Sunday, October 1, 2023

Don't take it for granted.

With nature coming full throttle to assert its immense power in recent times, there is an urgent need to return to the spiritual traditions of treating nature with reverence.

The impact of mindless development has come knocking on our doors. Floods, heat waves, and wildfires have made the summer 2023 with some of the most extreme events on record. Nature has shown to be fierce and awe-inspiring, mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery that both repels and attracts). What is clear now is that given the fearful reality of the climate crisis, homo sapiens alone have to change not only their lifestyle but the entire belief system too. 

Once a nun, and now an accomplished commentator on transcultural understanding, Karen Armstrong has written a timely treatise, Sacred Nature, on reconnecting with nature to rekindle our sense of the sacred. As a child we do have a silent receptiveness of the natural world but with age a sense of superiority takes over. “Our all-absorbing technological living has alienated us from nature,” laments Armstrong. “Even in a place of extreme natural beauty we talk on our mobiles or scroll through social media: we are present, yet fundamentally absent.” Unless nature finds an intimate place in our minds and hearts, humans will continue to remain isolated from it.

Through the reading of ancient texts and scriptures, Armstrong reminds us that myths introduced our forebearers to deeper truths by directing their attention to the eternal and universal. It is, however, another matter that with the astonishing success in science and technology during the 18th century, myths were discounted as false and primitive.

Sacred Nature explores religious practices and philosophical ideas that were fundamental to the way people experienced nature in the past, and how myths, rituals, poetry, and music had a profound effect on their mental life. With nature coming full throttle to assert its immense power in recent times, there is an urgent need to return to the spiritual traditions of treating nature with reverence which gave birth to Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, as well as rationalism in Greece. The classic expression of the Greeks called kenosis, personified by Mahatma Gandhi as 'emptying of the self,' helps liberate us from the destructive strictures and egotism. It opens up a new understanding of ourselves and a fresh perception of the world around us. Needless to say, application of such thoughts, perceptions and practices have much to offer.

Even for those who may not like hymns of devotion, Armstrong’s subtle exploration of the sacredness of nature can push them into thinking about reconnecting with nature. In a world where nature is rapidly receding from everyday life, there is a need to bring nature back into our collective consciousness.

Armstrong suggests a completely new worldview, a belief in nature’s innate power to redeem itself. Unless we develop an aesthetic appreciation of nature and devise an ethical program to guide our thoughts and behavior, we will soon run out of time for ourselves. The threats are indeed looming large and are quite often irreversible. There is a need to evoke the romanticism of Wordsworth and Keats to incorporate into human lives insights and practices that will help in meeting today’s serious challenges because nature’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral, and their origins are hidden from view.

Pulling central themes from the world’s religious traditions – from gratitude to compassion, and from non-violence to sacrifice – Armstrong offers practical steps to develop a new mindset to rekindle the sense of the sacred. Reflective and insightful, the book is a primer on how environmental science need to be redesigned as a subject. In such times of climate change when icecaps are melting, wildfires are raging and floods are rampant, there is no time for partying anymore.

Sacred Nature
by Karen Armstrong
Bodley Head, London
Extent: 239, Price: Rs. 999.

First published in The Hindu on Oct 1, 2023.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

No time to waste

The world will soon run out of room to contain its waste. It already has!

The modern economy is built on trash.
World over, some 2.5 billion tons of waste is yearly generated. A growing global south is expected to contribute annually an additional 1.3 billion tons of trash by 2050. None of this is news. The news though is that waste disposal system is in disarray; recycling is anything but effective; and zero-waste as a concept has yet to gain roots. Further, by promoting a culture of planned obsolescence the capitalist market is pushing a culture of planned obsolescence by producing cheaper products with shorter life span. No wonder, one third of what is finally dumped has been produced the same year. 

Inspired by India’s $30 billion Swachh Bharat campaign launched in 2014, journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis set out on an eye-opening journey to unearth the dirty truth about the world of rubbish. From Delhi’s mountainous landfill at Ghazipur to Ghana’s flooded second-hand markets, and from Britain’s vitrified nuclear waste store in Sellafield to Oklahoma electronics recycling facility in the US, the author traversed far and wide to understand what has happened, how we got here, and what if anything could be done. The overwhelming presence of trash in our daily lives may make many wonders if there is anything new the book may have to offer. 

Wasteland highlights relentless waste generation and accumulation as an emerging environmental anxiety worth serious attention. With 5 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions contributed by the solid waste industry, waste crises should feature high up in the list of eco-emergencies like heatwaves, floods, and fires. In reality it doesn’t and continues to be viewed as a municipal issue that needs resources and technology to keep the trash away from sight. The truth is that even after decades of mulling over the matter, the world of rubbish is neither out of sight nor out of mind. Should it not matter that given the wide variety of waste being generated, from plastic to nuclear and from food to packaging, only about 20 percent of it all gets recycled? 

In his shocking but fact-filled narrative, Oliver provides a gripping account of the political economy of waste generation and management. Such is the case that waste always attracts crime, it commands substantial profits, requires only the barest trained labor, and naturally deters close scrutiny. The waste industry has profited from this ecosystem where nobody asks questions. In his incredible journey, the author met any number of ordinary folks who want to make a difference but like climate change, it is a problem that individual action alone can do little to prevent. Zero waste, meaning not sending waste to landfill, as a concept has yet to take gain roots. Perhaps, the world needs an army of zero-waste influencers to cast an impact. 

Written with eloquence and authority, Oliver peels many layers of the waste crises as it democratically affects all of us, be in the developed or developing world. The author contends that his book is not only about what we throw away but what is lost in the process. World over a third of all food we produce is wasted, but some 820 million people go to bed hungry. It is therefore suggested that tackling our waste crises is more than just removing litter from our rivers and oceans. The world needs to rethink on the issue of waste from a wider perspective.  

Despite limited success with managing and treating waste, it is clear that the world is running out of room to contain its waste. 'The idea of waste needs radical thinking', suggests Oliver. It means reimagining the industrial system, the one that relies on zero chemical discharge, zero greenhouse gas emissions, and zero waste generation. Such a shift is not easy, it will warrant the whole new way of thinking of things and their uses, about how we define ourselves and our status through commodities, and what we cast away and what we keep in. Nothing less will suffice.

Wasteland is an engaging and disturbing treatise on waste. It looks at the science and sociology, toxicology and politics, economics and technology, and archeology and business aspects of waste in a single volume. A comprehensive understanding on a subject as complex as waste is imperative to resolve the crises. Given that our waste is both overwhelming and hopeless at this point in time, Oliver leaves a message for his growing children, ‘this planet is both precious and remarkable, try not to waste it’. The urgency of action is both loud and clear. 

by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
Simon&Schuster, London
Extent: 392, Price: £ 14.92.

First published in Deccan Herald on Sept 24, 2023.  

Friday, July 14, 2023

Without music life would be a mistake

Music engages many parts of the brain, bringing joy and, sometimes, sadness.

Ever wonder why many people wake up to music, work out in the gym to music, and play music while they are doing other activities? The reason lies in the fact that music engages many parts of our brain that integrate elements of emotions and memory. No wonder, listening to music does alter our mood and reduce stress. For good reasons, music is considered as important as the fundamental pleasures with a majority ranking music among the things that bring them the most pleasure, usually above money, art, and even food. Our brians are wired to find it as enjoyable as fundamental pleasures. 

