Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Star Struck



A note on Nature as a canvas for mystical experiences

Nature and its infinite beauty is a source of constant wonder and inspiration. It would take a heart of stone to not be moved by her many graces. Some take solace in a sunset, some are roused by the rising and falling waves, some are moved by the mountains, yet others find comfort in the company of creatures. My muse is often the moonless night sky.

My earliest memory of beautiful starlit skies is from my childhood. Summer nights in a small town in Maharashtra in the 80s and 90s were extremely hot and often with long 'load sheddings'. I remember my mother judiciously sweeping and washing the huge terrace of the two-storeyed building we lived in, in the evenings. When night fell, we would drag our mattresses, bedsheets, mosquito coils and bottles of water to the roof top. It was something of an adventure, a happy annual ritual I looked forward to. I may not remember the conversations, but my 8-year-old self has never forgotten the sight of those starry skies as she lay on the moon-cooled bedsheets on hot summer nights.

We moved house, the MSEB got better at its job, the city smoke clouded the skies and the ritual was forgotten. Years later, when I travelled to the north of India, I was struck by the stars again. We were walking back to our hotel from a temple in Rishikesh; it must have been 8pm. My parents had stopped to talk to some people in the lobby, and I lingered on outside for some time...

Leaning on a car, I looked up and there they were. Those dazzling diamonds spread carelessly on the velveteen sky. I remember how striking I found the inky blackness of the sky, how countless and bright the stars seemed. The smog-laden city horizons had made me forget what lay beyond that dirty veil. I sucked in a lungful of that cold, crisp, clean mountain air as I took in that sight. It was a moment of realising the sheer largesse of the Creator and utter gratefulness for letting me partake of the marvel that is the Universe. It was a moment of perfect unity, clarity and beauty.
I still look up when I feel lost, or whip out those stars from many moons ago.

"For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." ~ Vincent Van Gogh


Monday, June 29, 2015

When Rama is Sita's brother, and Hanuman, a ladies' man!



Don't outrage at the headline yet, for this is no attempt at sensationalism. This is merely letting you know that in a society just a little different from yours, the Ramayana exists differently. India's famous epic is not necessarily the one Valmiki composed, or the Amar Chitra Katha versions we read, or the one we watched on television in the 80s. Ramanand Sagar's televised version, which was adapted from Tulsidas' Ramacharitamanas is the one we are most familiar with. It is the story of virtuous Sita being abducted by the evil Ravana, and her valiant husband Rama rescuing her with the help of his devoted brother Lakshmana and the monkey army after an epic battle. It is the story of familiar moral stereotypes, that is deeply entrenched in mainstream society.

However, different social needs call for different kinds of heroes and the Ramayana has been adapted in varied ways through centuries. These versions were not created to be sacrilegious. While some versions challenged Brahmanical authority, most were the result of adapting a universal heroic figure to fit their social-cultural context. In his famous and sometimes contested essay, 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation', A K Ramanujan talks about hundreds of versions of the epic that exist in folk, poetic and dramatic traditions. But here I list five versions which deviate most from the plot and characters we are familiar with.

1. Sita as Kali in the 'Adbhut Ramayana': Let's start with Sage Valmiki himself. Not satisfied with composing just one Ramayana, the great poet sage is said to have composed other versions and extensions like the Yoga Vashistha and the Adbhut Ramayana. The former is more of a philosophical treatise using the context of the epic, while the latter is an adbhut or a wondrous composition. Much shorter than the original maha kavya, the Adbhut Ramayana is especially notable for its characterisation of Sita. She is not the demure, helpless victim here waiting for her husband to rescue her. In fact, when Rama falls wounded and unconscious on the battle field, she assumes the fierce form of Kali and wreaks havoc upon earth. She is eventually pacified by the gods, Rama's consciousness is restored and the story moves on. If you find feminists who decry Sita's submissive role in the traditional Ramayana, point them in this direction.

(Available in an English translation by Shantilal Nagar, BR Publications)

2. Rama and Sita as siblings in 'Dasaratha Jataka': The Dasaratha Jataka is one of the earliest Buddhist versions of the epic. In what might seem like a shocking twist to most, Rama and Sita are depicted as brother and sister in this version. The duo is not banished but sent away to the Himalayas by the king Dasaratha in order to protect them from their jealous stepmother. The stepmother is the only antagonist, for there is no Ravana in this story. When things have cooled down, Rama and Sita return to Benaras and not Ayodhya and get married. As much as your morals are jarred by this incestuous turn of things, bear in mind that some communities make this provision to maintain purity of caste when there are no eligible matches.

(Available in an English translation by V Fausboll, Kessinger Publishing)

3. Lakshmana as the Ravana slayer in 'Paumachariya': One Jain version of the Ramayana is called Paumachariya, which was authored by Vimalsuri. The Jain Ramayana strips all elements of fantasy from Valmiki's version and presents a very rational view of the epic. Ramanujan avers: “When we enter the world of Jain retellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. … Paumachariya knows its Valmiki and proceeds to correct its errors and Hindu extravagances. Like other Jaina puranas, this too is a prati purana, an anti or counter-purana.”

