Book Review: A Velocity of Being

The dawn of our fast friendship was also a peculiar point in culture. Those were the early days of ebooks and the golden age of social media, when the very notion of reading — of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual surrender to a cohesive thread of thought composed by another human being, through which your own interior world can undergo a symphonic transformation — was becoming tattered by the fragment fetishism of the Web. Even those of us who partook in the medium openheartedly and optimistically were beginning to feel the chill of its looming shadow.

Cover courtesy: Brainpickings

…writes Maria Popova of Brainpickings fame in her introduction to A Velocity of Being, Letters to A Young Reader, edited by herself, and Claudia Bedrick, who has published this paean to reading, under Enchanted Lion Books. The book is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers, by creative people in several dimensions of life, about why they read, how does reading change them, who read to them when they were kids, and what sort of books they read now. Each letter is accompanied by visual interpretations of the letters, rendered by talented illustrators. From the passage I have quoted here, readers might come to a conclusion that Popova and Bedrick look down upon people who read on devices, but their truth is far from that. They don’t judge how you read, but they worry about the answer to the bigger questions — do you read at all? Will the generations who follow us read at all?

I took solace in a beautiful 1930 essay by Hermann Hesse titled The Magic of the Book in which the Nobel laureate argued that no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. Decades before the Internet as we know it existed, Hesse wrote: “We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority.

It was at this point, when technology was actively changing the landscape of reading, Popova and Bedrick began a project that went on for 8 years — reaching out to writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and even a Holocaust survivor, requesting for letters from them, their offering to young readers, and for the young readers in adults — and ended with this book, a brilliant meditation on reading. The book is Popova and Bedrick’s gift to everybody involved in the grand, noble business of words. I picked up the book today to refer to my notes. Unwittingly, I read one letter after the other, ran my hands on the illustrations, only to realise that I was engrossed that I had almost forgotten to write this blog. It feels like A Velocity of Being has a beating heart; it almost can be felt when you touch the book, and something in you shifts, as though your love for reading quietly collides with the collective devotion that emanates from all the letters.

Image courtesy: Brainpickings

My favourite letters are the ones written by Jacqueline Woodson, Alain de Botton, Diane Ackerman, and Janna Levin. For now, I vividly remember their letters. A few months later, if you read the book, and talk to me about your favourites, I might say that I love what you love because I love everything about this book. In the Illustrations Department, each artist’s work is precious. Sometimes, the illustrations match the letters, and sometimes, they even lift them up. The Fan Brothers’ artwork of Where The Wild Things Are is ridiculously stunning that whenever I look at it, I gasp, and wish that I could be a part of that group, and listen to the monster read the book to me.

In her letter, Woodson writes about what reading does, and what matters most, as she holds her son, and reads a book to him. “…the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here…” — the priceless joy of sharing a story with someone, reading a book together. Diane Ackerman writes about the time when the bookmobile was her portal to multiple universes created by writers. “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book… they explore and celebrate all it means to be human,” says Ackerman. The title of the book is borrowed from Janna Levin’s letter. Levin is one of my favourite scientists, and I immensely enjoyed her book Black Hole Survival Guide. Her sciency letter reads, “Books look static and quiet but they are not. They exude a pressure. They have a melody and stride. But they are only effective when balanced by the pressure of the reader, when they can reflect as well as transmit, when they elongate or quicken according to the velocity of the reader. You, reader, define the experience of the book. Every book you read could only be read in precisely that way by you.” All the 121 of them, loudly, quietly, humorously, beseechingly, assertively, tell the young readers that books are our light to navigate this dark, cold, chaotic yet magnificent universe.

Who was I when I was as young as the intended audience of A Velocity of Being? I was a shy, anxious girl, who was deposited in the only library in my neighbourhood, by my sister who wanted a break from me as she went on adventures by herself. I wish I had the curiosity to look around, be enchanted by a cover art, be piqued by a title. I wish I had the courage to walk up to the stoic librarian, and ask for a recommendation. I sat on a stool, and prayed for my sister to return on time to collect me.