Larry Sherman, a neuroscientist and lifelong musician, and Dennis Plies, a professional musician and teacher, collaborate to show how human beings create, practice, perform, and listen to music. They explore how music – whether instrumental or vocal - alters the air molecules that enter the ear and stimulate specialized nerve cells to generate powerful effects on our emotions. While neurons, the brain cells, do play a role a role in responding to music, it is unclear how we immediately recognize music after hearing just a few notes but distinguish the crescendo of flushing water as a sign of functional plumbing only. Charles Darwin suggested that the human brain evolved to engage in music, equipped to a draw a distinction between music and noise. 

Every Brain Needs Music is a musical journey into the world of music – from learning to play music to practicing and performing it, and from reacting to music to benefitting from musical experiences. Like human language(s), music has a language that can enhance the meaning of our words and our ability to express ourselves in subtle ways. In eight musical curated chapters the book connects cognitive, sensory and motor functions of the brain’s capacity for creativity. Of common interest are the final two chapters on how the brain listens to music and how the brain comes to like or dislike different types of music because there is a curiosity to learn why some compositions light us up while some other pull us down.  

To add more substance to the narrative, the authors conducted survey of over one hundred composers, professional, and amateur musicians, teachers, students, and music lovers to gauze their response on how music brings them pleasure. While acknowledging that music is the most fundamental of the higher-order pleasures, the majority echoed Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous words: ‘Without music, life would a mistake.’ Music is ingrained in human system much before language came into being. Music is known to create ‘aha’ moment for many – an Alzheimer patient after listening to his favorite number could recall his family members; a young woman with Parkinson could lift her foot after humming a rhythm; and a advanced stage cancer patient could forget the pain after listening to his favorite song. Music is a kind of key that opens countless doorways in the mind.           

Witty and informative, Every Brain Needs Music evokes the love of music in more ways than one. Learning to play an instrument or sing can drive the generation of new cells, new synapses, and new myelin in our brains. As music involves a high degree of sensory, motor, and cognitive integration, it generates a powerful effect on our emotions and memories. No other activity engages multiple networks within our brains. It is this that makes music exclusive to human existence. The authors call for the need to mainstream music education for the role it may play to enrich our aesthetic and cognitive lives.  

While researching and writing this book, Sherman and Plies were careful not to be swayed by poetic expressions like ‘music is the wine that fills the cup of silence.’  Instead, they took a deep dive into what music is to the human brain. For them it was important to capture the series of changes that the vibrating molecules (as music) generate in brain while travelling through the air at around 343 meters per second or 767 miles per hour. Every Brain Needs Music is for all those music aficionados who wish to learn how different areas in the brain change by creating, practicing, performing, and listening to music. Brain is what makes music music.

Every Brain Needs Music 
by Larry Sherman and Dennis Plies
Columbia University Press, New York 
Extent: 270, Price: US$32.

First published in The Hindu on July 14, 2023.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Mind over matter that seriously matters

To achieve climate change goals, a neuro- scientist urges the world to work on the mind.

The greatest paradox of our time is that while climate change has widely been recognized as an urgent problem, it does not press the emergency button for individual and collective action to counter it. Knowing well the root cause and the possible solutions to the problem, why it gets pushed on to others to fix it? Why are we hardwired not to change our behavior and consumer tendencies? Simply put, it is the neuroscience of decision making that works to prioritize short-term survival over long-term consequences. No wonder, the risk of anticipated 2°C rise in temperature before the close of the century remains disconcerting.

In Minding the Climate, Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School, explores why changing behavior in response to the climate crises remains challenging. Having lived life for eons on resource scarcity, human mind responds to better rewards for changing the old behavior. If a behavior isn't perceived as immediately rewarding, we probably won't change it - never mind that we know we should. In a market economy, just giving people information without incentives and rewards doesn’t work to change consumptive behavior. Writing lullabies won’t cure opioid addiction by itself.  

Environmental issues have been known to present challenges for behavior change, in part because the phenomenon and the fix are many steps removed from our immediate sensory perception. While the perception may have started changing due to increasing frequency of climatic events in recent times, we are physiologically not equipped with carbon dioxide sensors to reflect strong personal threatening experience to affect behavioral change. Add to this is the fact that behavior change research has focused on choices that individuals make in their domestic lives, rather than on a more collective and political sphere. Further, the invisibility of greenhouses gases adds to the visible challenge. 

Duhaime presents a systematic study of the human brain – from understanding its evolutionary origin to strategies for its pro-environmental shift. Taking a deep dive into the human decision-making apparatus, she found that the brain is heavily influenced by its evolutionary design but is also exquisitely flexible. The brain design both constrains and frees us. By linking neuroscience with evolutionary biology, consumer psychology, and environmental science, the author reflects hope that humans do in fact have the capacity to change. Minding the Climate is a groundbreaking work on how we might leverage our brains to fight climate change. 

It is a thinking man’s guide to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards, To demonstrate how indeed this could be possible, the Green Children’s Hospital has been initiated by the author and her colleagues as a prototype that makes connection between the environment and health. No reward is good enough for people to see their loved children have a good life. It works both ways as not only it helps cut down emissions from the sector that contributes 8 percent to the atmospheric carbon load but reminds people that hospital patients looking at trees recover faster than those who look at the brick wall. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take are necessary to look at rewards differently. 

Duhaime is not suggesting quick fix though. The task is to understand how our ingrained tendencies could be overridden by our brain's capacity to adapt. Minding the Climate is a pioneering work on a subject that has so far not been considered in the global discourse on climate change. It is a work in progress,and will only be considered complete when people in the 20-tons-of-carbon-emissions-a-year consider themselves a burden on the society. Our brain has got us to this point, it alone will take us into the future of possibilities. 

Minding the Climate 
by Ann-Christine Duhaime
Harvard University Press, USA 
Extent: 313, Price: Rs. 2996.

First published in The Hindu on July 2, 2023.

Monday, June 12, 2023

All the light we cannot see

We need only a fraction of artificial light, unnecessary strong illumination is the cause of light pollution.

It is hard not to agree with zoologist Johan Eklöf that darkness has a cosmic purpose, a natural and ecological imperative for a large number of living species to thrive for supporting those for whom light is life. Humans might abhor darkness but some two-thirds of all mammals are nocturnal. Then there are numerous other creatures, notably insects and reptiles, who also shun light. Yet humans dispel darkness to feel safer amidst lights, although there is no evidence to prove that dreadful activities and crimes are committed only under the cover of darkness. Little is realized that indeed it is human obsession with light that has darkened the lives of innumerable non-humans.

Light pollution as a subject of concern and enquiry has been in vogue for over half a century, however, its ecological manifestations have begun to surface only in recent years. Such is the persistent glow of light from cities that some 80 percent of the global population today lives under light-polluted skies, unable to view stars in sky tinted orangish-grey. As light pollution is increasing at an annual rate of 10 percent, more and more people will miss watching the night skies. But the impact goes beyond impeded stargazing as it the cause of insomnia, depression, obesity and several related ailments too. 