For example, it rejects the idea of a monkey army and suggests that they were actually a tribe of warrior people with the monkey as their totem/symbol. However, the most important deviation in this version is where Lakshman becomes the slayer of Ravana. That's because Rama, being a perfect Jain, is avowed to nonviolence and cannot be a killer. Here, too, Rama is a hero for he embodies the highest ethic of the Jain religion. His valiance is reflected in his non killing. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

While an English translation of the Paumachariya does not seem to be available, it might be worth checking out some rare Hindi translations.

4. Lakshmana's agni pareeksha in the 'Gond Ramayani': The Gond Ramayani is a series of seven tales told in the folk tradition of the Gond tribe. Folklorist Molly Kaushal, in an interview with a leading journal, says: “The Gond Ramayani is embedded in the socio-cultural context of the Gondi community, its lifestyle and its kinship. Here women, whether they are brides or otherwise are related to the central character, play a definitive role in the movement of the plot and its culmination, which is different from the classical versions.”

This tale really begins where the traditional Ramayana ends, i.e. after Sita is rescued, and Lakshmana and not Rama is the protagonist. In the first tale, Indra's daughter Indrakamani is so besotted by Lakshmana, she flies to earth as an eagle to see him. However, she is unable to wake up or woo a sleeping Lakshmana and in frustration tears off her clothes and jewellery. When Sita sees these remnants, she tells Rama about her suspicion on Lakshmana's licentious behaviour. It is then that Lakshmana has to go through the fire ordeal to prove his chastity. Who says there is no gender equality?

(Not available in English translation, but can be experienced through folk dance performances and paintings such as the ones made under the Ramkatha project of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts.)

5. Hanumana as the ladies' man in 'Ramakirti and Ramakien': In the Thai versions of the Ramayana, Hanumana's character takes on quite a central role. He is not the monkey-faced celibate but quite the ladies' man with amorous interests. When he visits Lanka, he has no qualms peeping into people's bedrooms. Even Ravana is conceived very differently in the Thai version of the Ramayana; he is seen as an erudite scholar and a powerful king worthy of respect. His quest for Sita is seen as true romantic love, albeit fatalistic. The 'Ramakirti' and 'Ramakien' are considered great entertainers by the Thai people and not so much as guides to social and moral conduct as Ramayana in India.

(Ramakien is available in an English translation by J M Cadet, Kodansha America Inc.)

This article originally appeared on scroll.in on May 06, 2015

Book review: Scion of Ikshvaku



Author: Amish Tripathi
Publisher: Westland Limited
ISBN-10: 9385152149
Number of Pages:376 Pages
Publication Year: 2015 June
Language: English
ISBN-13: 9789385152146
Binding: Paperback
RATING: 3/5

Picture this. A large royal court with an assembly of the best kings and princes. The mission: to complete an archery challenge, and the prize, the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage. The challenge would be to shoot the eye of the fish on a turntable mounted on the ceiling, while looking at its reflection in a vessel of rippling water on the ground. This would be the svayamvara scene from the Mahabharata when Arjuna competes to win Draupadi's hand, right? Wrong! This would be the Prince Ram Chandra of Ayodhya trying to win the hand of the princess of Mithila, Sita. At least that's how it is in Amish Tripathi's first book of the Ram Chandra series, 'The Scion of Ikshvaku'.

After months of advertising, in what seems to be the biggest and most expensive promotional drive for a book, Amish Tripathi's 'Scion of Ikshvaku' released on the 22nd of June, 2015. A record signing amount, full page newspaper ads, exclusive Kindle offers and even Youtube trailers (never mind the nail polish-wearing Sita) had readers waiting with bated breaths for the next offering from the extremely popular author of the Shiva trilogy. And why not? After all, he promised to re-tell India's favourite story of all, the Ramayana. Or did he?

For anyone who knows the Ramayana and expects Amish's story to be similar, 'The Scion of Ikshvaku' can come as something of a shock. But for anyone who is familiar with the author's previous works, the book meets all expectations, for Amish bends it better than Beckham. While not a great fan of his literary style, I cannot help but admire Amish for the way he manages to create completely new stories from old ones. He has an almost magical ability of retaining the essence of familiar mythological tales while spinning wildly deviating plots.

As a student of mythology, I was shocked and awed in turn by the liberties the author has taken in writing the story of Ram. But there's no pointing a finger at him for these deflections because not once does he use the word 'Ramayana'. Our literary pop star friend ingeniously calls it the Ramchandra series. And one can only smile indulgently because this is not really a deviation but tradition. Ram and Ramayana both belong to the people of India. The sage Valmiki may have been the first one to record it, but over centuries, poets and playwrights have taken creative liberties in creating their own Ramayanas. From Kamba's Tamil Ramavataram of the 12th century to Ashok Banker's Ramayana series in 2003; from Tulsidas' 16th century Ramcharitamanas to Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita in 2013, and hundreds in between, the Ramayana has served as the fountainhead of inspiration for storytellers.

Amish builds upon the Rama epic too, albeit in a very Un-Ramayana like manner. The differences are apparent right in the first page where he lists the major characters. Some deflections are surprising, some shocking and some, even amusing. Amish's Ram is very much a human hero just like his Shiva and the story is stripped of all magical elements. Neither is Ram born through divine means nor is he portrayed as the apple of everyone's eye. In fact, the first and greatest point of difference between the traditional Ramayana and The Scion of Ikshvaku is Ram's projection as an unloved prince. His father, king Dasaratha considers Ram's birth inauspicious and blames him for all his misfortunes. So the fabulously powerful and wealthy king of Ayodhya, Dasaratha is shown to be a defeated old man  ruling over a crumbling kingdom. The very foundations of the epic are laid differently in this story.

