Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-1781090053
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are debut novelists and then may be after reading him I can safely say that there is Anthony Marra. This is after reading his book, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and the fact that I could not stop sighing and being spectacularly amazed by most of his writing as the pages were turned. The writing does not seem as though it belongs to a debut writer or maybe I am just underestimating debut writers, but this one is sure to look out for. For one, no one or maybe very few people would have heard of the Chechen wars before reading this book. It was certainly an eye-opener for me and I can only thank Anthony enough for introducing me to this side of the world as well.

“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is not going to be an easy read. It is not even a happy read as far as I am concerned. It has its moments of happiness and then it gets quite dreary. What does one expect of a novel told in the time of war and unrest? Well, for most things, one expects humanity and Marra delivers like a charm with reference to that expectation, thereby not only fulfilling but also surpassing it.

The book passes through or rather is told through a decade – from 1996 to 2004 and speaks of lives that were embroiled during the Chechen War, with the Russian History but of course making an appearance time and again in the book. The history of Chechnya is long and often confusing. Anthony Marra on the other hand, does not give us complete details of the land. Instead he chooses to talk about ordinary lives and the impact of ethnic strife on them and how their lives change beyond recognition. This worked with me as a reader on most levels. I guess all readers want to know more of the humane side of the story than anything else and Marra most certainly delivers on that one.

In this hard-hitting novel, Anthony takes us back and forth in the lives of the major characters, surrounded by the secondary characters that are equally integral to the plot and structure. There is Akhmed, an incompetent doctor with a big heart and an invalid wife, Sonja, a surgeon who labours each and every day at a bombed hospital and living with her own demons, and Havaa an eight-year old girl who has lost her family and is now about to start a new life. Centered around these are the other characters that make up the entire concept of Six Degrees of Separation that runs strongly throughout the book.

The cycle of life is seen through the book – birth, changes, adaptation, movement, growth and sometimes death is what holds the book strong. Marra’s writing is surreal and often had me wonder: Where did the stories come from? What is the deal with the plot? The title in itself is intriguing and as you move through the novel, you understand its importance. The novel is intense and deep and yet the moments of compassion are plenty that take you by surprise. After all, sometimes all one needs is compassion to get one through in times of uncertainty and a war-torn land and a heart that needs much more. The emotional highs are plenty and that is precisely why I was urging everyone to read this book. It may be dark and depressing in places, but for me, it filled my heart with joy in most places. A must read.

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Book Review: The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai Title: The Hungry Ghosts
Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780670085750
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It was through a dear friend that I got introduced to Shyam Selvadurai’s works. We were younger than and wanted to read everything queer and take it all in. At such a time, I was introduced to “Funny Boy” by my friend, written by Shyam Selvadurai. The book was about a boy’s coming to terms with his sexual orientation and that too in an almost conservative Sri Lankan society. I fell in love with Selvadurai’s writing. There was no looking back since. I have read almost every single book of his (well including the latest one, there have been only four books to say the least) and loved them all, some a little less than the others and some a little more.

“The Hungry Ghosts” falls in the latter category. The title comes from Buddhist mythology, where the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts” – as spirits with stomachs so large that they can never be full. It is but left to the living relatives of the ghosts to free them of this desire by doing good deeds and creating good karma. Why am I telling you this? Because this is at the heart of this story, centered on a matriarch, becoming a living ghost and the relationship she shares with her grandson – who but after all must free her.

The book moves between Canada and Sri Lanka and Selvadurai does a brilliant job of describing the essence of both places with ease and panache. “The Hungry Ghosts” is centered on Shivan Rassiah, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and is a beloved grandson to his grandmother, who is extremely orthodox and at the same time, Shivan happens to be gay. As the novel opens, Shivan is living in Canada and preparing to go back to Colombo to meet his ailing maternal grandmother and get her to live with him and his mother in Canada, till her final days. This is the crux of the novel.

For me what struck a chord in the entire book is the fact that you can never let go of the past. It will keep hounding you or keeping up with you wherever you go, till it is at peace. The law of karma holds strongly throughout the book and sometimes most ironically so. Each character is stuck with his or her karma and that runs beautifully throughout the novel. There were times when I thought it was getting a bit much, but I could overlook it, primarily because of the writing.

Characterization is another strong point of Shyam Selvadurai. He gives all his characters their due and their voices are distinct. No one is either good or bad. Everyone has their own drawbacks, which makes them connect more with the readers. The fact of Shivan coming to terms with his sexual orientation and at the same time trying to make sense of Sri Lanka’s disruptive political scenario blends and fit together to perfection. This to me is great writing. The grandmother is overbearing and strong and yet has her own share of sadness which isn’t revealed till later in the book. The idea of the book is clear: Forgiveness and Karma.

