Friday, November 28, 2014

The Hindus - An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger: Impressions



In the age of short attention spans, finishing 700 page strong book feels like a victory of sorts. More so when the book is not a racy thriller. I’ve just finished Wendy Doniger’s (in)famous ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ after three, maybe four months, punctuating it with life. However, Wendy Doniger can’t be accused of NOT being racy - in both senses of the word. She may be writing history, but her ideas and her presentation are certainly page-turners. It’s just the small print and the mammoth scope of this book that make you want to stop and ruminate ever so often.

For the few who may not know, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ recently became Doniger’s most talked-about book because an organisation called SBAS (Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti) objected to it. It’s founder, Dinanath Batra, dragged the book to court on account of controversial content that would hurt Hindu sentiments (yawn) and asked for it to be banned in India. Penguin and Aleph upheld these bans and withdrew all existing copies. And true to human nature, we all made a beeline for it just because they said NO. Thanks to the Internet, imported editions of the book can very much be bought online and e-books are readily available.

I gleefully dived headfirst into the book with starry eyes, a fan as I am of Doniger’s work like every aspiring Indologist. The book is divided into 25 chapters, each chronicling a definitive period in Indian history beginning from the prehistoric (50 million BCE) right down to the present. Doniger starts out with the man/rabbit in the moon metaphor, knowing well that nothing about Hinduism is what it seems. But it is plain to see throughout the book that her scholarship is tremendous; Wendy Doniger doesn’t miss a trick. However, what is most admirable is her erudition laced with wit. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her use of “maithuna you” and many such Doniger tropes.

Doniger is a humourous writer - sometimes to the point of irreverence - and this is probably what didn’t go down well with the Dinanath Batras of the world. Frankly, I don’t see anything in the book that may be called truly objectionable/ controversial, but here is a list of statements that were deemed so. Critics have panned it for inaccuracy, but I think they’re missing out of the idea that this is meant to be an ‘alternative history’. While most of Doniger’s claims are backed with scriptural/literary evidence, a lot of the book is also about her unique perspective. She writes Hindu history from the point of view of the suppressed lower classes and women. She tries to represent their anonymous voices, especially in all non-Aryan literature, that shaped the more recent body of scriptures (like the Puranas) and consequently the society. She makes these subdued voices loud and clear, without becoming cloyingly feminist or activist. She remains an objective scholar throughout the book, much to the chagrin of purists.

But the book is not without its weak spots and one thing I found annoying was the author’s preoccupation with animal motifs. Doniger obsessively harps upon horses and dogs, what these animals represent, the matter of sacrifice, vegetarianism and so forth. These are important and legitimate points but excessive all the same. That said, Doniger knows her India and its history better than most of us born here. Banned or not, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ deserves to be read for eye-opening insights about this country, taken of course, with the tiniest pinch of salt.


Monday, August 18, 2014

The Journey After Life by Cyndi Dale: Impressions



For as long as I can remember, I've been incredibly drawn to that realm beyond 'reality'. What begins after science ends? What are the things our senses cannot perceive? Where does one draw the line between matter and spirit? If you look at my book shelf, you'll see at least a dozen titles on energy 'sciences', religion, mythology, philosophy, and allied subjects. I read endlessly about what lies 'beyond', but do I believe what I read? I can't tell. I don't know. Years of formal Western style education, combined with a deep interest in Eastern esoteric-­ism, have turned me into this half­-baked creature. A skeptical believer, a believing skeptic. I want to believe but I find myself compelled to question. A fine example of my personal paradox is that I have now simultaneously become a student of both – evidence-­led history and archaeology, and intuition-led mysticism and mythology.

However, in my quest for answers, I lap up books like 'The Journey After Life' when they come my way. 'The Journey After Life' is written by Cyndi Dale, an American healer, speaker and author. She has written several books on Chakras and other energy paradigms, has intuitively healed hundreds of people and continues to do such work, thanks to her psychic abilities. In this book she deals with the subjects of death, the soul, and afterlife. She also talks extensively about spirit beings, angels, dark souls, faeries and so on, and their role in our lives. She elaborates upon the nature of the soul, drawing from religious sources as well as quantum physics! Dale's book not only shows the extent of her 'research', but also her intuitive understanding of human nature and compassion. It was the latter that quite affected me as I was reading this book.