Further, Manthara has been depicted as the wealthiest businesswoman of Ayodhya instead of the poor handmaiden we know her to be. She even has a noble daughter who is a, err, rakhi sister to the four Ayodhan princes. We all know Sita is a strong character, but Amish pushes the envelope by appointing her the prime minister of Mithila. My favourite is his development of the usually ignored character of Shatrughan. The poor youngest prince of Ayodhya has little or no role to play in most versions of the Ramayana. Bharat too gets a makeover as something of a ladies man, who serves as a foil to the stoic Ram. Ravana loses nine of his heads in Amish's version and gets a horned helmet instead. The intrigue deepens as the author hints at some kind of revolution being planned by Ram's guru, Vashishta. Apart from the plot, Amish also fiddles with mythological templates. Instead of the standard Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh trinity, he designates the lords Brahma, Parshu Ram and Rudra as the holy triumvirate. But the icing on the cake is in Ram reforming and joining hands with the rakshasi Tadaka instead of killing her!

Full marks for ingenuity, but when the inevitable comparisons arise, these inventions get a little hard to stomach. But Amish is unapologetic about his inventiveness, and that is his USP. The book is full of such fruits of Amish's imagination, but it is for the reader to find them, taste them and judge them. The author has played his best stroke – one he knows works with the junta. It's like a Salman Khan movie, with all the necessary drama-action-comedy masala, a devoted audience and consequently assured box office success.  Let's be honest. The book does not have any great literary merit, although it is a vast improvement from the shockingly pedestrian language of the Shiva trilogy. Amish's easy-to-read language and page-turning style is designed to be accessible and enjoyable. Will it ever be in the league of Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie? No. But will it sell? Yes. From the looks of it, Amish is poised to set another best-selling record.

The reviewer is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist in the making. She can be reached on Twitter @URM1

This review originally appeared on scroll.in on June 28, 2015.


Thursday, June 04, 2015

5 Fitness Fixes: Getting the most out of your workout



So you've enrolled at the local gym for the third time in five years, having wasted the last two memberships and forgotten those infamous New Year's resolutions. This time you will surely follow through, you say. But by the fourth day, those aching muscles have caused you to oversleep and by the weekend, the hangover has made it impossible for you to go to the gym. The guilt of a new membership and new gym gear gnaws at your conscience for a while, but you shut up that stupid alarm and go back to bed because there's always tomorrow, right? We know how tomorrows are and tend to not come, and before you know it, membership number three has also gone down the drain.

Finding motivation


Getting charged up and starting out is one thing – an important thing for sure; but keeping at it THE thing. Getting up and going to the gym day after day after day is hard work and requires some serious motivation. I've been gymming regularly for nearly three years and fitness is now a part of my lifestyle. But even for the most disciplined among us, there are hard days...


Some days I turn to Dana Linn Bailey, some days to Frank Medrano, and some days to King Julien! Fitness motivation can come from anywhere. If those super-athletic people with impossibly perfect bodies seem too distant as role models, there's no harm in turning to Dreamworks' 'Lord of the Lemurs' for inspiration. The dance-loving, fruit-eating, self-absorbed primate is just the guy who can make you want to move fast, eat right and love yourself. The important thing is to keep moving. Because a fit body isn't going to make itself.

Here are five things that make me look forward to my workout and get the most out of it.


NUTTY AFFAIR


Not enough is said about the importance of a pre-workout routine, especially nutrition. If you're not going to tank up before you roll, how can you expect to go any distance? But I don't mean stuffing your face when I say tank up. One fruit, a cup of coffee, or a scoop of pre-workout supplement, take whatever works for you. I've tried several things like MRI's Black Powder and while it is effective, it is also expensive. I now depend on a spoonful of peanut butter which is my personal supercharger. Just one spoon gives me enough energy to go through an hour of workout and it doesn't make you feel too full. Peanut butter is not just my pre-workout fuel but also my favourite between-meals snack. Delicious, nutritious and economical, my nutty affair is here to stay.


PLEASE DON'T STOP THE MUSIC!


The receptionist at my gym will tell you how much I bugger him if the music goes off for even one minute. To be honest, I hate cardio routines. I cannot bear to run on the treadmill for even five minutes during a warm up if there's no music. As long as there's beat, I'm happy. From EDM to pop to Bollywood music, I can use just about anything to groove my dumbbell. There are hundreds of workout playlists on the Internet. Pick what works for you. But if you're like me and like to pump serious iron, you have to check out workout music by Rob Bailey and The Hustle Standard. Their track 'Hungry' from the album 'Battle Tested' is my absolute anthem.


FITNESS PARTNER

While many prefer to fly solo, many work better with a partner. The gym is one place where I prefer the latter. It goes without saying that your gym partner should share your level of enthusiasm and commitment, otherwise they'll just be dragging you down. Of my last 2.5 years of regular gymming, I've had a fitness partner and it has worked fabulously well for both of us. Not only does your partner aid while lifting the heavier sets, but also helps you get up and get going on days you feel lazy. Someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses, someone who shouts “Come on, last five reps!”, someone who you can fool around with when the music gets boring, is useful indeed. The best part is sharing an occasional burger on a cheat day!


