Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review: Being Hindu

Title: Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You
Author: Hindol Sengupta
Publisher: Penguin India
Genre: Non fiction/ Religion
ISBN: 978-0-143-42532-8
Pages: 192
Date of release: December, 2015
Binding: Paperback


Let me be honest. I started this book a little warily. In the perilous ride that is religion in India right now, I prefer to sit at the centre, leaning a little towards the Left. I watch with trepidation the loud voices coming from the Right side of things and fear that 'Hinduism' is turning into a dirty word. Therefore, I approach anything with 'Hindu' written on it with suspicion. In the strictly academic pursuit of subjects like ancient Indian History, Culture, Mythology and Mysticism, my skepticism is only heightened.

Yet like many of my generation, I'm drawn like moth to flame to anything with 'Hindu' written on it – even titles that sound like fashion labels of unscrupulous film stars. It comes from a deep, even perverted need to understand; to understand my roots, my place in the ever-changing world, and the volatile interplay between social, economic, political, and religious forces.

Neti, neti (not this, not this)

In his latest offering, Being Hindu, Hindol Sengupta tries to throw light on some of these issues. The apparent intent is to address some questions about identity and the relevance of religion in the life of a young Indian. But Sengupta does not do a convincing job. Let me explain why.

The author in question is not a cultural commentator, not a historian, nor a expert of religion. He is a journalist, and a good one at that, but he lacks the depth of an academic. And the result is that his book ends up reading like one long op-ed. He generalises and trivialises. His research sample seems to comprise only of his cosy elite Delhi circle. “...I noticed a general ennui and hesitance about declaring themselves Hindu, especially among the general youth, as well as my colleagues and friends. I felt it too.” “It was almost like we were asking for the responsibility of spiritual choice to be taken away from us...”, he says. We? Us? Speak for yourself, maybe? I know this India he's talking about – the one in high rises with glass facades, the one with the luxury of doubt and contemplation. 

But he doesn't seem to take into account the other greater India, where the people practice simple faith and have very little doubt, if any, about their religious identity. When one deems to delve into the sticky territory of religion, one ought to drink deeper than that.

In a commentary about the machinations of religion and society, his personal influences show up very jarringly again and again. One of his personal set of beliefs imposed all over the book is derived from the Ramakrishna Mission. He incessantly quotes their teachings and philosophy throughout the book. As great as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Vivekananda were, it cannot be the only lens through which Hinduism can or should be understood.

The second point I find hard to accept is his singularly Vedantic view of things. Yes, a large part of Hindu philosophy is inspired by the ideas of the Upanishads and Shankaracharya's Uttar Mimansika school, but that's not all there is to Hinduism. There are other schools of thought and other ways of spiritual understanding that he completely overlooks. In the mien of Vivekandanda, Gandhi and Ambedkar, he labels Hinduism's ritualistic aspect as regressive and repressive. But he forgets the cultural implications of these rites and rituals and the fact that they represent the living religion; not of course in the India of glass facade high rises. You cannot write a book about being a Hindu without writing about its daily manifestations.

Finally, he seems especially influenced/scarred by his American Christian schooling. Despite himself, he keeps trying to refute the Catholic idea of sinners. “None of us is a heathen. None of us is an infidel... you and me, we are not sinners. We are the divine. We just don't know it yet.” Too many negations a positive make, Mr. Sengupta. It seems like deep down he believes in the ideas of evil and sin and tries hard to persuade himself and his readers otherwise. It also makes him compulsively and excessively compare Hinduism with Christianity, reducing the scope of pure theology.

Right gone wrong

So he swings the other way, he goes Right. He joins this new band of people who, clad in saffron, their chests excessively puffed, proclaim their pride in Hinduism. Nothing wrong with being proud of one's religion, but everyone knows where this jingoism is headed. Perhaps those who swear by the Vedic culture would do well to remind themselves that our greatest works were anonymously composed.

The quest for knowledge through different paths, the Brahman, was sought in all humility. Greatness comes from doing, not saying. And here we have some of these puffy-chested creatures decrying any and all other differing points of view. Names are called, mockery is made and ultimately there is a subscription to the very tropes they claim to be rejecting. They're so ashamed of Hindu apologists that they become apologists for apologists. Heh. Case in point. Wendy Doniger, the Indic scholar everyone loves to hate. In trashing Wendy's children*, they become Dinanath Batra's children, or Rajeev Malhotra's. Every scholar who doesn't sing the glories of Hinduism, or reads it differently, is branded ignorant. The only 'good' Indologists are the ones like Diana Eck (Sengupta's favourite), who say what is desirable to these Hindu ears, hungry for validation. Only selective references, no place  or tark or vivaad. Yes, let's all scratch each others' backs over a tea party called 'How Great We Are'. 

Speaking of references, Sengupta loves to use them. Most of all, himself. Why else would someone reproduce an entire article published elsewhere in a new book? He must think his essay, 'How to write about Hindus with the Left Hand' – a tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, 'How To Write About Africa' – is particularly funny and/or brilliant. I am hard pressed to agree. In that essay he mocks foreign Indic scholars for using pictures of gods as cover images for their books among other things. Too stereotypical, he says. Wonder where he was looking when they picked the cover for his book.