The Darkness Manifesto not only tracks how light pollution impacts human health but records its terrifying influence on the circadian rhythms of nocturnal creatures. It unleashes an impaired sense of direction leading to mass extinction for many nocturnal creatures. Oblivious of how much is too much, the society has extended the day with artificial lighting that has forced out the inhabitants of the night. Satellite pictures show how brightly glowing our planet it, disrupting the natural cycle of day and night.

In his well-researched book, bat-researcher Eklof argues that we need only a fraction of artificial light, unnecessary strong illumination is the cause of light pollution that is the equivalent to carbon dioxide emissions from nearly 20 million cars. In a persuasive narrative packed with scientific facts, the author comes out as a self-proclaimed ‘friend of darkness’ and with good reasons too. What seems good for us is worst for many others? Land-dwelling insects are disappearing by about 1 percent each year and light pollution has a role to play. 

Eklof suggests that impact of artificial light on insects must concern us all. But for the insects the decomposition of dead things will come to a halt, pollination of plants will get affected, and nutrition of insect-feeding animals will be disrupted. In effect, the entire food chain will be in shambles, and the early signs indicate that it already has. With about half of all insects on the planet nocturnal, artificial light is robbing them of food and reproductive partners. The night’s limited light protects these insects, and the pale glow from stars and the moon is central for their navigation and hormonal systems.

Packed with disturbing facts, The Darkness Manifesto has had such an impact that this reviewer immediately switched off extra lights in the room. It is reassuring to learn that the concern for darkness is gaining worldwide currency. France has adopted a national policy that imposes curfews on outdoor lighting and drastically limits the amount of light that can be projected into the sky. And countries with less light contamination areas are embracing ‘dark sky tourism’. Ireland already has dark sky parks, and dark sky festival movement is catching on. Darkness is fast developing into a new tourism destination.

Ever since The Darkness Manifesto appeared in translation, interest in darkness as an ecological virtue has exploded. If you have ever watched moths circle the porch light, suggests Eklof, you will learn how fatal artificial bulbs to insects are: who die of exhaustion without getting their nectar, without finding a partner, and without laying any eggs. If such are the shocking facts, the streetlights, floodlights, and neon signs cannot be considered signs of progress. 

The light bulb, long considered the symbol of progress and development, needs to be given some rest. From a fiscal standpoint it makes sense, from an environmental standpoint it makes sense, and even from a safety standpoint doing a better job of harmonizing the lighting in the city makes sense. The Darkness Manifesto needs early adoption by city planners and administrators.   

The Darkness Manifesto 
by Johan Eklof
Scribner, London 
Extent: 272, Price: US$. 26.

First published in Deccan Herald on June 11, 2023.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Life beyond the ordinary

As those who have lived in a typical university hostel know, it's an experience that's simultaneously enjoyable and shabby. 

Originally written in Hindi, Banaras Talkies is a fast-paced novel about three law undergraduates who live in Bhagwandass Hostel at Banaras Hindu University. Satya Vyas, now the author of five bestselling books, captures the mood, hopes, aspirations, and challenges of his protagonists even as he hilariously presents their hare-brained schemes to steal exam papers and critiques of bad mess food.

As those who have lived in a typical university hostel know, it's an experience that's simultaneously enjoyable and shabby. Still, it remains a life beyond the ordinary; one that evolves its own idiom of expressing the obvious. Like hostelites everywhere, the law students at the center of this novel, have their hilarious in-jokes: for its technical complexities, a particular black laptop is adjudged "the most harmful object of the twenty-first century"; elsewhere "Amicus Curiae", Latin for "friend of the court", is referred to as "the sister of Madame Curie". Readers are taken on a roller coaster ride through the BHU campus with its youthful love affairs, fierce competition that forges lifelong bonds, and camaraderie reflected in both words and actions. While the narrator, Suraj, pursues his love interest, Anurag is intent on winning a game of cricket, and Jaivardhan, the deltiologist, approaches semester assignments like he would a new bride.

Banaras Talkies captures several vignettes of hostel life as it wanders down laughter-filled college corridors -- the banter between friends, the amusing but creative exchanges with teachers, the heartbreaks on the way to lucky successes in love, and the ever-looming pressure of having to one day leave the campus and "get serious about life".

In its recreation of a brief but unforgettable period of youth, Banaras Talkies calls to mind works like RK Narayan's The Graduate and Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus that also deal with student life and its excesses, exhilarations and disappointments. College life has been effectively captured on screen too in 3 Idiots and the quirky Chichhore. The success of the genre across media can be attributed to the great impact that the time spent on campus has on the individual. It often remains permanently etched on the canvas of the human mind as a golden interval before the persistent tensions and sordid disappointments of adulthood.

A bestseller in Hindi, this version tries to graft the verve and linguistic authenticity of the original into English, a language that's often too stiff for Hindustani hi jinks. Translator Himadri Agarwal has a point when she states that readers must learn to make peace with translated text which, like most art, is eternally incomplete. Indeed, it will always be difficult to capture the colloquial nuances and wit of the original. For instance, the phrase ‘cut the crap’ can never convey the punch of ‘Bakaiti band kar’.  

Still, as with all good campus novels, this one succeeds in transporting readers back to their own student lives and younger, more eccentric and carefree selves.

Banares Talkies
by Satya Vyas, Translation Himadri Agarwal
Ebury Press, New Delhi
Extent:216 Pages, Price: Rs. 199.

First published in the Hindustan Times on May 26, 2023.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

In search of identity and space for oneself

Many parents indulge in sacrificing early childhood of their children to emerge celebrities through reality shows, little realizing that the road to instant fame leaves lasting impressions on teenage minds.

It is the disturbing title that is no less intriguing. How could a daughter be so rude to her cancer-suffering mother, more so when her career as a child actor was literally shaped by her mother? Why would a celebrated actor regret the early years of her life, and lament her life purpose of keeping her mom happy? Reading McCurdy is akin to the experience of riding a wave: you plunge into a bracing narrative, never quite sure where you’ll emerge—only certain that whenever the ride ends you’ll find yourself in an uncharted territory. The debut memoir of a child star of Nickelodeon’s sitcom iCarly, is amusingly heartbreaking but sadly furious. 

This unsettling autobiographical narrative is about years of emotional abuse at the hands of her demanding, emotionally unstable mom, Debra. Born into a family with three older brothers, McCurdy found the household fully controlled by her mother. Such was her mom’s control that the author found the house as an embarrassment, that would often make her feel tense and anxious. McCurdy candid reconstruction of her journey from teenage to adulthood is a saga of emotional, mental, and physical abuse that insisted on molding an innocent something into ‘Mommy’s little actress’. At an age when little girls are mischievously playful, McCurdy was trained to view life as an innate opportunity. Shuffled with auditions from age 6, painting eyelashes and whitening teeth were outside manifestations of strict diet restrictions and regular genital examination enforced on the little child in her. The confessions are anything but cruel and disturbing. 