VARIETY OF ROUTINES

Boredom is another reason why so many people cannot sustain a regular workout regime. Honestly, how interesting can it be if you choose to pound away at that treadmill for an hour everyday or cycle away on a stationary bike till the end of time? Run outdoors if you must run or at least do some circuit training, yaar! Lift light to start with. Promise I won't laugh at you when I see you huffing and puffing with that 10 lbs dumbbell. I started with those too. Weight training is definitely more absorbing than basic cardio routines at the gym but they can get monotonous too. I, for one, get bored very easily. But I persist because I keep changing my workout plan. A body part a day sometimes, sometimes circuit, and on some other days, a mix of weight training and cardio. Get a personal trainer or use the vast Internet resources to mix and match a workout plan. Keep it varied, keep it interesting.


DIET & SUPPLEMENTS

I don't care much for either – diets or supplements because I have this passionate relationship with food. Not that it's a good thing. A healthy diet is an absolutely indispensable corollary to living a fit life. And if you can maintain one, nothing like it. But I realised early on that diets make me unhappy. If I completely give up on my rice, rotis or chocolates, I can't think straight. And salads downright make me sad. So the next best thing to do is eat in moderation and exercise like a beast. I used to take wheys and protein blends for a while, but my current student status doesn't allow me that budget. So I eat lots of eggs and dal and tofu to maintain my muscle tone.

But for those who can afford it, there is a world of choices in supplements. From pre-workout shakes to proteins, from performance enhancers to fat burners, the range of products is vast. Apart from the usual big names, a number of new brands like ETB Fit are making their way into the market. While I haven't tried their products, they seem affordable and effective. 

Whether you stick to your old brand or new, whether you workout alone or with a partner, whether you love your treadmill or your dumbbells, never lose sight of that final goal: FITNESS!

 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book review: Finding the Demon's Fiddle by Patrick Jered




Title of book: Finding the Demon's Fiddle – On the Trail of the Ravanhattha
Author: Patrick Jered
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 606
Genre: Travel
ISBN: 978-93-85152-02-3
Binding: Hardbound
Rating: 3/5


In one of our communications, author Patrick Jered had expressed his concerns about how his book would be received in the market, considering it didn't quite fit in any neat genre. It is not an academic work, nor is it a novel, neither is it entirely a travelogue. But then, when has the call of passion been bound by convention? Jered also worried about the volume of his work and wondered if its six hundred plus pages would turn off a reader. Having just finished his book, I can tell him that his fears are quite unfounded.

Jered's fascination for this instrument developed during one of his trips to Rajasthan in India. One night, when he heard the soulful strain of the Ravanhattha streaming in from his hotel window, he simply had to find out what this instrument was and how it came to be. Finding the Demon's Fiddle: On the Trail of the Ravanhattha is the account of Patrick Jered's travels across India and Sri Lanka trying to find the origins of the ancient string instrument called the Ravanhattha.

Ravanhattha literally means 'Ravana's arm' and there's a popular mythological story about its origin. The demon king, Dasagriva, once decided that the Mount Kailasa had to be moved and lifted it with his mighty arms. The shaking mountain disturbed the sweet slumber of Shiva and Parvati. Enraged, Shiva pressed down upon the mountain with his big toe trapping Dasagriva underneath. The demon king howled in pain and was thereby given the name, Ravana – the one who screams. On Brahma's advice, Ravana started praying to Shiva seeking respite. He sang praises of the god for thousands of years, in accompaniment with an instrument. This instrument, he fashioned out of his own arm, having wrenched it out and using the veins as strings. Finally, Shiva was pleased and he let off Ravana with blessings and a token. The token was a powerful lingam infused with Shiva's very essence. This myth that occurs in the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, forms the starting point of the author's many adventures.

Because the Ravanhattha is primarily found in use in Rajasthan, Jered bases most of his research in that state, beginning with the clan of Bhopa priests. These priests belong to the cult that venerates Pabuji, a local folk hero. These priests worship the ascetic warrior god in the form of sacred paintings called pars, before which The Epic of Pabuji is sung in night-long sessions. This long epic, which takes up to 36 hours to recite fully, has been passed down to generations through the oral tradition. To his great surprise, the author finds a Ravana connection in the epic, although it is a much later composition than the Ramayana. Another fact that intrigues him is that an instrument supposedly invented by the demon king should be used to sing the praises of his nemesis and hero, Pabuji. He sets out to find answers to these glaring oddities in tradition and the journey takes him from heritage hotels to remote villages, from tourist tracks to shrines in the wilderness, from academic bookstores to homes of the Bhopa priests. He starts by going to geographical locations mentioned in the epic and local tales to establish the historicity of Pabuji and possibly even Ravana. He learns about the rituals and traditions of the Bhopas in some detail, as also of some other the parallel cults in the area, like the cult of Rupnath. His research trail leads him from Bisrakh - the birthplace of Ravana to an obscure village called Ravan in MP where the demon king is worshiped as the guardian deity; from the graves of academics like Tessitori in Bikaner, all the way to the war-torn area of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