This book worked with me on many levels as I was able to relate my life to what was taking place in the novel. I loved the Buddhist myths and fables that run throughout the book. It is almost as though they were much needed to propel the story ahead. I highly recommend this book to almost everyone who want to know more about Sri Lankan customs and traditions and also above all who want to read a good story.


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Interview with Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik and Modern Management infused with Mythological concepts seem to go hand in hand. He has always been at the forefront of exploring and breaking paradigms when it comes to looking at Mythology in the country or for that matter Management as well. With his new book, “Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management” he shatters all myths and at the same time urges you to look at management from a different perspective. The Indian perspective which cannot work sometimes on Western ideologies given the vast difference between Eastern and Western philosophies. Keeping this in mind, I decided to interview him and this is the result of that interaction.

Business Sutra by Devdutt Pattanaik

1. Myth and Management. How did you think of connecting the two?

Myth is subjective truth. Management is about people. Every person has a subjective truth. So connecting the two made sense. Of course, if you think of myth as something to do with fantasy and religion then this connection seems incredible. Myths of the world are maps of the human mind; they reveal how different cultures approach life. Reading them helps us understand different societies.

People are slowly realizing that management has long ignored the culture lever making it rather
mechanistic.


2. Modern concepts of Management do not seem to recognize Mythology and its importance. How do you tackle this in your role as a Chief Belief Officer?

Modern management is based on science and mathematics. So it is assumed to be rational and universal. Only an outsider knows that it is steeped in Western thought, which is strongly shaped by Greek mythology and biblical mythology, something the West will vehemently deny. You see, the fish never sees the water. The bird does. As someone who has been studying mythology for years, this was so obvious. When I mapped it to business, I realized all the problems of business could be traced to this mythical root. When I presented it to business leaders, the ones who always sensed the difference intuitively loved my work. Then at the 2009 TED conference, the popularity of my talk indicated that everyone in the world sensed the relationship of culture and management principles, hence the exclusion of non-western cultural ideas.

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3. What was the motivation behind “Business Sutra”?

Modern Management follows the biblical paradigm of defining the Promised Land (target) and moving towards it by following Commandments (tasks) or the Greek paradigm of challenging authority and forging a new path as hero (innovation and leadership). I wondered what Indian mythology would reveal. And I saw a whole different approach to targets, tasks, innovation and leadership.

4. This book is very different from your other works. How much did the book take from you and in what sense?

This was tough as it meant making a journey from Western management to Western mythology to Indian mythology to Indian management. I had to explain basics of management to those familiar with mythology and basics of mythology to those familiar with management. Mythology was especially tough as most books on the subject are written by European and American writers whose understanding of the subject is rather poor because of the Western linear bias.

5. You have almost created a niche audience for mythological books. How do you think they are accepting a book about looking at Indian Management differently?

I have a good readership in Management because of my columns in Corporate Dossier (Economic Times) and my CNBC-TV18 show, Business Sutra.

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6. “Business Sutra” breaks barriers all the time. Almost breaking paradigms. Was this intentional to the writing of the book? How did the book structure come along?

Well I did not seek to break barriers. I just wanted to draw attention to the incompleteness of current scholarship in matters related to management. Management today assumes that the military model followed by the Roman army and Jesuit missionaries is the ‘right way’ to do things. That sounds scary. At the heart of it seems to be about conquest (read growth) and domination (read leadership).

Something does not feel right about its spirit. Is an alternative discourse allowed? We want to propagate violent worldviews and there is a trend to dismiss alternate worldview as unrealistic and exotic. That is not healthy and not very wise either.

Structuring the book was very tough as I had to explain the meaning of belief, connect belief with mythology and then business, draw attention to Western mythology whose existence is for all intent and purposes denied, and then show how it was different from Indian mythology. One then had to enter the new world of Kama, Yama, Indra, Vishnu, Shiva and Daksha, and of Laskhmi, Saraswati and Durga. While most readers are sort of familiar with many of the words/ideas of the book, they do not either all the words, or understand it in depth. So there were challenges at every level.

6. Devdutt, the writer…

Writes every day for 2-3 hours…weeps at how little or how badly he has written….and struggles to make his ideas understood.

7. Devdutt, the Chief Belief Officer. How does he make sense of madness at the workplace? Where do the sutras then begin to show the way and how?

The workplace is not mad. We sign a contract which is essentially voluntarily domestication. For a payslip we do what we are told to do. But as humans we yearn for visibility; the organization is unfortunately not interested in our intelligence, only our obedience and our performance. So we feel invisible, restrained, frustrated and angry. We yearn for freedom and when that is not forthcoming, we
bitch about the organization, or indulge in politics, in order to feel special and powerful.

The sutras of the book aim to widen the gaze of the reader, understand what is actually happening at the workplace, the invisible currencies that are being exchanged. It is not just about target, tasks, rules and wealth, it is also about power and identity, something we rarely connect with the business world.