Just a few pages into the book, and I felt connected with her. I felt her spiritual presence in the room, as I sat holding the book, like I would hold her hand. Ever so often, I would find myself crying as I read her kind words. I was reminded of my spiritual mentor, Shilpa Inamdar – also an energy practitioner and healer – in whose kind presence I always felt so purged and refreshed. In her wonderful manner of communicating, Dale introduces the concept of death as a part of life in the introductory chapters, which form the first part of the book. She says how all life is light, as everything emanates from the great White Light. I found this idea very similar to the Hindu idea of Brahman, from which all creation and life emanates and into which everything culminates.

However, Dale's idea of the great source of light is not all that simple, as she speaks about several Planes of Light through which a spirit travels before it reaches 'Ultimate Consciousness'. The second part of the book describes these planes in great details, with a chapter dedicated to each of the 13 planes of light. She associates every plane with a chakra, explains what it means, what a soul's purpose on that plane is, who the guiding beings on that plane are, how to 'visit' and benefit from that plane even when one is alive and what their corresponding metals, colours and mediation techniques are. It is greatly practical book from this perspective, but the key is belief.

Despite my initial 'connection' with the book, there were times when there was a complete lapse of faith and what I read appeared to me as gibberish, or fantasy at best. I might as well have been reading a book on nuclear physics, because I had no clue what was going on. Because with my limited knowledge and ordinary perceptions, there is no way of ever corroborating the contents of this book, and I was always teetering on the edge of (dis)belief. Spirits, guardian angels, tunnels of white light, NDEs, curses, ghosts and other such ideas are hard to stomach but there are great takeaways from this book in terms of love, humanity, kindness and compassion. Choose what you will.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Who wrote the Bhagvad Gita? by Meghnad Desai



So the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) is trying to 'date' the Mahabharata on one hand, and we have Baron Meghnad Desai asking who wrote the Bhagvad Gita on the other. The timing of this book appearing in the market could not have been more right! Oh, there should be a ticket price for watching what happens after one has thrown a copy of this book in ICHR's compound. *wicked grin*

Jokes apart, 'Who Wrote the Bhagvad Gita?: A Secular Inquiry into a Sacred Text' is a book to be taken seriously. The ICHR may be the butt of many jokes in the intellectual circles right now, but it is no secret that a chunk of our nation thinks the way they do. Most of us have been taught to believe – and we like to believe – that the Bhagvad Gita is a divine composition. And in that light, this book is not for the 'faint­hearted'. Not that Desai makes light of the sacred position the Gita holds in our society; but academic inquiry is often in direct conflict with faith. Desai, like many Indological researchers before him, poses questions about the coherence and composition style of the text; which, to most laypersons might sound sacrilegious.

But Desai presupposes the Gita to be the work of a human author or authors, and then puts forth his theories. To the uninitiated, Meghnad Desai is a renowned British Indian economist, politician and a Padma Bhushan awardee. Although his work is extensively in the field of economics, he is highly respected as an academician in general. 'Who Wrote...' is his first book in the field of Indology, but his methodology and sharp insights as a pro researcher are evident. Desai draws his theories from many critical editions, translations and commentaries of the Gita. He cites the opinions of some of India's greatest thought leaders, including, Tilak, Gandhi, Vivekanada and Sri Aurobindo.

However, his largest influencers are D D Kosambi and Dr. G S Khair – two of the most vocal (and respected) critics in this sphere. There are a number of points Desai makes to support this theory of Gita's human authorship, but the primary among them are:
a. A discernible difference in literary styles among certain sections of the Gita
b. Internal ideological differences in those corresponding sections

Then there are cases of chronological problems, verse repetitions interpolations, caste and gender discrimination, and the induction of Buddhist ideals, the details of which a reader should get from the book. Desai deals with every aspect in a categorical manner, citing the verses he finds ‘objectionable’ and laying down his reasons for the same.   