Could Debra be fighting her own devils to escape social and economic deprivation that inflicted the household? Her cruel perfectionist approach and abusive behavior pattern may not be uncommon, as many a parents indulge in sacrificing early childhood of their children to emerge celebrities through reality shows, little realizing that the road to instant fame leaves lasting impressions on teenage minds. McCurdy didn’t emerge from her childhood unscathed, her harrowing experience of ‘loosing herself’ fills the pages of her sad, honest, heart-wrenching and startling journey that the reader will only help empathize at a deep level. It is an insightful coming-of-age story that seeks freedom, the enjoying-me part of what makes each human curate one’s natural tendencies, responses, thoughts and actions.

I’m Glad My Mom Died is a journey in search for understanding the complicated truth of striking a balance between having adored and feared someone as close as a mother, and to be missing and being relieved of her when she is gone. It is a psychological journey on self-awareness, to seek a space for oneself through self-assertion, realizing that ‘so much of my life has felt so out of my control for long’. It is a cultural document of contemporary relevance. It makes compelling reading to understand and know the cost of making others happy. McCurdy confesses that all the time she spent orienting her thoughts and actions to please her mom were indeed pointless as after her demise she was left wondering who she is, and what should she wish for.

This memoir should not be judged by its title. What makes it different from others of the genre is how McCurdy strikes a balance between hard truth and dark humor. She avoids evoking self-pity, but lays bare the emotions that raced through her celebrity life. It is for the reader to make a sense of her confessions. On her part, McCurdy not only looks back on her mom’s abuse with resentment but acknowledges the abuse and manipulation she was subjected to. In detailing the testing time, the author had to go through, she rejects the idea that childhood stardom is a fun while asserting that the media world ignores human emotions too. ‘Once you become a celebrity, you are no longer a person, but an archetype.’ she tells the world outside. 

I’m Glad My Mom Died is as much a book of hope as despair. McCurdy learnt it the hard way that guilt and frustration can be helpful in moving forward. She took the bold step in letting go her acting career in a flash and switched to hosting podcasts and writing. What she has compiled in 310 pages of her memoir is a immensely readable coming-of-age-story, that is fearless, reflective, and inspiring. I could not put this book down.

I’m Glad My Mom Died 
by Jennette McCurdy
Simon&Schuster, USA 
Extent: 310, Price: US$27.99

First published in Deccan Herald on May 14, 2023.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

A signature on the airwaves

Lata was like the mythological gandharva who is described as a celestial being sent to earth to dazzle ordinary mortals with their art.

A nightingale needs no introduction, and so does Lata Mangeshkar whose melodious voice regales every auditory sense. Through her innumerable songs in multiple languages, Lata’s enduring voice continues to move and inspire. Need it be said that her soulful songs infuse a sense of oneness, that is beyond caste, class, creed or gender. Further, there are many who consider her songs to be the ground we stand on, a way to keep ourselves from falling. 

Given the melodious songs in multiple genres that Lata has song in her distinguished career of over half a century, her life in music is beyond a single definition. From lullabies to devotional and from patriotic to romantic, her oeuvre of songs reflects every human emotion which lends a sense of multicultural relatability. She entered the world of playback singing at an early age in 1949 and reigned on top till her demise in 2022, leaving the world with a rich repository of over 2,000 songs. Till this day, her songs invite the listener to delve deeper into her world of music. 

Much is known about her early years of life, her father’s untimely death and the burden of supporting the family that fell on her little shoulders. Ever since she learnt to sing raag Puriya Dhanashree from her father, Lata’s training in classic ragas and her devotion to the craft grew to dizzy heights bringing sweetness and joy into countless lives. Her extraordinary range of voice and effortless rendering on any pitch earned admiration from the doyen of classic music Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who had remarked, ‘Damn, this girl never goes off-key’.      

In a decade-long dialogue with her, Yatindra Mishra brings to light the life in music of the iconic singer in the biography Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music. Originally written in Hindi, the translated version is arranged in two parts: first half engages the reader in the episodic journey of a inimitable playback singer through the changing decades, the second half is her response to all questions that one would ever expect her to answer. As rightly asserted, the biography sits at the confluence of cinema, music and literature. However, English readers may find discomfort in dealing with mukhda of songs in Hindi but that should not be a serious limitation as digital assistance is only a click of a button away in decoding or drawing reference to the songs.   

Known for her shy nature and modest demeanor, Lata was like the mythological gandharva who is described as a celestial being sent to earth to dazzle ordinary mortals with their art. Indeed, so as she had a divine voice quality in which she could control her breath, never letting the listener know how and where she paused to draw a fresh breath. Whatever she sang, she was in total control of the emotions, feelings, mood, and the onscreen situation of the song. Devoted to the purity of her craft, Lata did not like mawkish song, nor did she sing patriotic songs that were composed for a mere dramatic flourish. Through her music, she reflected dignity and grace.

In his encyclopedic presentation, Mishra offers rare but interesting insights on how the iconic singer interacted with her peers, engaged with some of the incredibly talented composers, and treated the rich poetry on offer. Known to avoid swear words, lyricist-director Gulzar was a liitle nervous about the use of word ‘badmash’ in the song ‘aapki badmashiyon ke yeh naye andaz hein’ (Film: Ghar). Instead, Lata observed that the word gave the song a tang and while rendering it she laughed, giving it an entirely delightful air. As a singer, she would immerse herself totally into the mood of the lyrics, and that is what made Lata an iconic singer. 

Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music is a virtual who’s who on irrestible filmmakers, incredible composers, and finest poets who transformed the nightingale into an intellectual and cultural exponent of musical traditions. The biography stands out for providing a nuanced understanding on how the music engaged with the singer, and how the singer treated the lyrics on offer. For those who follow music closely and wish to understand how a particular composition came into being, the book offers a final destination. Indeed, this is the most definitive biography of our most revered cultural ambassador.  

Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music
by Yatindra Mishra, Ira Pande (trans) 
Viking, New Delhi 
Extent: 345. Price: Rs. 799.

First published in the Hindustan Times on May 12, 2023.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

In the light of many shades

A person has to feel free in society to express himself.

Muzzafar Ali is more than just the creator of ‘Umrao Jaan’, the eponymous musical film of 1980’s remains only a part of his unbounded creativity. Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time captures the wealth of experiences that shaped this enigmatic persona as a poet, a filmmaker, an author, a fashion designer, and a cultural revivalist. Born into the princely house of Kotwara, the boy in him was exposed to a wealth of experiences - happenings and encounters - that helped him locate and cultivate many passions that also include cars and couture. Manifest in this poetic and colorful autobiography is the importance of freedom ‘A person has to feel free in society to express himself’. 

As an artist and a filmmaker, Muzaffar Ali’s deeply perceptive life reads like a poem in visual narrative. Zikr, meaning devoted mention, comes across as a journey in pursuit of author’s intellectual and spiritual evolution: ‘each person I have worked with has opened a new world of creativity inside me, and this is what adds value to our lives.’ Notable is the case of roadside cobbler at Opera House whom he had invited to join him in giving a creative meaning to the medium of leather. This moving relationship lasted several decades, till the end of the cobbler Bharat Waghchare’s life. “His contribution to my creativity is immeasurable’, recounts Ali, for whom art has been a way of sensitizing and humanizing people.