At school, I was taken to the library just a handful of times. It was hard to focus on what the librarian was saying, for my focus was constantly buried in my classmates’ giggles. The librarian had a massive mole on her chin, and several strands of hair hung from it. A harmless mole looked like a goatee on her face, and the girls in my class couldn’t look beyond that. Maybe, that undermined the librarian’s confidence. She always seemed restless, and removed, and the children were mean to her. I wish she had taken me into the safe world of books, but she had to fight her own battles. The librarian continued to work in the school, but the classes were suspended, ending my journey into the world of books, even before it started. So, A Velocity of Being magnified my loss unintentionally, but it’s still okay. I am in my early 30’s, and I want to be optimistic about making up for what I couldn’t access when I was younger.

That’s why Alain de Botton’s letter resonates with me the most. His letter has a universal tone; its audience can be anybody — the youngest, the younger, and the young.

Dear Reader,

We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Yours,
Alain

Book Review: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I wouldn’t have discovered Nora Ephron’s Heartburn if the awesome folks at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh Market, hadn’t recommended it. At this point, after reading a bunch of books recommended by them, I knew that I might end up liking Heartburn as well, although the book’s rating on Goodreads doesn’t reflect my sentiment.

I quite liked Rachel Samstat. She was 38, a food writer, 7 months pregnant with her second child, and her second marriage was crumbling. She had moved into her father’s apartment to get a respite from her husband’s adultery, and the book started…

I was in New York, staying in my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.

The book was published in 1983, and the story unfolded in the 70’s. Rachel had no social media then to casually follow her husband’s digital footprints, and to unwillingly learn that she was being betrayed. It had to happen the old-school way. She had to rummage in the socks drawer, run through the telephone bills, and look for inscriptions on the books gifted to her husband by his friends. Even after discovering that she was being cheated, Rachel related her story with the distance that a raconteur takes while narrating a funny anecdote, and her story still felt intimate.

Everybody in her life was funny. Perhaps, it’s just the way Rachel saw them, choosing to see what she thought was the chief aspect of their personalities. Her mother had a near death experience, and ran away with a man who believed he was God. Her father married her best friend’s sister. Her first husband froze his dead hamster, stored him in their own freezer, and offered a tiny bouquet to his deceased hamster-friend every day. One of her friends proposed her, jumped into a seal pond, and the seals followed him into the pond in horror to reclaim their habitat. They all made hilarious cameos in her story. In between, she dropped recipes to make some of her favourite delicacies. They appeared at random junctures, but she was that person whose life was built on the love for cooking, and who could express her love articulately through food, and even if she were moaning about her breakup, she was kind enough to get distracted, and shared recipes. She even shared one of her delightful essays titled Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections, and the next time when I eat mashed potatoes, I will think of Rachel.

Once in a while, Rachel addressed the reader, and assured that the story had a plot, but it was weak. It still worked for me though. If a book started with the central character being pregnant, one could predict how it would end. Although her narration seemed like she was rambling, it seemed warm, funny, and soulful. I caught myself laughing out loud quite a few times, and that’s saying something. I usually don’t laugh when I read funny books. The laughter usually rings in the head, and it dies there. Rachel made it audible.

When Rachel made the final decision, she sounded very unlike Rachel. Her ability to see the funny side of things disappeared. She seemed world-wearied, broken, exhausted, and maybe, she should have felt all of that a long while ago, and if she had, the book would have ended up sounding like another jilted person’s side of the story. It still was, in some way, perhaps. In her story, the husband was totally at fault, and while she questioned her contribution to the collapse, she was relieved by the betrayal.

That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

At the end, Rachel justified her proclivity to turn everything into a story and a joke. I bought her view, and that also made her totally unreliable. What was she telling me in the first place? But it didn’t matter anymore.

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

I must admit that Rachel’s sense of humour was not clean. It was replete with stereotypes about gender, and race, and some of her jokes reminded me of what the standup comedians dish out as jokes these days. I found myself stopping, and wondering if people laughed about such mean things forty years ago, and I squirmed in the thought that people still do. I wished some personal growth for Rachel.