But more than the historic and cultural gleanings, it is Jered's takeaways from the people of India that make this book such an endearing read. Unpretentious and accepting, the author makes friends easily along the way. A rickshaw-pulling street kid, an expat yogi, a famous Bhopa priest, a mystical seer, a driver, an academic and some others form quite the melee in his narrative. He forms special bonds with each of these people who appear serendipitously, helping him in his quest. People and places fall in line as if guided by a higher power. The author's portrayal of these people is honest and intimate. He is meticulous, even obsessive, in recording the details of not just his research findings but also human behaviour. There are incisive and humorous observations about people and stereotypes. He does not even spare himself and often resorts to self-depreciating humour. His frustrations and exultations are very real and one cannot help but nod in agreement ever so often. Despite the length of the book, Jered manages to hold the attention of the reader with his lucid style. His research is in-depth, but he never tries to emulate the scholars he references. His voice is fresh and casual.

But the reading experience is often marred by some phrases that the author uses over and over again. It seems like he kept running out of vocabulary when describing certain characters or felt strangely compelled to use a stock phrase each time the character was mentioned. For example, each time Surpanakha's character in mentioned, Jered compulsively precedes the noun with 'Ravana's shockingly ugly sister'. From a publisher like Tranquebar/Westland, one would expect a little tighter editing.


However, one can ignore some stylistic fallacies because the book is highly informative. It throws in many surprising facts pertaining to Ravana mythology. Apart from the Pabuji angle, of great interest is the Buddhist view of Ravana as Jered discovers in Sri Lanka. Further, he educates the reader on the interesting connecting between the demon king, Zen and the Shaolin monks! And not to forget his vivid and beautiful descriptions of the desert landscape and the Indian life. In his maiden book, Jered thus blends beautifully several travel anecdotes, historical findings, cultural insights and human connections. The book is not just about finding an instrument but following the music of one's heart. 

This review appeared in Swarajya magazine on 5th June, 2015. 


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Code Name God by Mani Bhaumik: Impressions


The older I get, the lesser I believe in coincidences. The more I still myself, the more I am able to see the plan of the Universe. Everything happens at just the right time for just the right reasons. Some things may seem cruel and unjust, but the grand design is revealed to those who wait with humble hearts. Books, in particular, always come to me as signs. Some books may sit unread on my shelves for months, even years; but I feel compelled to read them at such times that their message resonates with that time of my life completely. I often find that friendly nudge I need to take a step forward in life in the pages of a book. And no friend is as convincing.

Mani Bhaumik's Code Name God is one such book. I don't remember when or where I bought it. A second-hand copy with the most annoying pencil scribbles all over it. If it weren't for the sublime content, my stream of expletives for the vandal owner may have never ceased. Thankfully, they gave up half way and the book found its way into my heart and home with half dirty-half clean pages. I smile as I see myself in no hurry to start the real review. I am taking my moment to appraise the body of this favourite new friend with whom a spent a few illuminating days. Sidney Sheldon testifies on the cover of the book: “This book may change your life.” I think it has mine.

Mani Bhaumik, the author of 'Code Name God' is an acclaimed Indian scientist, who did pioneering work in the field of laser technology. It was his path-breaking work that gave us the technique of corrective laser eye surgery. Associated with IIT in India and the UCLA in the US, Bhaumik is out and out, a man of science. He is also a man of great fame and fortune. But most importantly, he is a man of the spirit and the book weaves these three strands together. In this autobiographical account, Bhaumik traces his meteoric rise from a mud-plastered hut in rural Bengal to a palatial mansion in Bel Air. But it is not just a rags to riches story. It is also a tale of the author's scientific & spiritual quest.

Bhaumik starts the book with a most poignant recollection of his early years in India, beset by the struggle for Independence and the great Bengal famine. Amidst extreme hardships, Bhaumik found solace and strength in his grandmother, personalities like his father and Matangini Hazra and the great Mahatma Gandhi. Combining his gift of intelligence with hard work, he acquired one scholarship after another, until he was working with the best minds in the American scientific community. His scientific innovations brought him fast fame and soon he was hobnobbing with the American elite. Dating divas, driving luxurious wheels, owning bungalows, and throwing lavish parties became a way of life for this poor lad from India.

But soon, Bhaumik's long-ignored spiritual centre called out for nourishment. He sought answers within through meditation and without, through the history of science. Bhaumik's greatest merit is in presenting the most complex scientific theories and findings of science in the simplest manner possible. Thanks to his lucid writing, even a science idiot like me can claim to have understood at least the basics of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Bhaumik explains how the realm of science – especially physics – has paid special attention to space technology in the last century. The idea is to understand the makeup of space, time and ultimately, consciousness. These discoveries are increasingly bridging the divide between physics and metaphysics. Citing the findings of great physicists and mathematicians like Newton, Schrodinger, Penrose, Hawking and many others, he beautifully points us in the direction science is headed.

Bhaumik offers conclusive proofs about the unity of the Universe and those who reside in it. To someone like me, who follows the Indian spiritual tradition, it sounded eerily similar to the concept of Brahman. The resonance was complete and I think that's what Bhaumik had set out to do when he wrote this book. The unity of science and spirituality, matter and mind is achieved in this beautiful book. Bhaumik also adds his own spiritual insights to the findings of science to drive home the point of One Source, which we call by its code name, God.

