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?