Perhaps, if Ephron were alive, she might have written a sequel, and I would have still bought that book. I might not necessarily care about Rachel, but I am curious about her life. I liked the way she made me laugh when her jokes were politically correct, and when it stemmed from bewilderment, surprise, revenge, and resignation. I liked her more for she hadn’t lost hope. Also, there must be a TV show on this book.

Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.

Happy 7th Gotcha Day To Us!

“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

— EB White

It was 26-January-2014. She wasn’t Anu Boo then. Just Anu. Her rough, thin fur betrayed her ribcage. There were quite a few bald patches on her body. She was lying in a tiny, blue crate, anxiously looking at the feet which crossed her crate, and refusing to exchange eye-contact with anybody who bothered to kneel, and coo at her. She seemed overwhelmed by the cacophony of the fair. The place was hot even for January. The visitors were enamoured of other ‘perfect’ puppies at the fair. The puppies didn’t have to scream, “Take me home!” They just had to do something cute, or yawn, or fall into their water bowls, and the humans went awww. Anu refused to do anything that’s adorably stupid. She was invisible in that chaos.

Anu Boo, circa 2014.

An animal welfare organisation had set up a stall at a fair, with the good intention that the casual shoppers might have a change of heart, and take some animals home. 20 days after rescuing and fostering Anu, I took her to the fair, and prayed with all my being that I would meet a kind human who would be thrilled to take Anu home. Other puppies were being adopted, and taken home, but Anu stayed in the corner of her crate. Nobody wanted her. She was a brown mutt with a chronic skin condition, and above all, she exuded an air of moroseness. That would never be accepted by humans. They expect dogs to be cheerful, and entertain them with their antics. Anu was never going to dance in their circus. So, she was considered not-suitable-for-adoption.

As sellers dismantled their stalls, and the footfall reduced, Anu woke up from her nap, and looked at me inquiringly from the corner of her blue crate. “Are we not going home yet?”, her expression suggested. I rushed to the organiser, and told her that I wouldn’t like to sign up for the next adoption drive because I was going to adopt Anu. She had always been mine, and I was awfully late to realise that. I walked back to Anu swiftly as though someone was fighting with me to take her home, opened her crate’s door, lifted her, and gave a peck on her forehead. “Anu, I have always wanted to name my next dog Boo. But you are now used to the name ‘Anu’. So, you will be Anu Boo from today, and you will learn to love all of us including my canine brother Calvin. Okay? Okay!” I told her. She yawned again, looked around, and wriggled to be left alone.

Anu Boo officially arrived.

7 years later, as I write this blog, Anu Boo is snoozing on my bed. Her defiant ear dances to the tunes of the fan. She is deep into a dreamless slumber. A lot of things have changed, and not changed, since that day I put her up for adoption at a fair. Her fur is still brown but it shines as though I polish it every day. Her countenance is still morose, but sometimes innocent, and other times, wise. She continues to be misanthropic. She loathes strangers. She is skittish around men. She runs like a deer, and sits still like a monk. She relishes carrots, and apples, and despises dog-food. She is territorial, protective, jealous, funny, and effusive about her love for her family. When she is in the mood for it, she throws her head back, and howls along with me. She knows quite a few words in Tamil, and English. When she is not in the mood, she refuses to acknowledge any language’s existence. Her boundaries are non-negotiable, and when breached, she doesn’t hesitate to snarl, and bite even if the intruder is her family. She is very unlike my first dog Calvin. She taught me that each animal is an individual with unique characteristics, and idiosyncrasies. Above all, she is a warrior.

Anu Boo, at my terrace, during the golden hour.