'Code Name God' has not just changed my world view but encouraged me to follow on the path of meditation I have just embarked upon. For the skeptic, this book will provide hard facts; for the faithful, it will act as an assurance in knowing that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are related to it and to each other. It recommend this book to everyone.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

What is Culture Express?



You know the thing with epiphanies? They have a strange habit of presenting themselves at the least opportune moments. Mine struck me in the middle of my second semester MA examinations. There I was trying to cram up tenets of Buddhism and ancient Indian history when the idea of Culture Express came to me. Where I should have been studying earnestly, my head was swimming with ideas and possibilities in cultural education.

Can't say it was altogether unprecedented, though. My husband, Viren, had just started offering workshops of his own and it was inspiring to see his long-time passion for woodwork come alive like this. It was also amazing to see how people with similar passions reach out when there is a call for learning. 

So many people want to learn; they just don't know who to ask. It is especially true for working or homemaking adults, who have long stopped formal education and let the rut of daily life take over. There is little time or opportunity to learn even if one wants to. There is no real choice between popular and often unreliable media, and the ivory tower of academia. Culture Express was born from the need to bridge this gap. But before I delve into my vision for Culture Express, allow me to go back a little in time and tell you where it all started.

Early love

I can easily attribute my obsession with culture studies to my mother. She is this lovely woman who lives in a little bubble made of all things beautiful. Whatever minor talents I have in terms of singing or dancing or painting, I owe them to her. I inherited her artistic temperament, and oh, the love of reading! She would read a lot and since I was her only child and companion for the greater part of the day, she would tell me what she was reading. I was greatly influenced by her love for literature, especially the Mahabharata. Even today, we can spend hours discussing her favourite epic.    

Growing up, I learnt many little arty things. I went to painting class, I learnt some Rabindra Sangeet, I studied English literature and quit them all eventually. I went on to do a masters in Clinical Psychology and worked as a journalist for almost six years. I owe it to my parents, especially my father, to allow me to find my path. I meandered a lot but I was soon to come face to face with my true love. 

True love

All this while, my love for all things culture kept bubbling just below the surface. Two years ago I was working for a trade magazine of the salon and spa industry as its assistant editor. It was an easy, cushy job with the added incentive of trips to the most luxurious spas of the country, but I was beginning to get disillusioned. The superficiality of the beauty and fashion industry was starting to gnaw at my spirit. That was when I chanced upon a post graduate diploma course in Comparative Mythology offered by the Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai. Since it was a weekend course, I took it up. That was the first sign from the Universe.

All guns blazing

I completed the first course while I continued to work. I re-discovered my love of academics and how much I enjoyed it. It was like tasting blood. By the time the year was over, I wanted more of it - all of it. I decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. With a LOT of encouragement from my husband I took the big leap of faith. Trust me, starting over and changing one's career at 30 and giving up on one's financial independence takes a lot of courage. So I enrolled in not one but three courses simultaneously, determined to make the most of the two year study break I had given myself. I took up an advanced PG Diploma course in Comparative Mythology, a PG Diploma in Mysticism and decided to do my second master's degree in Ancient Indian Culture. The assignments and the exams nearly killed me but I couldn't be happier.

The birth of an idea

And in the thick of things, the idea of Culture Express was born. I was my best case study in this course of action. I looked at the Urmi from two years ago and the Urmi after two years of culture studies; the difference in the way I understood my cultural context was phenomenal. I realised how most Indian children have a very superficial understanding of what their culture is all about. We grow up hearing stories from our elders, participate in rituals and festivals, and turn to the television, the Internet or popular fiction building our abstract notion of culture. We rarely stop to think, we rarely question our sources. We assume what is being told to us is true. As adults, we use the term 'culture' excessively and often unconsciously, seldom realising what we mean by it. In these times of political debate surrounding a party with Hindu leanings, 'Indian Culture' is being used and abused as a tool for propaganda and most of us nod our heads not knowing what it is we are agreeing with.

When I started to understand this cultural ground we stand upon, I wanted others to understand too. This is why I have started Culture Express. I want to make available to people the knowledge of their culture through short workshops, presentations and talks. These short workshops will offer authentic content and help fill a lot of gaps in perception and understanding of one's cultural milieu. What I want to do with it is foster a rational approach towards culture, backed by academic sources. I want people to know their roots the way I'm coming to understand mine. I want to show how wonderfully the forces of history, economics, politics, religion and mythology all come together to create this flux we call culture. But I want to make this easy for the rest. I understand not everyone has the luxury of time to delve into the depths of culture in search of their roots, just as I understand that knowing one's roots is important. Come join me on this journey, won't you?




Thursday, February 05, 2015

Book review: Ramayana - The Game of Life (Part I & II) by Shubha Vilas


Name of book: Ramayana - The Game of Life (6-part series)
Part I: Rise of the Sun Prince
Part II: Shattered Dreams
ISBN-13: (Part I) 978-81-8495-530-9
                (Part II) 978-81-8495-531-6
Author: Shubha Vilas
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Jaico Books
Format: Paperback
Rating: 2/5

Because I am a bibliophile, book-review blogger, and mythologist, I had to agree when debutante author, Shubha Vilas, asked me to read and review her Ramayana retellings. Also, I admit I don’t know my Ramayana as well as my Mahabharata. The first time I tried reading the epic, I chose Ashok Banker’s 8-part series. Not quite agreeing with his style of writing, I gave up mid-way. I got my second chance on the Ramayana with this book-review request, but looks like Lord Rama doesn't quite want me to know the whole story of his life. That’s because Ramayana - The Game of Life hasn't been able to make me stick around either.

Shubha Vilas’ all-too-simplistic rendition of the grand epic is a downer. I think I’m going to name it the Amish Syndrome - this dumbing down of mythology in juvenile literary style - that this current crop of mythology writers seem to be suffering from. Agreed, this pop mythology genre has regenerated a huge wave of interest in the subject among the youth, but the purist in me cannot help but smirk. Where’s the sweeping eloquence of epic literature? What about the larger-than-life characterisation of kings and heroes? Why must my Rama or my Shiva talk like ordinary mortals?  What’s wrong in expecting a little grandiosity from the grandest Indian epics, even if they are re-tellings in the 21st century? What I find missing sorely from works such as these is the poetic essence. Everything but the basic plot seems to be lost in translation.

What Shubha Vilas tries to do differently is offering, what I like to call, ‘moral footnotes’. In a format I’ve never seen before, the author goes on commenting upon situations in the plot - sometimes taking up almost half the page! Here are a couple of smaller examples:

BOOK 1, page 72, line 9: Such effusive praise words from Dasaratha placated and appeased Vishwamitra.
Footnote: Sweet, genuine words of gratitude are the best welcome drinks!

BOOK 2, page 142, last line: The citizens wept, looking at each other, trying to solve the puzzle - the sight of a sobbing Sumantra, a despondent Lakshmana and a composed Rama was confusing them.
Footnote: Puzzles are fun to solve on paper but when life itself becomes a puzzle, then fun fizzles out.

Not exactly pearls of wisdom, don’t you think? She tries to fuse the formats of retelling and commentary, but doesn't quite measure up. Both the language and content of these footnotes come across as unnecessary, silly even. To be fair, she does offer some sensible insights in places and the background to certain situations in others. But I stopped reading the footnotes by page 5, and I hope the author will stop writing them by book three. The intent may be good, but the format doesn’t work. Scholastic references are what footnotes are for and that’s perhaps how the author should use them.

Another unique feature of these books are these text boxes where Vilas deems to offer more moral ‘discourse’ or sometimes even management mantras! So whether you want it or not, you have an author, commentator, moral compass, annotation enthusiast, spiritual adviser and a management guru all rolled into one.

The saving grace of this book is the author’s fairly crisp narrative style (barring the footnote business, of course!). If the reader is looking for a simple retelling for the sake of the story and the myths, this is an option to consider. But for a reader with finer literary tastes, may I suggest a wide berth?



Monday, January 19, 2015

A Mirrored Life: The Rumi Novel by Rabisankar Bal - A review


Book: A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel
Author: Rabisankar Bal
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Random House India
ISBN: 978-8-184-00615-5
Pages: 215
Rating: 4/5

There are at least a few books every avid reader deems life-changing. Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal was one such book for me. For months after I’d read it, I walked around enveloped in its magical haze. It became an impossibly high yardstick that few books have been able to match up to. Naturally, when I heard about A Mirrored Life by the same author, I wanted to read it. I wanted to pit Bal against himself. Knowing it was a novel based on the life of the celebrated Sufi saint, Jalaluddin Rumi made the wait harder. I wanted to savour it, drown in it.

When the review copy finally came into my eager hands, I read it cover to cover in one
breathless sitting. Bal has this way with words… they stick to your skin and then to your soul. Tell me how one can stay unaffected with lines such as these?

'I am complete in you. This skin, blood, bones, marrow, mind, soul... all, all of it is you. This
existence is your existence.'

'You cannot count the number of creatures lurking inside a man. There's a rat, there's a bird too.
Don't be the rat. Try to be the bird.'

'Do you know why the flute weeps?
- It wants to return to the wood of reeds from which it was taken.'

Reading Bal is an immersive experience. The author becomes the subject becomes the reader and back. In his quintessential style, the author often tells a story within a story within a story. The rich oriental tradition of qissas comes alive in his work. Parables over moral discourse, metaphors over reality. Lines are artistically blurred and sometimes you’re not quite sure whose voice you’re hearing. But it doesn't matter because the beauty of these words is so sublime.

It’s no less than a mystical journey that one undertakes with Ibn Battuta, the narrator into the life and times of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. The book is populated with several other characters, historical and otherwise, who drift in and out of the plot enriching the narrative. Prime among them are Shamsuddin Tabrizi or Shams - the mad ascetic and Sultan Walad - Rumi’s favourite son and disciple. The book explores the Sufi saint’s relationship with each of these characters and the journey that takes him from being a Maulana (a religious scholar) to a whirling dervish.

But it is when he portrays the relationship between Shams and Rumi that the author is at his most profound. Rumi calls Shams ‘The Sun of Tabriz’, an expression of the deep love and reverence he feels for his spiritual mentor, friend and lover. The nature of Shams and Rumi’s alliance is historical fact, but it is the other-worldly flavour of their relationship that the author succeeds in bringing out. Nothing is profane in their consummate love for it is no different from a seeker’s love for God. The pain of separation and the ecstasy of union are penultimate in this equation. When Rumi whirls in divine rapture, the reader is drawn right in.