Muzaffar Ali is a man of many arts and says that it is through arts that everything feels connected. No surprise, Umrao Jaan is the coming together of art, science, and the philosophy of life. Making film is a visual journey, as much art as science, and as much method as madness. The author perceives filmmaking as both a learning and teaching process. Each of his many films, Gaman, Umrao Jaan and Anjuman bear testimony to it. Zikr is more than an autobiography as it explores deep love of life in all aspects of existence – from science to poetry and from music to cinema. Life has been a large shifting canvas for Muzaffar Ali that is both intriguing and inspiring – an empowering journey from the science class in Aligarh to being the curator of Jahan-e-Khusrau that seamlessly connects the past with the present and the future, beyond the life of the ordinary. 

Written with a clarity worthy of Flaubert, it is an autobiographical journey that was designed to take others along in imaginative and creative pursuits. Zikr is therefore a virtual who’s who on some of the most creative people of his time who lent themselves to Muzaffar Ali for transforming an individual’s dream become a collective reality. The author rightfully claims to be a peoples’ person, a very accepting and tolerating kind as he was being enriched while enriching others. At the end, all such experiences and encounters with colorful people transcended and translated into expression of beauty. Throughout this richly textured personal memoir, one notices poetic expressions on love and beauty. 

In connecting the dreadful dots of partition with the present rhetoric of communalism, the author advocates the need to realize a new scale to measure man. A new scale of softness is needed to build intangible bridges of compassion and tolerance. The annual Jahan-e-Khusrau event is a journey he has undertaken for others – for the eyes of others, the ears of others, and for the mind of others. Only by becoming someone else, can you see beauty in everyone else. The author concludes that these are the footprints he intends to leave behind.  

Through Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time, Muzaffar Ali reveals the genius of an artistic soul in him. Peppered with inspiring verses, the book is something to offer to everyone as it allows the reader to look out of the window at the hopeful promise of the future. Written in poetic prose, the book concludes that there is always more to life than what often gets perceived. 

Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time
by Muzaffar Ali
Vintage/Penguin, New Delhi 
Extent: 261, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in Deccan Herald on April 2, 2023.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Is carbon dioxide good for plants?

Lewis H. Ziska, associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, had to quit the U.S. Department of Agriculture after 25 years of service in 2019 to protest interference by the Trump administration in his research on the negative effects of rising carbon dioxide on nutritional composition of rice. Published in Science Advances, a top-notch scientific journal, the research found that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduced Vitamin B and E in rice plant which could impact 50% of daily calorie intake by more than 6 million rice eaters in the world. In his book Greenhouse Planet, he captures all that went behind the research while stressing the urgent need for investigating the climate-denying mantra that carbon dioxide feeds plants and greens the planet. Prof. Ziska responded to questions on the wider implications of his research on plant biology as seen from the climate change lens.

Will shifting focus from sea level rise to plant biology, as you have suggested, not compromise the current commitments on emission reduction to some extent as it will support the climate change deniers’ claim that ‘CO2 is plant food’?

I am hoping it will strengthen those commitments---showing that CO2 is plant food for poison ivy, or for Parthenium—or can reduce the nutritional content of rice will, if anything, bring scientific scrutiny to the assumption that ‘CO2 is plant food’, and challenge deniers’ claims.

COP27 advocated progress on the issue of loss and damage caused by extreme events, counting emission reduction targets as an ongoing work. While the role of plant biology is undoubtedly significant, will it get the desired attention?  

Fair point---it won’t get the attention it deserves unfortunately. It’s hard to compete with extreme events, droughts, floods as they are visually compelling. Watching slow changes in plant species distribution, or nutritional changes in your rice bowl, while very important, don’t capture that level of dramatic immediacy.

Prof. Lewis Ziska
You argue that as CO2 stimulates growth and yield, it diminishes nutritional quality. Climate deniers might read the first half of the statement and rejoice at the prospect of getting more crops.   

It’s important to consider that in the plant kingdom, as with the animal kingdom, competition is important.  If you farm you recognize that the biggest physical effort is to reduce weeds, as weeds are the primary limitation on crop yield.  As CO2, the source of carbon for plant growth increases, it isn’t just crops that are affected. In a majority of studies to date, it is the weeds, not the crops, that are the ‘winners’ and crop yields are negatively affected.  So, while individual plants can respond, in a field situation, the weeds, with their greater ability to adapt to change, may pose an even greater threat to food security.

By your own admission, recent and projected CO2 increases in the atmosphere can stimulate the growth of some basic cereals (viz., wheat, rice, soybeans) as well as many weeds. Isn’t it an interesting tradeoff for sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere?

Yes. One piece of good news, many of the worst weeds are simply wild relatives of the crop. For example, in rice, the worst weed is Red Rice, or weedy rice.  Right now we have data suggesting that weedy rice has already responded strongly to the 25% increase in CO2 since 1970, i.e. it yields more than the cultivated rice lines which respond roughly by about 10%.  Suppose we knew why —could we look for those characteristics in weedy lines as a means to increase yields (and sequester carbon) in cultivated rice through breeding?  Can crops ‘learn’ from their weedy cousins?

Climate change has been made to seem like a black-and-white issue whereas in reality it is complex. How best to communicate science especially when it’s about crops that affects hundreds of millions of people?

Great question---and a difficult one. Communicating science isn’t about the esoteric or the what might be. It is about linking the science, especially food science, to climate and CO2 increases. These links include production (of course) but also nutrition (CO2 effects) and food safety (temperature effects on pathogens). My experience has been that if you can relate these scientific issues directly to what you consume at the table; then climate/CO2 takes on a very real and immediate meaning.

How to 'vote for science' when the almost 'certain' science behind climate change has become 'uncertain', with the effort to discredit science has become more intense? How to deal with it in the post-truth era? 

Respectfully disagree, perhaps there is greater effort to push back and discredit climate science, but climate change has, if anything, become more certain. It is the science of CO2 and plant biology that needs greater explanation and exploration beyond the simple ‘CO2 is plant food’ meme. 

But the scientific bottom line is simple:  If you think that the science of climate change (or CO2 effects on plant biology) is wrong---proof it. Write a hypothesis, test it, tell us how you tested it (so we can see what you did), and publish the findings after other experts have looked at your work. Lots of bloggers will talk about how climate science is wrong---but to date I am unaware of any who have published in the peer review literature showing that anthropogenic climate change is not occurring.

The Greenhouse Planet
by Lewis Ziska
Columbia University Press, New York
Price: Rs. 2130, Extent: 240 pages

First published in The Hindu on March 19, 2023.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Living by good words

The goal of the Hitopadesha appears to be the welfare and success of individuals and society at large.

It is said that good advice lasts longer than good deeds. Appreciating good advice is therefore inherent to humans but acting upon it remains subjective, as individuals sometimes don't know what's good for them. Social media may have stretched this predicament further by algorithmically supporting deeply ingrained biases. But good advice is still appreciated. Animal fables in story-telling format have been popular ever since oral-aural societies evolved this dynamic medium of transmitting wisdom. Composed some two centuries before Christ, the stories of the Panchatantra bear testimony to the earliest of such efforts.

