking activism sucks: Another top ten list

Booo. Ok, this is sure to raise the hackles of the social-network activists, but then, who is afraid of them anymore?

 

Facebook and Twitter warriors have just lost it. Posting, liking and sharing their way into the glorious midnight, they have totally missed the fact that they have managed to make themselves obsolete in a record time. Trust me, they have. Ok, don’t trust me, but they still have. [This is the type of logic that is currently in currency, so what the heck, I can use it too.]

[A much better and impactful article has been written on the subject, long back in 2010, by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker and can be seen here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell The article has following arguments, not used here: the social networking relationships are based on weak ties, the activism is remote and not really connected with the people, activists and others ‘signing up’ do not have to invest their money or future in it, movements are leaderless, incoherent and lack strategy etc.]

 

This fall of the social-network activism however gives me a perfect opportunity to launch another awesome top ten list. Here goes, whoopiee…

[Disclaimer: This is an ‘extra-lite’ version writing style. This article is also beta-version, which means, I am not responsible for any errors.]

 

  1. From un-informed, unverified to deliberate falsehood. Facts are not sacred on the social circuit, and opinion is freer than ever before. The status updates are worse than gossips – more malicious and untrue. Once people lose faith, they rarely find it again in the same place. This has reduced the power of social media to influence.
  2. Intellectually non-rigorous. Simplistic.  H L Mencken famously said – “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” Social activists really love these types of solutions. The world is actually not made up of simple problems and simple solutions. “In fact the social media activists are creating problems and obstacles for those trying to solve problems” [Note this last sentence –106 characters with spaces. This is the type of smartass opinion you can expect on fb/twitter.]
  3. Too easy. It has become just too easy to launch an opinion. Stronger the opinion, more likely it is to elicit responses. Just try to explain a complicated problem with a complex argument and see how many of your friends go through it. In fact I would be linking this article on my fb, and I know hardly anyone would take the trouble to read it. Not because they don’t love me (they do, often), but because that is the nature of social media – it has led people to expect simple, eye catching things, like ads, not like art movies and documentaries.
  4. Emotional and irrational. However much you dislike rationality, whatever a society or an individual gains in life, it does through solid rational processes. I write poetry, and the writing part of it is always rational and methodical, though the inspiration and arguments in it are often romantic and irrational. Heavy duty reliance on the emotional leads to silly ultra-nationalism, terrorism, social disruption, phony posturing and no classes and no studies on the campuses.
  5. Absence of expertise and domain knowledge. The activists dabble in anything that catches their fancy (like I am doing here). Such efforts are generally useless and benign, but can be dangerous for society if done in excess. Mediocrity rules supreme, and trust in experts is undermined. I would not like to have a social media activist flying the plane I am on, nor would I trust him with guarding our borders, or running our country.
  6. Too easily manipulated. It is just too easy to create a fake pic of a God-face on a rock, or a graphic proving anything, or launch a campaign with half-truths and strong opinions. Only the manipulators are empowered, though thankfully, with the decline in the influence of these platforms, the manipulators are only looking silly school-kids now, not awe-inspiring conspirators.
  7. Panders to lowest common denominators. This is a big problem. Huge. Imagine a situation when there are tensions between two countries – social media activists would ensure that a war does take place. Then they would shed croc tears over the innocents killed, and blame all and sundry for the mess.
  8. Limited reach. Reach is touted to be the biggest strength of social media. But that is a myth. These platforms are populated exclusively by a section of the aspirational, often frustrated, middle-class. These are not the people who generally vote or participate in street demonstrations. Language and digital divide is no doubt the biggest handicap, but attitudes are no less responsible for turning many people away.
  9. Cowardice and snobbery. It is the medium of the coward. People who are afraid of confronting their tormentors directly find this medium convenient to vent their ire. But soon their ire turns against all and sundry, and they start to revel in becoming ‘rebels with multiple causes’. Unfortunately, such rebels have started to make an appearance in society outside of the social media networks, sowing confusion and muddying the already confused state of our affairs.
  10. Assists in faking of information, emotions. It is hardly a surprise that one of the more popular pages on the fb is Faking News. At least they are honest. People are faking emotions, personality, facts, photos… anything, with glee. Attacking icons, respectable leaders, companies, cooking up conspiracy theories, proposing dubious solutions – they are hardly the material on which we can build our future.

These are strong charges, seriously made. My appeal is:

(a) be wary of what you read on social network, do not believe anything without verifying;

(b) be careful what you share, repost or like; and

(c) if you feel strongly about something, step out and revolt, defy, revolt. Don’t hide behind fake identities and the anonymity of the net.

And yes, do press the ‘like’ button, just below the three stars that you see here. 🙂

***


Modern Parables-2: Fox and the lioness

The hungry fox knew he would have to convince the lion to hunt. But the lazy lion would have none of it – he was not hungry enough.

The fox went to the lion’s den and asked Mrs Lion how she was doing.

‘Fine,’ said the lady, for lionesses are grumpy by nature.

‘A crocodile bag would suit you fine, my lady, this season they are all the rage,’ he said.

The lioness gave him a stare for she knew it was so.

‘A fine croc is sleeping by the river, and if sir would come, I could lead him up to the fine creature,’ offered the fox.

‘Huh. As if you could make that old fool work,’ grumbled the lioness, knowing it was tricky to hunt a croc.

‘Hmm, that is so. Pity the muddy-green would suit your brown. I heard there are some good bags to be had at the mall,’ he suggested after a thought.

‘Ok,’ said the lioness, after giving the matter some thought. ‘Come along, we will have something to eat on the way. Just give me a minute,’ and went inside the cave with her hairbrush.

Moral: There are alternate paths to reach a destination.

***


Modern Parables-1: The elections

The annual election for the Presidency was around the corner and the incumbent, Mr Lion was in a bit of a bother. His ratings were rock-bottom. His speech on protecting the jungle from the outsiders was booed – the ‘foreign hand’ bogey was not working this time.

The fox had propped up Mr Monkey in a straight contest. Monkey’s plank of better internal security and law and order had hit the popular mood.

Lion decided to have a word with the fox.

‘You have shifted your loyalties, foxy,’ observed the lion coldly when they met one night.

‘Umm no. I believe in the need for a better deal for the animals…’ said the fox, but was cut short.

‘Cut the crap,’ snarled the lion, ‘what do you want, name your price.’

The fox thought for a while. ‘I am all for development. If you could just stay off the north of the country, the humans can mine the area for coal and uranium. They offer a good deal.’

The lion asked for details, and the more he heard about it, the more he liked it.

Soon the fox switched sides; the lion got a new manifesto printed, promising economic development.

In a close contest, the lion won another term in office. The northern parts of the country were made out-of-bounds for the animals. They were told big projects need long gestation periods, and that some sacrifices have to be made for a better future.

Moral (If there is any left): Dreams work well with democracy.

***


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