In 7 years, she has lived a long life. She was stranded in an abandoned house for three months before I rescued her. Starvation brought out the cannibal in her. She ate her litter-mate’s carcass to survive. She was the lone survivor of her pack. Two years ago, she had a stroke. The vet initially thought it was an epileptic seizure, drugged her for a prolonged period, and the medicines changed her personality. She wasn’t my Anu Boo. I was almost resigned to the idea that as long as she was alive, I would be grateful. But my boyfriend, who is her No. 1 fan, convinced me to take another opinion from a vet whom we hadn’t met before. I trusted his instinct, and the vet diagnosed that what Anu Boo had was a stroke. He suggested that her body had the power to heal on its own, as much as it could, and that there was no need to keep her drugged to avert seizures. In a day, Anu Boo’s original grumpy yet adorable personality returned. She became my favourite curmudgeon again. Her body is not what it used to be before the stroke. The right side of her body is not fully functional anymore. She can’t scratch her ears using her right hindleg, or hold a treat between her paws, and her jaw is so weak that she can’t gnaw at a bone. What broke my heart is her disinclination to play with her toys which she used to adore. But I have risen above the heartbreak. She is here, completely embracing life, one moment at a time, and my heart beats with gratitude for that. I want her to live LONGER, become a super senior healthy doggie, and I want her muzzle and the hair above her eyes to become grey, and her face wiser. I want both of us to be enchanted by many setting suns. May my prayers be answered.

I am often asked who my best friend is, and what I seek in friendship. I offer vague responses to those questions because the world is not ready for my honest answer. Anu Boo is my best friend. Incarcerate me for committing the crime of anthropomorphizing my relationship with her, but she is my soulmate. I wish I could love many like the way I love her. Everything about her is perfect, including her imperfections. It’s life-affirming to lie on the floor with her, and see her belly rise and fall as she breathes. It’s liberating to realise that I am loving her, warts and all, and that I am still capable of loving a soul that way, without holding anything back. I feel alive when I sit with her at the window, look out, and be transfixed by a squirrel feverishly working on something, or a crow who lands at the window and flies away in a moment just to tease her. Anu Boo is truly the guardian of my being, my life-witness. Her very life is a quiet lesson in resilience, and in letting life stab us with its beauty and truth.

Anu Boo, and yours truly.

The Year of Words

I wrote this piece for the Blog-a-Thon that happened at work. I was asked to write about 2020, and how I navigated the year. I am saving it here for posterity.

In the end of March 2020, when the pandemic shed its cloak of mystery, appeared with fangs and all, and became almost palpable, I imagined myself running around like a lost dog. A wave of questions reached my mind’s shore – “What is really happening? What does ‘Work From Home’ mean really? When do I go back to the office? Will my books in the Little Free Library I set up at work miss me?” Above all, I perpetually meditated on the question, “How do I become a better leader?” Just like the questions, the answers came in waves too. While the pandemonium demanded distance in the physical world, while I operated from behind the opaque curtain of the virtual world, the gap between the worlds threatened to become wider. The abyss was hungry, and it wished that something would fall through the crack. However, an ancient tool – words, words, oh-so-glorious words! – unfolded itself, offering comfort, and assurance. Colleagues’ non-verbal cues – the all-is-well smile at the one-on-ones, the raised eyebrows which accentuate curiosity at meetings, the stretch that follows a completed task… — could have gone on a sabbatical, at least until I befriended MS Teams fully, but the old-world charm of words came to the rescue. Even as the pandemic raged, communication became the panacea. It’s ironic, yet utterly beautiful.

The Antidote to Phone Anxiety

Until the Work From Home started, the only time I picked up the phone to make a call every day was when I had to talk to the Transport Team to know my cab’s arrival. Most times, the sweet team would drop a message even before I could call them. I am the quintessential millennial who prefers texting to calling. I would spend a couple of extra minutes to send you a carefully crafted message on WhatsApp, but I wouldn’t dial your number. It’s a quirk that’s loved and loathed in equal measure. When the Work From Home began, the initial uproar didn’t hold any space for texting. Calls flew relentlessly like migrating birds. Calls from my team, peers, sharing updates, requesting for information, seeking help, and offering support. Every time the phone rang, my heart would plummet. I would see the phone quietly hum Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1, and mutter all the courage I have got to place my unsure finger on the green button. For the first two days, the calls went in a blur. In a couple of days, the time I took, stalling and listening to my ringtone, gradually reduced. I flexed some muscles, and began answering calls after three rings. Most times, there was always an excited, enthusiastic colleague thrilled to share some information. Other times, there were tired souls who hoped that the telephonic conversation would give them a respite from the quotidian agony of the quarantine. In time, it dawned on me that we were seeing something truly unprecedented, and that it was futile to stay looking inward, succumbing to new-age anxieties. The microbe, as it wove its web across the globe, offered an antidote to my phone anxiety, and alleviated the apprehensions gifted unasked by technology. The beauty of words had a healing effect on the conversations. Collaborations seemed easier. It felt good to pick up the phone and say, “I am so glad you called…”, or something even more vulnerable like, “I can actually hear your smile…” or “I wish we were at work!” Calls are not bad after all. They need not be judged harshly, perhaps.