A workspace can become a battleground, if we don’t see what is happening beneath the superficial behaviour. Or, it has the potential to become a playground, where each one of us is growing as we do our tasks and reach our targets.


8. When does management begin and when does it take over what we have grown up with and believed all along?

Management today expects humans to give up all values they have at home and adopt new values in the office. This sounds bizarre but that seems to be trend. The assumption is that we have to articulate values; else we are value-less. We live in an age of political correctness where we have to say and do the right thing, whether we believe in it or not. This schizophrenic approach to work and life is supposed to make us more efficient, but it does not. It fractures us and the fault lines have started to show across organizations, industries and societies.

9. What is next on the cards?

I never interview and tell….:-) but we do have 330 million gods to write about and many more business practices to explore.

And thus ended, the fascinating talk with Dr. Pattanaik. It was truly a fantastic experience for me.

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Book Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo Title: The Creation of Anne Boleyn
Author: Susan Bordo
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0-547-32818-8
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 343
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

If there is any Queen that has been most speculated about, then according to me that would have to be Anne Boleyn. There has been so much written and spoken about her. What was she? Was she really that vicious? Or was she merely misunderstood? What was her nature? We all know (or well most of us do) how she came to be the Queen of England and Henry VIII’s second wife. She was a mistress, a plotter, a woman who was in charge and wanted it all and like I mentioned may be a lot of the parts she must have been highly misunderstood.

I have always been drawn to Anne Boleyn, wanting to know what led to her execution. Did she even deserve it all? There are so many questions surrounding her that it would probably take a lot of books for me to read and movies to watch to get a sense of the person. However, for now I have just finished reading a book by Susan Bordo called, “The Creation of Anne Boleyn”, where she uncovers the persona, the myths in a logical manner about this Queen and her life.

“The Creation of Anne Boleyn” charts the entire life of Anne Boleyn and with it Bordo also talks about the influence of every single form of media that has led to people perceiving Anne the way they do. To make her point, Bordo breaks all myths and conventions with more than enough proof and that had me going page after page. The structure of the book is also simple and quite understandable: the first part speaks of Anne and how she came to be Queen, the second part takes readers through what happened after Anne’s death and the third part is all about the media and how it has come to view Anne Boleyn.

The writing is insightful and shows the research gone into this book. I loved the instances and reasoning provided by Bordo. She takes readers on a fascinating journey of trying to uncover the mystery behind Anne Boleyn and her ambitions. It is a cultural examination which is highly readable and also witty in most places, which is very difficult for a non-fiction or a book of a historical context to achieve. She speaks of Anne as a person – physically and mentally and that clarity is par excellence. At the same time, Bordo takes into account what happened and why. She talks of roles of other members of the King’s court and their role in it. Katherine of Aragon is heavily featured, considering it was she that Henry wanted a divorce from to marry Anne and he waited the longest for it, only to end up executing Anne. This irony and complexity is simply told in this book. For anyone who wants to know more about Anne and the myths surrounding her life, I definitely recommend this one.

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Book Review: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard Title: Frances and Bernard
Author: Carlene Bauer
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547858241
Pages: 208
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This has to be hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. I am not a fan of epistolary novels however this one grasped my attention and did not let it go, till I had finished the book. There are very few books that manage to do that. This is one of them. “Frances and Bernard” by Carlene Bauer is more than just an epistolary novel. It is also a literary homage of sorts to two giants – Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, on whom the characters are based. This made the book twice as much fantastical for me.

Frances and Bernard are very different from each other (but of course, they couldn’t have been similar, given the nature of this book). They meet at a writer’s colony in the summer of 1957 and begin their correspondence. They meet some more times after that and recognize a kindred spirit in each other. They write about almost everything to each other – from friends, to lovers, to affairs, to their writing, their pitfalls, about their manuscripts and even their faith. There are other people whose letters are also in so the reader gets a complete understanding of Frances and Bernard – there is Claire, Frances’ best friend, Bernard’s friend Ted and their joint publisher John. Reading the letters is the perfect way to get into the skin of characters. It is the difference in the characters’ views and opinions that make the story what it is.

The book by covering almost every ground (as mentioned in the above paragraph) only shows us a glimpse of what Bauer’s writing is capable of. The voyeuristic urge is present in every single one of us and novels such as these only cater to them and sometimes even succeed brilliantly in satisfying them. The letters are sometimes rich in their content and sometimes flippant and yet that is what will keep the reader going with every turn of the page. The entire novel is formatted very well and doesn’t seem hurried or too slow. The pace is just perfect.

The love of reading and writing is what struck me and stayed with me long after I had finished reading the book. The ending is unpredictable (of course) and for throughout the novel I could almost imagine Flannery and Lowell sharing correspondences of this nature. As a reader, I could only hoot again and again for the written word and I hope that more people read this gem of a book.

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