At one point Sengupta laments how we don't consider our religious legacy worthy until some firang tells us so. So you would think that someone with this complaint would always eagerly turn to indigenous sources of knowledge. But, no. Here is a Hindu, trying to tell us how to understand Hinduism, while throwing all possible foreign sources at us. He quotes everyone from Schrodinger to Bohm to Capra to Dawkins to Jung to drive home his point, especially when using science as his fulcrum. Thankfully, he quotes a few Indian scholars too and manages to keep a semblance of balance. 

Being confused

As a reader, I find Mr. Sengupta lost. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs or wants to belong. His Anglicised, Christianised education and his station in life places him, like many of us, in that class of people with Hindu identities (or lack thereof) and Western aspirations. Having become financially comfortable, we can now indulge in some soul searching while we slave away at multinationals, eating global cuisine, tapping away at our foreign brand phones. In this time of global strife surrounding religion, finding one's place in the larger scheme of things is important.

Questions are many, and the answers are not simple. The author embarks on a personal journey of defining his Hindu identity with this book and assumes that his readers share and understand these real (and imagined) conflicts. He rambles about all sorts of issues – from the idea of the 'One True God', to 'Religion and Science' to 'Vegetarianism', never quite getting to the point. At one point he writes about Vedanta, quantum physics and the principle of singularity, and then decides to talk about homosexuality and then again, rural economy. Here he is giving us a litany of ancient Indian geniuses and their treatises before suddenly jumping to technology and loneliness and then again, the need for religious reform. By the seventh chapter, which ia on Vegetarianism, he completely loses the plot. The complexities of the subject inundate him.

Saving (spiritual) grace

The author may not know or understand the larger cultural import of Hinduism, but he knows well his spirituality – at least the Vedantic variety. The book has its moments of clarity, and they're lovely. My favourite parts are where he talks about the unity of the self and the universe, the need for stillness and the Avatar Syndrome. Sample these:

“Just by being alive, at every single moment, you are not just part of the universe, you are the universe.”

“...Hinduism survives because it sets people free.. The only truth that exists is inside oneself – not in a book.”

“We are the ones we have been waiting for. This waiting for a messiah goes against the very essence
of the philosophy of Hinduism.”

The book, then, is really about the author's own philosophical and spiritual inquiry of Hinduism, and not everything else that he tries to throw into the mix. It won't give you much meat (vegetables if you prefer) on Being Hindu as the title of the book claims. Sure, in his introduction the author says this view of Hinduism is based on his personal understanding of the religion, but then a more appropriate title would have been Being Hindol.


*A term used to denote the school of scholars who are inspired by Doniger's writings.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Seance

Read that note that has just been slipped under your door
it says, in a dark, cursive, Gothic font.
I'm holding a seance tonight to awaken lost loves.
Don't come alone; bring your broken heart along.
Tonight we celebrate what could have been, what never was.
I have an Ouija board with 3 questions:
"Do you still love me?"
Did you ever love me?"
"Would you love me again?"
And the answer can only be YES.


Ah, you've come. Nice perfume.
Sit down, hold hands, close your eyes.
Focus on this burning candle.
Yes, it's your heart. Burning, burning, burning all over again.
I race to the past to pluck your lover's spirit,
and place it upon your lap.
Ask them what you will, do what you want.
Tonight there will be no denials, betrayals or unexplained goodbyes.
Kiss them if you want
Touch and make tremble.
Let your souls lie together and make love
like you always wanted to, like you never could.


Hurry now, the candle is burning out
the past must return where it belongs.
Clocks must be turned back, and graves sealed shut.
I put the lights back on
and see what I need to see.
This is the only payment I seek.
A hundred tears shed 
and one heart healed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Song of Desire

Forget what the preachers say
Disregard every sermon you've heard
I, the priestess at love's altar,
Say, 'desire' is not a dirty word

What do they know about longing?
Of the drug of a lover's lips
One who has never been drunk
On the seduction of their swaying hips

They, who've never been woken
with desire banging at their door
What do they know of that eternal strain,
of wanting more, some more?

Covered in numbing robes of virtue
their hearts have never lurched
their skins have never screamed
with a dire need to be touched

In a frightful island of isolation
unheard, untouched, unloved,
where would you and I be
If desire was a dirty word?

Desire is not a dirty word
for it is proof of a living, beating heart
The first bright bold stroke in red
of love's amazing art

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blood Moon

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
that shimmering orb of desire
No clouds to challenge its call for sin.

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
Still echoing the howls of need
Of that werewolf of a man, who lay with me.

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
A lesser sun scorching my skin
In places where your mouth has been.

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
Scarlet from the blood you drew from my lips
And spat into the night not long ago.

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
Another throbbing rust-coloured orb
A fair breast smarting from hungry hands

There's a blood moon in the sky tonight,
A stark witness in my window
Of the story of lust, writ large in red. 

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 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

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 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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.