But my greatest takeaway from the book was Desai's assessment of the Gita's social worth in the Hindu society. He brings to notice some very recent – in the grand historical perspective – political and cultural events that brought the Gita into prominence. Before Tilak and Gandhi wrote and spoke about it extensively, the Gita doesn't seem to have had much sway in the nation. Today, we repose unquestioning faith in the text and hold it in the highest esteem. In this context, Desai asks us a very pertinent question: Does the Gita's 'slippery opportunism' morally allow us Indians to be corrupt and complacent?


Read it, think about it. I have been thinking too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Journey Home by Radhanath Swami: Impressions



I recently resigned from work, having decided to take a two-year sabbatical to study. I hope to change the course of my career and consequently my life, choosing my passion over a safe, set career. Coming upon the story of Radhanath Swami’s spiritual journey at a time like this was probably a sign. The account of a young American boy’s internal conflicts, his thirst for a higher purpose and his subsequent finding of a spiritual home resounded well with my state. That said, I was disappointed by the literary quality (or the lack thereof) of the book. When I chose this book to read and review, I was expecting something like ‘Autobiography  of  a Yogi’. But I realized soon that this book was nothing like that spiritual classic. (I really want to question that ‘International bestseller’ sticker on the cover of this edition.)

But that’s not to undermine the things I took away from ‘The Journey Home’. Radhanath Swami’s journey is extraordinary to say the least, and mere mortals like us can only look on with awe and reverence.  Born Richard ‘Monk’ Slavin, Radhanath Swami’s childhood was spent surrounded by noble Jewish parents in an American suburb. In his youth, he discovered the counterculture of the hippies and did everything that the flower children did. At the age of 19, he set out to backpack across Europe with his friends to experience the adventure called life. But the call of the divine took him further on from Europe onward to India on a road trip. Travelling alone and often penniless, Monk experienced a number of thrilling, sometimes life-threatening, episodes as he crossed Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. en route.

Once in India, the author roamed the country, especially through the Himalayas and other holy places. He met the most accomplished Yogis and lamas, got a taste of the different spiritual schools and teachers, and spent months as an ascetic, observing strict austerities. He lived in caves, under trees, by river banks and begged for food, living like a true sadhu. But his heart would not find refuge in one place or philosophy, until he landed in Vrindavan. There, he discovered Krishna, the path of Bhakti Yoga, and ultimately his guru in Srila Prabhupada (the famed founder of ISKCON).

While Radhanath Swami’s journey is awe-inspiring, the book often gets boring to read. Whatever else he may be, Radhanath Swami is not a writer. His lack of skill makes even the most fantastic instances sound ordinary, and the spiritual insights he offers – peppered in italics through the book – often sound juvenile. It may be that these ‘insights’ were that of a 20-year-old American boy and hence are the way they are, or it is purely poor writing. I can imagine the editors of this book pussyfooting around the author because of his spiritual stature. Also the testimonials by famous people seem to have been made more because they couldn't turn down a holy man rather than because of the quality of the book. But as a reader and a critic, I find it hard to ignore the subpar literary production. So, unless you are particularly interested in the man and his mission, you can give this book a miss.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Menstrual Cup - a love story


I’ve had a dry creative run for the longest time. Nothing has been inspiring or challenging enough for me to want to write about. But then I came upon the menstrual cup, which has been nothing short of life-changing. I almost feel obliged to share information and experiences with the menstrual cup, with my fellow women. In a country where discussing menstrual anything is a taboo, I find it imperative to let women know about this wonderful product on menstrual hygiene. However, this is for tampon initiates and little virgin maidens who will use only pads and never consider anything ‘penetrative’, this is not for you.

Despite the information overload in the age of the Internet, I am willing to bet that LOT of Indian women have never heard about the menstrual cup. Heck, many don’t even know what a tampon is! I didn’t know about this product either, until a few months ago. One of my lovely Twitter friends from Australia shared a link about the menstrual cup, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my life changed.