Another collection, the Hitopadesha, which was sponsored by a medieval Indian ruler called Dhavalachandra to instruct his children in the science of wise conduct, was probably composed by Narayana between 800 and 950 CE. Arranged in four sections entitled Wining Friends, Losing Friends, Waging War, and Making Peace, these tales of anthropomorphized birds and animals provide solutions to a range of problematic situations in which humans might find themselves. This recent idiomatic translation of the original Sanskrit text by historian Shonaleeka Kaul aims to retain the freshness and wit of the original. 

The stories are about behavioral and relationship paradoxes and almost read like a survival guide. They offer practical observations about life by mixing the ideal with the real, and the sacred with the profane. It is clear that the storyteller knows that listeners and readers might find it difficult to get at the essence of these tales as deeply ingrained tendencies promote subjectivity. The stories, therefore, encourage the cultivation of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy, and patience. It's no surprise that they continue to help us understand life.

The British East India Company, to get a sense of the socio-cultural bearings that defined Indian society, encouraged Charles Wilkins’ translation of two classical texts, the Bhagavad Gita (1784) and the Hitopadesha (1787). Several versions of the latter have appeared since then though the art of simple storytelling as a medium and a message has lost much of its social relevance. Gone are the days when children huddled around their grandparents to listen to bedtime stories, an intergenerational process of transferring wisdom.

Still, many of these stories continue to appeal to us. The most popular one is 'Unity is Strength', a tale about trapped pigeons. In it, the older pigeon guides the flock to lift the net that constrains them and fly off together. The embedded message, that those who wish to advance must give up six weaknesses including excess sleep, languor, sloth, fear, anger, and verbosity, has wide implications. In the fable, collective inspiration could trigger an unimagined response. The plots of these stories are flexible and open to multiple interpretations, which give the compilation a cross-cultural appeal. Kaul provides a reflective introduction to the text and suggests that the goal of the Hitopadesha appears to be the welfare and success of individuals and society at large. 

The collection allows readers to reconcile to the realities of life with its inherent contradictions and inconsistencies. Much before human psychology had emerged as a formal subject of enquiry, these stories captured the complexity of male and female psyches with relative ease. This pithy book has something for everyone, whether it is the haughty ruler or the shrewd minister, the innocent husband or his conniving wife, the cunning enemy or the clever friend. The artifice of using animals and birds to narrate a parable is used in various collections including the Panchatantra, the Hitopadesha, the Brihatkatha and the Nitopadesha. To revive interest in tales of anthropomorphized birds and animals as learning tools in the age of artificial intelligence is to bring rich insights from our co-existence with animals to the modern realm. Translator Shonaleeka Kaul deserves credit for her acumen in dealing with the classical vernacular text, and for dedicating this work filled with the voices of animals and birds to her beloved canine.

Hitopdesha by Narayana
Translated by Shonaleeka Kaul
Aleph Books, New Delhi 
Extent: 197, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Feb 24, 2023

Saturday, January 21, 2023

A way of life and existence

From the days of earlier traders to the present, India has remained an intriguing destination of multicultural diversity, and complexity. The traders and invaders while serving their self-interests enriched the ancient land with various linguistic, religious and spiritual cultures, turning the land into a contested landscape for cross-fertilization of ideas for peaceful co-existence in a caste ridden society. Spiritual essence and mystical impulses have long been in vogue in the country, the Bhakti movement being a significant milestone propelling non-theistic wisdom traditions during the medieval period. It seems the advent of Sufism in 7th century was perfectly timed to create a composite culture. 

Situating the living traditions in the contested history lends it a contextualized social relevance for the present. Sufism as a way of life and worship had found resonance with the prevailing socio-spiritual revival of the time, creating its own space and following for developing emotional and ecstatic aspects of salvation. In presenting a living history of Sufism, In Search of the Divine explores its core idea and ideals, its origin and spread, and its strengths and contradictions. Inspired by her lifelong practice of Islam and backed by a decade-old journey into its Sufi traditions, author Rana Safvi connects the personal with the profound in making a case for the age-old traditions to offer a ray of hope for the future.

For the uninitiated, the author makes it clear upfront that Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but it is no different from the religion either. Reason being that Prophet Muhammad initiated the concept of tasawwuf, the Arabic term from which the word Sufism is derived, which thus remains rooted in Islam. In fact, Sufism and Islam are often used interchangeably and remain the primary link to all later silsilahs (order), a genealogy for the transference of the spiritual tradition. Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, where the seekers traverse the spiritual path to connect with their inner self, the God within. India’s syncretic culture could easily embrace this concept.  

However, the spread of Sufism in medieval period wasn’t always easy as it was attacked both from inside and outside Islam for being ‘indifferent to matters of religious law’. Had there not been the patronage of state and its elites, the Sufi tradition may not have sustained itself in the region.  While the role of Sufis in fostering a composite culture gets highlighted, the role it played in the conversion of large sections of local population to Islam is mentioned in the passing. This aspect may have been beyond the scope of the book, but for discerning reader it will remain a crucial miss in the rendition of ancient histories of living traditions. 

All said, Sufism has long fascinated people across borders and generations. It involves praying in such a way that one can experience the divine personally. Sufism evolved as a reaction to the growing materialism and worldliness, and with its insistence on knowledge, self-introspection, and gnosis produced many great scholars. However, in recent times most devotees visit dargahs for seeking divine blessings for good health and material possessions. Though beset with conflicts, dargahs and shrines are an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape. Rana Safvi’s visits to dargahs and shrines across the country provide vivid details of the its sacred atmosphere. The reverent crowds, the heavy smell of incense, and qawwalis in the courtyard extend a mystical experience.  

The Search for the Divine is a spiritual journey through many splendored hues of Sufism. It is an ambitious undertaking on a subject that has much to offer by way of peace and salvation. Considered a deeply secular tradition, Sufi poetry and music has greater following despite some of the fundamental debates on its beliefs and mystical dimensions. At a broader level, the book positions itself to address the emerging discourse of anti-Islamism in a global context. 

Sufism as a spiritual practice has survived nearly two millennia, the hope for emancipation being the umbilical link between the devotee and the shrine. Rana Safvi successful situates dargahs as centres of cosmopolitanism and a place for spiritual recluse for the troubled minds. The popular expression of zikr, qawwali, dhamaal and khayal only enrich its mystical dimensions. The book has as much for the believer as for the sceptic.

In Search of the Divine 
by Rana Safvi
Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 415, Price: Rs. 599.

First published in Deccan Herald on Jan 22, 2023.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The forgotten rebellion

The colonial history is full of such missed opportunities, exposing the needlessness of many rebellions.

Painstaking efforts in re-reading colonial history by historian Peter Stanley has brought to light the chilling account of the 1855 Santhal rebellion that has been overshadowed by the events of the great mutiny of 1857. Perhaps the only reminder of the rebellion termed Hul, meaning the movement for liberation, are the ‘martello tower’ in Pakur and the statues of the Bhugnadihee brothers across Jharkhand. That some 10,000 Santhals were literally executed by the British has been dismissed as lost history, unworthy of any serious attention. In reality, the Hul was certainly a war with clear cause-effect relationship. Though it lasted only six months, the lives lost could trigger many mutinies that were to follow. Even after 170 years, its intangible consequences seem discernable. 

It was the sixty-odd years after Robert Clive’s victory over Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in 1757 that the British had settled the Santhals into the uplands of Lower Bengal — the core of which was the Damin-i-Koh and the Rajmahal Hills, where their existence depended upon what they could harvest, hunt or gather. In less than two decades, the Santhals had transformed dense jungle into intensely farmed croplands. It only served the British officials who encouraged migration to collecting revenue and attracted moneylenders who oppressed the poor with unmitigated extortion. Dispossessed of their land and oppressed by the elite, the peace-loving tribals recognized the cause of their oppression and acted to change their situation. Curiously, they failed against the British might but not without manifesting their agency and asserting their distinct identity. The actors and the nature of oppression may have changed, but the suffering inflicted upon the tribals emboldens many to rebel even in the present. History repeats itself!   

A professor of history at the Canberra-based University of New South Wales, Peter Stanley has drawn the most comprehensive account of the rebellion - why it occurred, how it was fought, and how it ended. Written with empathy and concern, the richly documented treatise provides a compelling account of the unusual collision of tribal history and imperial history, the impact of which continues to inform and define the contours of tribal existence. Had the British noticed, heeded or acted upon the Santhals concerns regarding unmitigated dishonesty and exploitation by the moneylenders, the reason for many to join the Hul could have been avoided? The colonial history is full of such missed opportunities, exposing the needlessness of many rebellions. By their own assessments, the enormous cost in the sufferings of the Santhals could not be justified.

History is more than the story of the victor and the vanquished. Stanley draws a vivid picture on the life and times of the Santhals, who lived in small, neat villages surrounded by jungle, with each village with its sacred grove of sal trees signifying their spiritual connection with the land. Covering three seasons of the disturbed year, the book chronicles in rich details distorted perceptions and prejudiced assumptions on assessing the otherwise peace-loving Santhals’ desire for justice. Despite all accounts of the rebellion written in English, the author has done a commendable job in presenting an exhaustive military history of the Hul. 

Stanley argues that there is potential value in revisiting such insurgencies using the neglected sources which have informed it. Indigenous sources offer vital perspectives to the existing body of information generated by the colonial authorities in getting complimentary insights into both the nature of subaltern resistance and of its suppression by colonial masters. Hul succeeds in generating historical curiosity on unfolding all that transpired in understanding the causes and consequences of insurgency and counterinsurgency. The book suggests that a series of studies on rebellious uprising can help better understand the roots of resistance across the sub-continent. 

At this time when the country’s history is being churned to create a palatable political narrative, nothing can be more compelling than revisiting those historical events which describe the experience of specific groups in upholding the banner of freedom and equity. More than glorifying the past sacrifices, the task should be to recreate historical narratives that describe the period, and the lessons contained therein. Stanley has indeed drawn a framework for initiating a program for undertaking such studies. To that effect, Hul offers an interesting reference point. 

The historical facts might appear a bit loaded in favor of military details by the colonial actors, but Stanley gets a glimpse of the horror of the Hul through Santhal songs and poetry which records dislocation, separation, death and grief. One such verse sums it up: ‘The land has gone dim / the raiders are upon us.’ 

Hul! Hul! 
by Peter Stanley
Hurst, UK 
Extent: 343, Price: Rs. 450.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Jan 02, 2023.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Revisiting the best of 2022

Vocabulary of human emotions

Based on extensive research, Prof Brene Brown of the University of Houston tells us that part of why most of us are stressed is because we are limited in our understanding of emotions to be able to manage and regulate them, as vastness of human emotions and experiences are grossly expressed as mad, sad, and glad. And these three limit us to understand our emotional experience. We need emotional granularity for nuanced understanding, and to quote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'the limits of language mean the limits of my world'. In Atlas of the Heart (Vermilon/PRHIPL, 296 pp, Rs 1250) Brown has found 87 human emotions to enrich our vocabulary with more power to better articulate and understand our emotional experience. Having access to the right words alone can open up the entire universe to us, and help us get over quite a bit of what we may not need. It is a virtual tour de force on human emotions, revealing more than what we may know about ourselves. 

Envisioning future farming 

Provocative and somewhat outrageous, it is hard not to agree with writer-activist George Monbiot’s proposition of reinventing our food system because farming has emerged as the greatest cause of environmental destruction. Having got us on a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy, modern agriculture might well be the greatest crime in human history. Packed with factful case studies, Monbiot argues that it is still possible to feed the world without devouring the planet. Regenesis (Allen Lane, 339 pp, Rs 999) is a clarion call to unlock the farming system that has made over 800 million go to bed hungry while demand for growing food continues. Drawing on astonishing research, the book opens up a vital debate on how to value and protect most precious substance on which we’re so reliant and yet is so little talked about – soil.  

Antidote to intellectual fragmentation

With seven decades of her colossal literary career, Margaret Atwood’s occasional pieces and essays are no less imaginative and inspiring. While her milestone ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ remains a literary masterpiece on women’s reproductive rights amidst intersectional failings, Burning Questions (Chatto & Windus, 475 pp, Rs 999) has 65 non-fiction pieces written by her over a period of 17 years which are wide in scope and reach. From literature to human rights, and from feminism to environment, Atwood provides direct access to her thinking and feeling on the challenges confronting us. It is not all bad, as she swings between hope and despair. Written in her characteristically tongue-in-cheek style, Burning Questions is a serious treatise on questions that must be addressed if we care about our own human wishes, and wish very hard for our own future survival.    

Ability to change 

Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday, 390 pp, Rs 699) sits at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction, blurring the imagined from the real, in narrating the story of Elizabeth Zott who becomes the face of a cooking show ‘Supper at Six’ through which she educates her viewers in chemistry, self-worth and agency. Zott, the single mother and a chemist, triumphs through a sexist 1950s establishment with hard work and pragmatism and uses the media available to women of her era to new ends – daring them to change the status quo. Funny and furious, it makes for interesting and compelling reading as an average woman wade through the unpredictability of life to become acceptable as a change agent. Such is her influence that Vice President Lyndon Johnson, after watching the show, opined to a persistent reporter ‘I think you ought to write less and watch TV more’. It is no exaggeration to say that when Elizabeth Zott finished cooking, an entire nation sat down to eat. 

Veiled resistance

Hijab is a burning question of our times. What is more, the issue of unveiling and veiling has been initiated by Muslim women. The lingering question is: whether it is women’s sartorial choice of wearing a hijab or it is linked to religious and patriarchal enforcement. There are no easy answers though, as hijab gets new meanings under changing political and social contexts. In this timely collection of essays in The Hijab (Simon&Schuster, 240 pp, Rs. 599), the writers explore the politics of Muslim women’s attire as a site of contestation. It goes without saying that the meaning of veiling is neither stable nor singular, irreducible to any one reason or justification.  

By sourcing diverse opinions and perspectives, the editors have left it to the imagination of the reader to draw emotional underpinnings of hijab as a manifest personal practice that is up against private challenge triggered by public gaze. Given the grave political contestation on the subject, the book provides a variety of historical, ethnographic, and political perspectives to get a better sense of its politics. The Hijab makes a significant contribution to understanding veiling in the context of the wider community, and the very idea of citizenship itself. Only a well-informed public discourse on the subject can resolve the simmering discontent.

War yet to be won

It has been five decades since an all-time classic film Anand hit the screen, and Richard Nixon had signed the landmark National Cancer Act to fund research on combatting cancer. Far from winning the war over cancer, it has become the emperor of all maladies with an estimated 18 million new cases diagnosed each year. A decade from now, however, the global burden is projected to grow to 21 million new cancer cases with no less than 13 million succumbing to it. Tragically, Anand’s inspiring tale of celebrating life amidst brutal certainty remains perhaps the only mantra for all those who may have to traverse their own journeys through the dreaded illness, then and now. A New Deal for Cancer (Public Affairs, 404 pp, US$30) while detailing the ways in which our deeper failing as a society have held us back from winning the war over cancer offers bold new plans to win humanity’s battle against the dreaded condition. All said, the war against cancer continues to remain humanity’s most ambitious undertaking.

First published in Deccan Herald on Dec 25, 2022.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Can the tiger regain its stripes?

One of the world’s best tiger biologists makes a case for growing the Big Cat population.

“While the future is far from secure for the Indian tiger, it is far brighter than it has been in decades.” Drawing this conclusion in his new book, Among Tigers, one of the world’s best tiger biologists, K. Ullas Karanth, backs it up with facts. He argues that though densely populated by 1.3 billion people, India still has 380,000 square kilometers of potential tiger habitat. “If these forests can be nursed back to health by employing proven means already at our disposal, they can provide enough habitat for 15,000 or more wild tigers,” he writes.

A fresh tiger census is on, and the present strength of the Big Cat population hovers around the 3,000-mark with expansive encroachments of its habitat. If you are thinking Karanth’s optimistic estimate is off the mark, think again. Not long ago, an equal number of tigers were hunted each year in the country. In the present, however, saving tigers offers the best bet for recovering the storehouse of natural gene pool to address future climatic challenges. Tiger recovery in India also offers a road map for recovering wild tigers across the world, he says.

Being the first to radio-track wild tigers in the country, Karanth has spent the better part of the last five decades in understanding the distinct biology of wild tigers to resolve their conservation challenges. Among Tigers is a remarkable autobiographical narrative on the biological behavior of the tiger, its critical role in shaping natural ecosystems, and its presence in our collective imagination. “The triumphs and tragedies in the lives of my collared cats consumed me to a degree that is impossible to understand,” he contends.

Karanth brings out the joy of being in the forest and the perils of engaging with forest bureaucracy in equal measure while drawing up proposals for conserving wild cats. Balancing human emancipation and nature conservation is critical for making more rooms for tigers, he outlines. Distraction in achieving the goals of tiger conservation must be avoided, cautions Karanth, as everyone wants a piece of the tiger action by indulging in fuzzy thinking, misguided compassion, and inflated media hype. The history of tiger conservation is beset with such anomalies that this book seeks to amend, including the ‘Karanth tiger scandal’ that makes interesting reading. Written with compassion, clarity and concern, Karanth leaves the reader convinced that achieving 15,000 tigers in the country is not delusional optimism.

Among Tigers: Fighting to Bring Back Asia’s Big Cats
by K. Ullas Karanth
Chicago Review Press/PRH
Extent: 240, Price ₹1,499.

First published in The Hindu on December 18, 2022.

Monday, November 28, 2022

The airways of healthy existence

If face is the index of mind, breath is the indicator of human well-being. 

It fuels all life forms but extinguishes it too. Breath makes things come alive, so much that the natural act of breathing is taken for granted. That is where the problem lies because breathing is more than the intuitive act of inhaling and exhaling. Repeated 25,000 times a day, it has the potential to rejuvenate internal organs provided the extraordinary act of breathing is properly followed. Simply put, nine out of ten of us don’t breathe correctly - causing or aggravating a laundry list of chronic diseases. And hospitals only deal with breathing emergencies related to specific maladies of the lungs. With that be so, what then is the way out? 

The way to correct breathing is an individual responsibility, and we owe it to none other. But to consider that it is a pretty simple act that is well understood could be a fallacy. It is here that Breath comes handy to help the reader breathe like never before, and science writer James Nestor peps it up with his personal experience of making breathing a lived experience of immense possibilities. Only by following a tough breathing regime could the author get his four hours of daily snoring reduced to just ten minutes. For this incredible change to happen, he had to go through an awful experience of forcefully breathing through the mouth for first ten days, as his nostrils were plugged, and revert to nasal breathing for another ten days with his lips sealed with a piece of tape. The longer one breathes through the nose, the clearer and bigger nasal cavities do the rest.     

Breath is an account of a protracted journey into the world of breathing, which turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. In a decade of travelling, research, and self-experimentation the author found that the benefits of breathing are vast, at times unfathomable. While many drugs don’t work for panic, anxiety, and other fear-based conditions, slow and steady breathing acts like an effective therapy. Breathing is a missing pillar of health. More important than what we eat or how much we exercise, it is 1.7 pounds of oxygen our cells consume from our daily intake of air that passes through our lungs. The most interesting aspect is that unlike other drugs, breathing as a therapy works for everybody.    

Most of what Nestor found aren’t new discoveries though. A sizeable majority of it, including inhaling-exhaling techniques, are around for several millennia. Over the years, however, these techniques are being rediscovered and scientifically validated. ‘The fruits of this once-fringe, often forgotten research are now redefining the potential of the human body’. Limited but cutting-edge research in pulmology, psychology, biochemistry, and physiology has already demonstrated that many modern maladies – asthma, anxiety, psoriasis – could either be reduced or reversed simply by changing the way we inhale and exhale. Breath is a life changing book that generates new interest on a subject that has eluded modern medicine for long. 

It's interesting how mere curiosity of having benefitted from a breathing course triggered Nestor’s interest in exploring new science in the ‘lost art’. Stories on the magical aspects of breathing abound in the world of yoga practitioners, as popularity of yoga in the past two decades has brought a large number of huffing and puffing exponents in public spaces. Whether or not they are breathing better remains to be ascertained. From alternate nostril breathing to breathing coordination, and from resonant breathing to Buteyko breathing, Nestor has explored all techniques of breathing that make impact on human health and longevity. Having experienced the impact of proper breathing, the author considers himself a self-styled 'pulmonaut' ready to take the readers on a breathing mission. 

Breath raises hope of revolutionizing the health sector by generating renewed interest in beathing techniques to act as a preventive medicine that helps in retaining balance in the body such that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues. Should we lose that balance from time to time, breathing can often bring it back. Afterall, even a small change in the body functions is reflected in its breathing pattern. However, modern medicine has yet to take a serious note of this wisdom generated by the Buddhist monks over two millennia ago. If face is the index of mind, breath is the indicator of human well-being.  

James Nestor, an accomplished writer who lives and breathes in San Francisco, deserves credit for drawing a comprehensive scientific treatise on a subject that has thus far remained part of the cultural traditions of many societies. By validating it scientifically, he lends credence to breathing for its widespread adoption. Breath claims that once it is read, you will never breathe the same again. And there is virtue in letting that claim be.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art 
by James Nestor
Penguin Life, New Delhi 
Extent: 280, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in the Hindustan Times on Nov 26, 2022.