Peppered with Rumi’s own poetry, the book is a rich tapestry of human emotion, divine experience and artful storytelling. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Bal outdoes himself when compared to his last book, but A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel is a powerful work unto itself. One must also doff their hat to translator Arunava Sinha who doesn’t miss a trick. I haven’t read the original Bengali version of the book, but I cannot imagine having missed any flavour. It occurs to me as the most faithful translation there can be. And am I walking around with a magical haze around me all over again? Ah, yes.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I exercise: 5 fitness motivation mantras


I never never never thought I'd write a 'motivational' blog post. I've derided the self help genre for as long as I can remember and I still catch myself scowling at people reading books like 'Who moved my Cheese?'. I used to think losers need motivation, but then I grew up. I met people and their demons. My demons made friends with their demons and I realised we're all the same. We all need love and acceptance from ourselves and others. We all need a hand when we are low. When a few women reached out to me after my last post, asking me how I do what I do, especially in the realm of fitness, I felt the need to write an elaborate answer. Hence this.

Because the rewards of fitness are intangible and come slowly, it lies at the bottom of most people's priority lists. It's the Achilles heel of the even the most focussed among us. It takes huge amounts of motivation to start walking down this path and huger amounts of discipline to keep walking. While different reasons finally set people on this course, the following five keep me going.

Turning 30: The twenties is the most amazing decade of one's life. You have youth on your side and a body that will put up with just about anything. Thanks to those high levels of energy and metabolism, you think you can take on the world. I thought so too. But turning 30 flipped a switch somewhere. Age started manifesting in the most insidious ways. A hangover that would last suspiciously longer; an innocuous crease under my eye as I woke up; and oh, let's not even discuss the holiday weight that never seemed to go away.

And then there was childbirth and the stretch marks and flabby bits that come with it. I now had a body that was irreversibly altered by pregnancy. I knew that my bone and hormone health were only going to go downhill from this point. I needed to do something. I needed to take charge of my body, I needed to fix and beautify this place I live in.



Being strong: Women are strong beyond belief, but most don't know it. We've been led to believe in the myth of the 'weaker sex' and in that trap we languish. Worse still is the 'fairer sex' stereotype, which makes us think we ought to be thin and light and waif-like. Don't you realise that the arrogance of man comes from being physically stronger? Why should you not be able to punch a guy right back in his face if you need to?

No, this isn't about self defence. This isn't about building muscle either. This is about having the confidence that comes from strength. Weight training has added strength and confidence to my curves. I am finally free of the image of that pudgy Bengali child who would never participate in sports because she knew she would never win.



The high of lifting: I started gymming the way most women do - pounding away at the treadmill for hours, or cycling or being on the elliptical occasionally. And I was B-O-R-E-D. While cardio routines work for some - and are important too - repetitive exercises just didn't work for me. Fortunately, I had a good trainer in the beginning who encouraged me to take up lifting. Actually, everyone is taken to the weigh training section and shown the ropes, but most women tend to give up because of the pain. The day after the training, when the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) set in, you are in pain. For beginners, persisting through this phase is particularly tough. Why subject yourself to aching body parts when you can put off the alarm and sleep some more?

Whip your own ass, get up and go because this ache can be delicious. The endorphin high notwithstanding, sore muscles are a wonderful reminder of your hard work. Sure you walk with a limp for a day and can't laugh because your pecs are paining so much, but hey, you've done it! You've picked up the heavier dumbbell, you've conquered yourself!



Narcissism Inc.: It also helps to have oodles of self love. You'll invest in yourself only if you think you are worthy. So many women seem to give up on themselves after marriage and childbirth. The focus of their lives shift and they forget how to be good to be themselves. I am grateful I am surrounded by people who reiterate my self-belief. It helps me stay motivated to be beautiful inside out.

It also helps to have a good front camera on your phone and be unabashed about taking (and posting) those selfies! Ask my social media friends and they'll tell you how I post selfies to the point of irritation. But I think seeking a little validation never hurt anyone. I could clothe it in a fancy phrase and call it 'maintaining a photo diary to chart my progress', but the truth is I like to look at the mirror and care what I see in it. I love my bodycon dresses and I love the attention.



Live to eat: The last and most important reason why I work out so religiously is food. I LOVE food in all caps. You'll rarely hear me offer diet advice because that's something I can't do myself. I will work out twice a day if I have to, but I will eat that occasional burger. I will walk that extra mile, I will take those stairs but I will have my fried fish & rice and my chocolate mousse and I will have them without guilt.

I never had great metabolism to begin with and it grows only slower with age. So I exercise - exercise like a maniac so I do not have to give up on the joy of food. That said, do not undermine the importance of a healthy diet and moderate eating. Eating mindlessly while working out is, as a fitness-conscious friend once put it, "like pouring water into a glass with a hole."

In mean, consider your body type, your daily routine, your food habits and tailor a routine that works best for you. Lift weights if you like to lift weights, run if that's what makes you happy, dance or swim if that's your thing. But get up and get going. This is for you. You deserve to look and feel good but you must work towards it. Make small goals. Sleep 30 minutes less, resist one pastry, walk to the grocery store. The only one formula is that of determination and discipline. Make it happen.