Types of menstrual cups

So, what is a menstrual cup? A menstrual cup is a 3-inch long, 2-inch wide cup made of surgical quality silicon that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. This cup covers and sits at the mouth of the cervix, air sealed, thanks to the tiny holes on the cup’s sides. Because the cup is about 3-inch deep, it is able to collect a fair amount of menstrual discharge. The cup needs to be extracted after a few hours, emptied, washed and BINGO it’s ready for reuse. Did I want to try a product that was discreet, did not need disposal & re-purchase and was eco-friendly? Yessir!


I asked around some more, and was told that there are a couple of Indian companies making and selling this product. I ordered mine via phone from Shecup, a Bangalore-based company and the product was delivered to me in a swift couple of days.

While I had looked it up on the net, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the product. It seemed BIG in the beginning and I was like… “I’VE GOT IT SHOVE THAT THING IN?” Especially for someone who is accustomed to using a tampon, the menstrual cup seemed decidedly large and uncomfortable. And make no mistake; IT TAKES SOME TIME AND PRACTICE TO GET USED TO. It reminded me of my first days of using a tampon, when I was too scared to push it far in and sat awkwardly in office chairs, feeling poked, poked, poked all through the day. But as one gets used to all things, I mastered the tampon and thought it was the best thing to happen to womankind… until the menstrual cup came along (with its initial hiccups, of course).


Unlike the tampon, which has a string, the cup doesn't have a pull-out aid. I would initially push the cup too far back in. After a few hours, when it was time to empty out the cut, I would be having panic attacks in the loo because WHERE WAS THE FRIGGIN' CUP? I would gingerly push up my index finger – long nails and all – and not find the cup. Then I would push (not a good idea if you also have the urge to crap at the same time) and grunt and finally extract it from the great dark pits of my hoohah. Jackpot! I’m sure my joy would have rivaled a treasure hunter’s at that moment. Sure, it can make you a little squeamish in the beginning, holding a small cupful of your own menstrual blood. But you can play pretend, imagine you are a witch and throw the blood down the great magic pot-cauldron! Whee! PS: menstrual blood DOES NOT STINK. And this, especially for the chee-chee ladies, it is YOUR OWN BLOOD. Chill.

There is a technique of insertion and removal, which I mastered over the next couple of days and trust me, it’s not rocket science. Fold the cup nicely and gently insert it; just remember to not push it in as far as a tampon. You should be able to feel the stem of the cup; and no, it doesn’t poke. The cup gets pushed in a little more eventually anyway. To pull it out, squat or sit down and relax your vaginal muscles. Use your index and middle fingers to reach it, press the base of the cup lightly to release the air suction and gently pull out the cup. Try it pull it out straight, so that there are no spills. This will take some practice again, and should you spill a few drops of blood, it is easily cleaned up with water of tissues. And in a few times, you will be, ahem… pushing and pulling like a pro!



Once the cup has been pulled out and the menstrual fluid emptied into the toilet (and flushed down), wash the cup with anti-bacterial medicated soap. Wash your hands too before re-inserting the cup to minimize risk of infection. A freshly-inserted cup can easily serve its purpose for close to 8 hours (yup, you do not bleed THAT much), but of course it will change from one woman to another. At the end of your period, sterelise the cup in boiling water for about 10 minutes, and put it away until the next month in a soft cloth pouch. DO NOT STORE IT IN A PLASTIC CONTAINER – plastic tends to harden the cup. Stored and used properly, a silicon menstrual cup is said to last up to 10 years. However, the recommended change time is 1-2 years. Even so, it is highly cost-effective, considering a cup costs you only around INR 800.     


I strongly advocate this product, and think more women ought to know about and use it. It is discreet, comfortable, DOES NOT LEAK, medically safe, eco-sensitive, reusable and generally, a little boon. If you would like to know more, there is plenty of stuff online. And if you have any questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. Just DM me on Twitter or write to me on urmi.chanda@gmail.com.


Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer: Impressions



Many times during the course of 'Stranger to History', I admit trying to find Aatish Taseer's Twitter profile (with no luck). The more I read this book, the more curious I became about the author whose life seems to be an extraordinary case of ironies. I sought inane little details – as a person is wont to give away on Twitter – about Taseer, if only to humanise, 'normalise' him a little. Because going by the book, internal and external conflict is all he has ever lived by. Picture a set of parents belonging to different religions, living in different countries and divorced. Picture a little child who has only just known shadows of his father, forever clutching at straws of identity. It all befell Taseer's lot, and 'Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands' is his story.

Born as a lovechild to a rising Pakistani political activist and an Indian political journalist, Taseer's destiny seemed to bear the fault line of the Indo­Pak border. While his parents got married for a while, they divorced soon after, owing his Muslim father's political ambitions in Pakistan. His Sikh mother raised him in Delhi, with help from a host of Sikh relatives. Once a young man, Taseer is driven by a need to know his father and to truly understand what being a Muslim is. He sets out on a journey that takes him from Turkey to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to finally his father's doorstep in Pakistan.

Taseer samples the unique flavours the religion of Muhammad travelling through these Islamic states. Through his journalistic lens, he shows you the undercurrents of radical Islam in the largely secular Turkey, the monied 'Sheikh' culture of the Saudi, the oppressive religious regime in Iran, the constant political unrest in Syria and finally, the imploding state of Pakistan. It's a great bird's eye view of the current state of affairs in these nations and an eye­opener for people like me who do not follow global politics; especially the politics of religion. Because he is a journalist, Taseer's writing is analytical, but it is also delightfully lyrical in places. Through the people he meets during his travels, he personalises the account, without ever getting emotional.

That's not to say the book is devoid of emotion. The book is an intensely personal account of a search for identity. It is hard not to be moved by Taseer's confusion, occasional jubilation and often, rejection. The point of strife between Taseer and his father is the question of identity, with Taseer being Indian yet not, Pakistani yet not, Muslim yet not. His father's reluctant acceptance of him after many years, and a fresh rift owing to difference of opinion are painful to witness.

It is hard not to feel sorry for him, for ourselves and for our Pakistani neighbours, who live in this milieu of political mistrust. Taseer's life could well be an exaggeration of the conflict all of us, who live in the post 1947 world, feel. Pakistan's children, are perhaps in a worse place, having rejected all their shared history with India. It can't be nice growing up with a big black void in the collective social consciousness. Reading this book causes one to ask many questions about one's religious and national identities. These are important questions that need to be asked and for that, I thank Taseer.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Father's Day


I call this quick graphic tablet sketch Father's Day, what else? :)

And here the reference picture I used to make it. Features the two most important men in my life.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women by Charles Bukowski: Impressions




The Internet is a strange amazing thing, and one without which life seems unimaginable now. One reads and meets the most incredible beings here, who sometimes repulse, sometimes attract and sometimes change one's life. I came upon one such curious creature called Charles Bukowski here. He came as a wave on social media. Suddenly one was seeing Charles Bukowski being quoted everywhere; and by everywhere I mean Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Anyone who frequents these social media sites will know about waves like these: Rumi has had one, Neruda has had one, Agha Shahid Ali has had one. Lovers go about looking for their words – lovers of people, lovers of words, lovers of love. I am one too. So imagine how struck I was when I read this by Bukowski: Find what you love and let it kill you. No soft wave of love this; it was like being pounded by a big wall of water. And then came more such lines. Naturally, I ran off to Flipkart to buy me a Bukowski.

A prolific American author, Charles Bukowski has written extensively and compared to some of the finest writers of the 20 stood out for its title: Women (and the wonderful cover graphic!). I had to know what the great CB, who wrote brutally about love, had to say about women. So I bought it, read it, and now I am disappointed.

To put it mildly, 'Women' is not Bukowski's best work. Yes, the book is dark and direct, in true CB style, but there are few, if any, flashes of genius that I was seeking. Perhaps I was turned off by the gritty Americanism of the book. Such oppressive superfluousness! American literature has never appealed to me and Bukowski's 'Women' did nothing to change that.

 'Women' is a seemingly autobiographical story about a noir poet, whose new-found fame helps fund his debauched lifestyle. Protagonist Henry Chinaski is about 50 years old, an unrepentant alcoholic and will sleep with just about any woman. Wild women, volatile women, young women, blonde women, black women, fat women, thin women, trippy women, good women, whore women... Chinaski's conquests are endless. There is a love interest called Lydia in the beginning, but once she fades out, the plot becomes a blur. Tammie, Iris, Sara, Katherine, Debra, Cecelia, Valencia, Tanya, Liza, Dee Dee become one indistinguishable blob – a mass of breasts, legs, ass, hair, mouth and sex. They all come, drink, fuck and leave. We find Chinaski waking up at noon with a hangover, puking, gambling at the racetrack, drinking some more, and looking for his next fuck.

Occasionally, we find him flying to one city or another to give a poetry reading. The book almost reads like soft porn, but for CB's existential angst peppering its pages. The story ends with a hint of Chinaski's transformation, but one comes away with nothing.

Because Bukowski is a good writer, you cannot put the book away easily. You go on reading and hoping there will be something of beauty, of substance in these 'Women', only to find hollow shells. His character sketches do not impress, except for one or two. Well, the characters have no real 'page time' to be able to reveal themselves. Chinaski's drinking-­whoring routine reads depressingly dull and monotonous, save for a few occasional insights about the human condition. At the end of it, the book felt like a waste of time, and life's too short for bad fiction. Skip it.


In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler: Impressions




Some authors make you laugh, some authors make you cry, and some authors mean business. Ensler means business, grabbing you by your gullet, making you laugh and cry all at once. But Ensler's business isn't about selling copies (although she happens to be an international bestseller); it is about flipping radical switches. Anyone who has watched the play, 'Vagina Monologues', written by her will know how she does what she does. She glides easily underneath the thick crust of what is considered socially acceptable, and speaks loudly and clearly of things most of us don't even like to admit to ourselves. 'In the Body of the World' is not just Eve Ensler's memoir; it could be the story of every woman, every soul that wears a body, every body that inhabits this world.

'In the Body of the World' is primarily an account of Ensler's battle with cancer, but also of her deeply troubled childhood and her work in the Congo. Everything in this memoir is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Ensler has been around the world as an environmental and women's rights activist, but only when she starts working in war­-stricken Congo does she understand the extent of cruelty humans are capable of. Amidst the cancer of human greed, she is also diagnosed with cancer and from there begins her journey of suffering and healing. Each time she speaks of the physical pain of the treatment, emotional traumas from her past surface.

Her incestuous and abusive father, her detached mother, her drug and alcohol­-fueled wild teenage years all form a flux of pain and are released onto the pages. These fuse with the pain of war crimes and chemotherapy, and threaten to swallow her in an impossible blackhole. But she rises, and rises and picks you up along the way.

Ensler's words are as indomitable as her spirit. There is so much self ­realisation, such brilliant self ­aware writing that it dazzles. But what is most remarkable, most inspiring is the complete lack of inhibition, of shame. The humanness she allows herself, is very liberating. She lets you in on her most visceral truths simply and is unapologetic about it. You could be reading about her exploding poop bags, enemas, incontinence and vomit and be smiling or crying through it; but never cringing. You could be reading about her father raping her, her sex life, or her unconventional views on relationships, but not judging. In baring her vulnerabilities and failures, she allows herself and the reader fallibility and imperfection. And in this, lies her grandness.

Few words that come to mind when I try to describe Ensler's style of writing: clarity, brutal honesty and poetry. It's a lethal combination, really. She is beautiful to the extent of painfulness. Like brilliant light that blinds you. When she speaks, you listen; when she orders, you obey.  I have been shaken and slapped and kicked out of my stupor of ordinariness, by Ensler's extraordinary story.

I've fallen asleep with her words in my blood, and woken up with the taste of cancer, incest and horrific war crimes in my mouth. It is unputdownable, undeniable. Like the cancer and Congo changed Ensler, this book will change you. READ IT.