Not A Black Hole

As we waited for the roadmap to emerge after the quarantine began, as calls continued to travel back and forth, messages started raining on WhatsApp. People wanted to feel heard and seen, people wanted to participate, and especially when the pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, creating space to share the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives became paramount. On our team’s WhatsApp group, we encouraged people to tell us about their lives in the lockdown. The traffic on the group continued to soar. Just like how listening is critical in real life, responding to someone’s message, regardless of how significant or trivial it is, becomes important in virtual life. 2020 taught me that meaningful relationships can be forged at work, even if we work from home, by merely sending thoughtful, empathetic messages. On our WhatsApp group, people shared pictures of the food that they made during the quarantine, images of their children’s artwork, aww-inducing pictures of their furry and feathery companions, and I saw the importance of not being a black hole that simply absorbs information but responding to as many messages as possible to tell people that they are being heard. My responses ranged between being super mundane and super emo, but I responded all the same. Instead of doling out templated responses, I took refuge in the beauty and power of words again. I abused adjectives, wrote sentences after sentences, and told them that whatever they were flaunting was worth it; our world was shut down, but it still needed to be celebrated for surviving. The practice of fervently responding to messages extended to professional conversations as well. Every tiny update met with a ‘Thank you for the note!’. Every heads-up received a ‘Thank you for sharing!’ In 2020, I understood that people don’t want their messages to disappear up in the air, but they want them to be received, and acknowledged, and the mere act of sending a tiny signal back is considered as revolutionary as receiving a message from another civilization from an unknown place in the universe. Everybody wants to be told that they are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

I Hear You

The Awkward Silence missed us when the lockdown began. It waited in its home – our lifts at work – with the hope that we would return in 2020. When that didn’t happen, the Awkward Silence left the lifts, and moved into MS Teams. “Can you hear me?” the organiser would ask at the meetings, and we all would wait, thinking that somebody would say yes. The Awkward Silence would enter and stay. “Are you able to see my screen?” the organiser would ask, and again we would be washed over by the bystander syndrome. The Awkward Silence would do a quick happy dance. “Have you got any questions for me?” The Awkward Silence would smirk. “Is anybody okay to switch on the video?” The Awkward Silence would wait and watch. 2020 pilfered the difference the calendars could have on our lives, and the ways we recognise the passage of time, but it also taught that when times become tougher the real difference can be made by doing one small act at a time, bringing one small difference to the table. Like saying, “Yes, I can hear you.” Like saying, “No, your screen is not shared yet.” Like saying, “Thank you for giving some time back in this meeting.” Like switching on the video sometimes when the organiser requests for some support. They all can seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, to that person, who is trying hard to swallow the anxiety that comes with organizing any virtual meeting, it might matter more than I can imagine. 2020 taught me that we can be sounding boards, devil’s advocates, but active participation is the building block to constructive exchange, especially when it happens through two black mirrors.

2020 was all about switching between microscopic and telescopic views. It made me be enamored with an ant entering and exiting a crack on the wall. It made me be transfixed by Camus’s reflections on existential dread. It filled me with despair and gratitude. It made me take a stroll on memory lane, and it moved me with the restlessness to break into the future. It made me miss my office, and it held space to discover new things about my coworkers despite the distance. It wasn’t a year of binaries, but of nuances. And I explored its diverse landscape on the vehicle called Communication, with words as its sturdy wheels. 2020 could have been an unyielding concrete, but by the way communication made ways to strengthen collaborations, be inclusive, innovate in our own ways, and look after ourselves and everybody around us, I believe that communication is the heroic plant which rebels, and grows from concrete.

“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak