Friday, 30 December 2016

Notable Book of the Year 2016 - H is for Hawk

"Prisonface is terrified of life; he is a chameleon, a mirror, existing only through his reflection in the eyes of others."


H is for Hawk is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an obscure book. If you wind the clock back a year and peruse through any best books list from 2015, you'd find its name there, typically at the top.

The first time I attempted to read the book was in early February. I failed. On that balmy day, with the sun dazzling through the oily leaves of the tree in front of dorm 10, I propped the book open on my lap and spent the next ten minutes absorbing its premise. And even in the Ahmedabad sun - the unrelenting, unremitting Ahmedabad sun - I experienced a chill down my spine. I couldn't read it. Another nine months went by till the day I eventually sat down on a blustery morning in New York to read through it, an intensely rewarding experience which prompted me to write this review.

To explain why I couldn't find the courage to proceed in my first attempt, you must understand what the book is all about.

At the core of H is for Hawk is the question of how people make sense of their lives by putting their selves in a symbol that they hope represents everything they were meant to do (or be) in life. The symbol can be anything but it stands untarnished by compromise; unencumbered by bonds of love or pangs of suffering.

H is for Hawk is an autobiographical account of Helen Macdonald as she fights through the grief of losing her father. This is the essence of the story - a gut wrenching journey where the author spins hopelessly away into the void; struggles to stay afloat; closing down the world around her; a magnificent and ancient creature - a goshawk - her only company and Patronus.

To merely say the above, though, is to completely miss the point. H is for Hawk transcends genres - as a story about a young girl who only always desired to fly with majestic birds of prey; as a gorgeous handbook on falcons and the history of falconry; as a commentary on the quintessential English countryside; as a disturbing and piercing biography of a famous writer of the previous century.

By the way, a goshawk looks like this:


Reading H is for Hawk can be difficult. Helen's personal sorrow drips out of every page. It imbues a melancholic strain that lingers, even when you've set the book aside to get back to your own existence. At times, this affects you. There was many a time when I flipped through the pages to the back cover, to find myself staring at Helen's face and her brooding eyes. Eyes that seem heavy with sadness and a weight that looks almost impossible to bear.


The reader will persist. The prose is beautiful and Helen mixes up a story of depression and misery with the magical description of her Goshawk, Mabel. In one of the lighter moments in the book, she talks how giving a "tough" name for a hawk is a sure recipe for disaster.
"There's a superstition among falconers that a hawk's ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all."
Helen is a practicing falconer herself - becoming one was a childhood passion of hers. Helen teaches you to love what she loves and it all comes so naturally that you hardly notice it, and yet when you close the book you'll never see a bird of prey the same way again. H is for Hawk also has rich and intimate descriptions of the English countryside. Of course, the size of the demographic who enjoys this is understandably fledgling but I put it out there, just in case.

Darkness and despair doesn't merely run through Helen's own story. An important and intriguing element of the author's narration is the parallel account of T H White (author of the famous The Sword in the Stone series). White's life acts as a compelling counterfoil throughout the book, as he narrates a tortured existence and how he desperately attempted to tame his own goshawk, Gos. White, former headmaster of a school, a misfit since childhood carrying many ghosts of his past tries to find refuge in the training of his hawk. The book moves back and forth between these two solitary and anguished narrators as Helen tries to make sense of her own sorrow. It's a moving and powerful literary device.

Customarily, a book review must include perceived shortcomings. Allow me to end with one. Autobiographies by their nature can be one-dimensional and therefore it's a mark of how well Helen has finessed her story that you end up demanding (unfairly) more details about the other characters in her life, who have a fleeting presence, being part participants exiting the stage almost as soon as they enter it. I struggle to find more flaws in this exquisite book.

H is for Hawk is good literature that's accessible to all kinds of readers. It makes you realize, as all good books do, that our smallest and most private tribulations have been expressed by the great artists of language.
"You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to 'tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.'"
The book is destined to be a modern classic, a story that leaves you with strength and hope, yes, but also little tidbits of enlightenment. For instance, Helen describes a tragedy as:
"...that it is the story of a figure who, through some moral flaw or personal failing, falls through force of circumstance to his doom."
H is for Hawk is a must read in every sense.

(This is the first in a series of 5 posts on the best books I read through the year. The first one (as you can see) is an Autobiographical work. The next in this series include non-fiction, fiction and comic books/graphic novels! Follow me at hamstersqueaks.blogspot.in)

Friday, 2 December 2016

Exams

There's something about exams that's hard to pin down with ordinary run-of-the-mill feelings. Stress? Fear? Irritability? That's the school boy essay writing set that'll come in along with the occasional "excitement" thrown in to speculate on some counter points.

As I study in the East Asian Library of my University with a huge stack of lecture chapters, problem sets, recitation notes, supplementary research papers, previous examinations and H Is for Hawk (a man has to read after all) I only feel numb.

The boring question, "Should I begin from the first chapter or start from the end," seems resolutely intangible. I don't feel like preparing for this. There's so much more fun in staring down the barrel with one Matrix move to save yourself. Being a PhD student does mean taking these exams seriously.

Back to work.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Greats

I like to follow the actions and achievements of the Greats across all fields spanned by humans, in the present and from the past. What amazes me constantly is how they managed to balance out their focus across different areas of self-improvement. That kind of judgement is rare.

In the midst of the three M's, I am spending days and nights together to get there. Not sure if I will. Each small let-up costs a lot.

The dream lives on. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A Gem from Zen Pencils

My set of "Favorite Zen Pencils cartoon strips" has just welcomed a new member.


This is more or less exactly what I feel about achievement and, associated with that, the overwhelming sense of worthlessness when you realize how much there is to know and to do.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Change

For the first time in my life I am training to be properly good in a subject. And I have to cover a lot of distance. A lot of it. It reminds me of the time I was in the 9th grade and I had to teach myself more chemistry after a sizable jump in effort was demanded. Thankfully, things smoothed out eventually back then. Yet to see what happens this time.

Maybe it doesn't matter.

Ithaka, here I come.

(For the previous post in this series: http://hamstersqueaks.blogspot.com/2016/04/change.html)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Another Excerpt from She by H Rider Haggard

Been a couple of weeks since I read She but sharing one more (and last) excerpt:
' "Who is she?" I asked, as soon as I could take my eyes off the statue.
    "Canst thou not guess, oh Holly?" answered Ayesha. "Where then is thy imagination? It is Truth standing on the World, and calling to its children to unveil her face. See what is writ upon the pedestal. Without doubt it is taken from the book of Scriptures of these men of Kor," and she led the way to the foot of the statue, where an inscription of the usual Chinese-looking hieroglyphics was so deeply graven as to be still quite legible, at least to Ayesha. According to her translation it ran thus: —
    "Is there no man that will draw my veil and look upon my face, for it is very fair? Unto him who draws my veil shall I be, and peace will I give him, and sweet children of knowledge and good works."
    And a voice cried, "Though all those who seek after thee desire thee, behold! Virgin art thou, and Virgin shalt thou go till Time be done. No man is there born of woman who may draw thy veil and live, nor shall be. By Death only can thy veil be drawn, oh Truth!"
    And Truth stretched out her arms and wept, because those who sought her might not find her, nor look upon her face to face.
    "Thou seest," said Ayesha, when she had finished translating, "Truth was the Goddess of the people of old Kor, and to her they built their shrines, and her they sought; knowing that they should never find, still sought they."
    "And so," I added sadly, "do men seek to this very hour, but they find out; and, as this Scripture saith, nor shall they; for in Death only is Truth found."'

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Now Reading: She by H. Rider Haggard

An excerpt offered without comment:

"However, I could do nothing for him, for we had all already taken a good dose of quinine, which was the only preventive we had; so I lay and watched the stars come out by thousands, till all the immense arch of heaven was strewn with glittering points, and every point a world! Here was a glorious sight by which man might well measure his own insignificance! Soon I gave up thinking about it, for the mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite, and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as he strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works. Such things are not for us to know. Knowledge is to the strong, and we are weak. Too much wisdom would perchance blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and over-weight our feeble reason till it fell and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity. For what is the first result of man's increased knowledge interpreted from Nature's book by the persistent effort of his purblind observation? It is not but too often to make him question the existence of his Maker, or indeed of any intelligent purpose beyond his own? The truth is veiled, because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun. It would destroy us. Full knowledge is not for man as man is here, for his capacities, which he is apt to think so great, are indeed but small. The vessel is soon filled, and, were one-thousandth part of the unutterable and silent wisdom that directs the rolling of those shining spheres, and the Force which makes them roll, pressed into it, it would be shattered into fragments. Perhaps in some other place and time it may be otherwise, who can tell? Here the lot of man born of the flesh is but to endure midst toil and tribulation, to catch at the bubbles blown by Fate, which he calls pleasure, thankful if before they burst they rest a moment in his hand, and when the tragedy is played out, and his hour comes to perish, to pass humbly whither he knows not.
Above me, as I lay, shone the eternal stars, and there at my feet the impish marsh-born balls of fire rolled this way and that, vapour-tossed and earth-desiring, and methought that in the two I saw a type and image of what man is, and what perchance man may one day be, if the living Force who ordained him and them should so ordain this also. Oh, that it might be ours to rest year by year upon that high level of the heart to which at times we momentarily attain! Oh, that we could shake loose the prisoned pinions of the soul and soar to that superior point, whence, like to some traveller looking out through space from Darien's giddiest peak, we might gaze with spiritual eyes deep into Infinity! 
What would it be to cast off this earthy robe, to have done for ever with these earthy thoughts and miserable desires; no longer, like those corpse candles, to be tossed this way and that, by forces beyond our control; or which, if we can theoretically control them, we are at times driven by the exigencies of our nature to obey! Yes, to cast them off, to have done with the foul and thorny places of the world; and, like to those glittering points above me, to rest on high wrapped for ever in the brightness of our better selves, that even now shines in us as fire faintly shines within those lurid balls, and lay down our littleness in that wide glory of our dreams, that invisible but surrounding Good, from which all truth and beauty comes! 
These and many such thoughts passed through my mind that night. They come to torment us all at times. I say to torment, for, alas! thinking can only serve to measure out the helplessness of thought. What is the purpose of our feeble crying in the awful silences of space? Can our dim intelligence read the secrets of that star-strewn sky? Does any answer come out of it? Never any at all, nothing but echoes and fantastic visions! And yet we believe that there is an answer, and that upon a time a new Dawn will come blushing down the ways of our enduring night. We believe it, for its reflected beauty even now shines up continually in our hearts from beneath the horizon of the grave, and we call it Hope. Without Hope we should suffer moral death, and by the help of Hope we yet may climb to Heaven, or at the worst, if she also prove but a kindly mockery given to hold us from despair, be gently lowered into the abysses of eternal sleep."
 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Rereading To the Lighthouse

About a month before embarking on a fresh new adventure - and a brand new degree - I realized I wasn't reading any books. Like a pilgrim, I was visiting relatives all across India, sharing laughs and memories... and absolutely heavenly food. For a person who had eaten rajma chawal about three times all his life before being thrust into the world that loved them (undergrad onwards) I was living a short blessed sabbatical eating (and gaining weight).

[Despite this I was roughly on a book a week (let me brag about that)]

Only a couple of weeks back I stumbled upon the WSJ book club. It's a massive group with over 7k participants and routinely invites respectable names from the world of literature to talk about their favourite books. Generally, like all Facebook surfing mortals I would have nodded in appreciation before moving back to check the number of likes on my latest post. I didn't do it this time - at least for an hour - because the club chose a book I have been wanting to reread for a long time: Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.



It was 3-4 years back that I had gone through the novel while exploring a list investigating the nature of human relationships (the word taken in a broader sense). I recall having liked the book a lot but this feeling was all I remembered. The opportunity had come to reread it.

[Another reason for going forward, for the record, was the author Mark Haddon (famous for a highly recommended book and teenage years favourite The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) who gave a fascinating interview telling how he found something new every time he read the book.]

My own stab at rereading it made me excited because (unlike last time) the experience resonated with questions I am grappling with these days. This is a feeble attempt at talking about what I felt.

[Other reviews and theses have explored aspects of differences in perspective between the male and the female, the innate subjugation of women to cater to the "needs" of men, as a novel about the "intensity of family holidays", attachment and loss, and the role of subjectivity.]

UPDATE: tl;dr for those who just want the gist of it from my diary
This is a novel about permanence. The female lead was the lighthouse in an otherwise dark house. Now deceased she continues to affect the lives of anyone she touched. Her permanence persists beyond the achievements of her husband, and all the others who have attained some manner of success. Yet the world itself moves on unperturbed and undisturbed thus putting the ephemeral nature of human life in perspective.
UPDATE: Added a dirty summary of the book in case you want to know what the basic story is about. It's at the end.

*******

The meaning of life. That's the eternal question, and one that the novel itself deals with. Intertwined with this is the whole meaning of permanence. These questions are very clearly mulled over by Lily Briscoe - she acts as a third person narrator at times but also as the artist who tries to make sense of the inherent conflict between two dichotomous modes of existence.

I would like to distill the question as this: is the true meaning of life to live a good life in the company of family and friends thus leaving an indelible mark on their lives - as the lighthouse that helps those in its immediate vicinity shining light through darkness? That is the way Mrs Ramsay lived her life.

Or is it to seek glory and ever lasting fame, to try and reach, starting from "A", a letter as close to "Z" as possible? The chances of failure are immense, the fallout from failure being a great loss of morale; it is many times more likely you end up flailing for support. This is the path which Mr Ramsay chose for himself. That he failed (in his own eyes) meant he had to seek compassion from the women around him.

The lighthouse then symbolizes Mrs Ramsay herself, more so after her demise. Her husband undertakes a pilgrimage to that place to reclaim the part of his life he lost. Despite his lofty ambitions and his haughtiness at the petty rigmarole of daily existence, he cannot rid himself of the mark left by his wife; he is a pitiable figure without her. His children bear bitterness against their father borne out of bitterness from their childhood. It was their mother who looked after them and it was she who they remember now.

The family gravitates to the lighthouse - a symbol of permanence that stands despite the family's immense loss. They choose to complete what Mrs Ramsay had sought to do ten years before.

This Big Question doesn't spare Lily Briscoe. She thinks about it by considering the likely fate of her paintings - that they would be wrapped up and stowed away to be possibly forgotten forever. Then why does she do it? Because it gives her fulfillment and joy. And yet, though she think she's different and detached from the world, she recalls that step on which Mrs Ramsay customarily sat, and misses her badly enough to cry out her name in anguish and sorrow.

*******

To the Lighthouse is a short book. In as few pages as these, Virginia Woolf powerfully portrays the complexity of the mind and how perspective changes the way even ordinary events and things look and feel. Yet, I think the lighthouse itself raises deeper questions: what is one's purpose in life, and what really allows you to touch people's lives - through the eternal thirst for glory, or by bringing light to those who hover around your shores?

H

The Dirty Summary

TTL is divided into three parts. The first part deals with a single day when the Ramsays, a family consisting of Mr and Mrs Ramsay plus eight children, share an afternoon and evening with acquaintances while visiting their summer cottage at the Hebrides. Mrs Ramsay and Mr Ramsay act as counterfoils to each other (this is not the most remarkable part of the book), the former being responsible for holding together the congregation of family and visitors by sheer force of personality. She represents a kind, matronly spirit who clearly identifies and accepts her role as the "woman" of the household (rather in a traditional orthodox sense). Mr Ramsay is more elusive and pensive, constantly going inwards to worry about his achievements while also possessing a love for more intellectual pursuits. We are also introduced to a set of outsiders, the most intriguing of whom is Lily Briscoe, an artist trying to find herself and her painting in all the familial chaos around her.

James, the young child of the Ramsays deeply desires to visit the lighthouse, located a few miles away from their cottage. Mrs Ramsay senses her son's eagerness and wants to take him there but she can't because Mr Ramsay believes bad weather will prevent them from setting sail (he is right but it still irritates his wife and infuriates his son).

The lighthouse is a powerful symbol that resists immediate interpretation but you know (well, you also have the title of the book) that it'll serve an important role.

The second part is a brief interlude where ten years pass. In this time, Mrs Ramsay dies, and so do a couple of the Ramsay children. This part is powerfully written. It relies on none of the characters introduced previously, only giving updates on their lives in brackets, almost as an afterthought.

The third part deals with Mr Ramsay and two of his children returning to the same cottage, now dilapidated and strained by years of neglect and complete absence of in-habitation. Lily Briscoe and some old names join them here. Mr Ramsay wishes to go to the lighthouse and takes his children along with him.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Change

IIM Ahmedabad deserves a longer post. Till then, I let J R R Tolkien do the talking:


Farewell he bade to his free people,
hearth and high-seat, and the hallowed places,
where long he had feasted ere the light faded.
Forth rode the king, fear behind him,
fate before him. Fealty kept he;
oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
- Riding of the Rohirrim, The Return of the King

Monday, 28 March 2016

Abandoned tweets

I waste a huge amount of time on a daily basis. Dozens of assignments may lie unattended and I will persist in the gloriously hedonistic pursuit of procrastination. What do I do? I don't watch any shows - I am yet to even watch Friends. I like John Oliver a lot but that's a weekly affair and I've exhausted all his previous episodes. I used to also do this:


For a very long time, all of this engulfed my life. Until I felt disillusioned by it and soon started blogging on that as well.

No, that's not what I am doing when I am wasting time these days. All I do is indulge in the remarkably prosaic habit of reading again only this time I am reading everything there is to read on the internet as well. I admit it's not even remotely a habit to mention out loud; we take many tabs opened with long reads to be a norm. But I protest. I am reading a lot...much beyond what should be healthy.

Beyond a point though you don't know what you should do with all the new found information. It's to be perfectly blunt and honest useless. It's not going to be absorbed in a very structured way and therefore you can't expertly quote it in a gathering of knowledgeable folks without getting stuck in the cross fire of counter questions.

So what I did was to pseudo-share it on twitter. What that means is I wrote the tweet draft and then looked at it for a day intermittently between whatever else I was doing. And then I generally decided it was not worth anyone else's time and ccp'ed it on a notepad.

The notepad is now several pages long and this is is me thinking "the heck I'll just put it up in one place". Faithful followers of this blog (you should be ashamed of yourselves!) would recall and snidely comment that this is just a rehash of an HWR. It might be but that was five articles in a week (actually a month). This, my friend, is something very different: it includes stand-alone thoughts as well.

*************

After a month of procrastination, I realized no one would read the links anyway; then again I had to publish something so this is what you are reading. I am sorry

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Must Reads 2015

Yes, folks it's that time of the year again. It's time for Must Reads 2015. Last year was a poor one as far as book reading is concerned. A couple of PhD courses, a conclave and a mad clutter of projects made sure I couldn't even cross the customary mark of 50.

I did manage to read some incredible books. Here they are. I hope you like them. As usual this is not a list of books launched in 2015 but a selection of the best ones I read last year.

1. Einstein's Dreams

Topping the list is Alan Lightman's delightfully intricate and intriguing work. I reproduce what I wrote in my personal diary after reading the book,

"Only today finished a fabulous book named Einstein's Dreams. It's about 150 pages long and if you're buying a book this year I'd place this at number one (will check my books read list once more though). It's essentially a work of fiction showing a young Einstein on the cusp of producing his papers on Special Relativity. While he struggles to overturn a several centuries of accepted scientific wisdom he lapses into visions or dreams. That's all you need to know. Trust me, you'll find the time to complete it."

2. Lucky Jim



Next up is some classic comedy. I've read my fair share of PGWs (actually I think I've read all of them) and Lucky Jim is as good as any of them. Starring Jim Dixon, a trenchant but incompetent lecturer, it also features the quintessential English fraud, the crook, and the drug addict before scandalously imputing a hapless love story in between. Must Read.

3. The Country of First Boys


Over the past decade or so, Prof Sen has graced our mortal world with rich expositions of his immense edifice of erudition. Among all other such books post 2000, including The Argumentative India, The Idea of Justice, Identity and Violence and An Uncertain Glory, this book must count as one of the most lucid of them all. The book is light and the essays are an excellent way to think about a lot that's going on in the country and the world.

4. Salt, Sugar and Fat

The best work in investigative journalism I read all year. Michael Moss explores the dark underbelly of the biggest food companies of the world. Read this and you'll realize that the can of soda or even the bowl of cereals you're having is probably doing you much more harm than good. The whole thing is backed by a wicked mix of science (sugar has been investigated as thoroughly as any drug or chemical) and marketing (so that you'd stop claiming that the "ads never affect me").

5. Logicomix

It's a brilliant account of the travails of Bertrand Russell through childhood and then the ultimate quest to find the foundations of mathematics. It's a solid story of Russell's life, his obsessive fear of madness and how he met the likes of Cantor, Godel, Hilbert and Poincare. Comp Science buffs will also be interested to know the book is co-authored by Papadimitriou (co-author of a brilliant book on Algorithms).

Let's stop here. In a few months I'll say farewell to Ahmedabad. The next Must Reads will be written (I guess) in a very different milieu. Fare thee well!

P.S.: So what was the best book you read last year? Do share in the comments section

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The End of Quizzing as I Know It

Last day of Chaos brought to completion what was probably the last General Quiz I would sit through in a long while. A journey that started by Lalitray Ma'am's kind push into an inter-school contest took me across the length and breadth of the country - literally, metaphorically and figuratively. Nihilanth brought me to A, C and L before I even thought about completing an MBA (I still have no idea why I'm doing it to be honest). I went to tier-IV towns hunting for moolah. I made great friends on the way - many of them much younger or older than me. All this brought laurels and prestige. I've had the privilege of winning in every quizzing arena I've ever attended. I've also had many memories as an audience member enjoying the questions yet all the while suppressing the dull pain and torment of not qualifying.

So it's extremely jarring to imagine a life without this beautiful endeavour. This sport of mental endurance and undemocratic superiority. I don't know where I am going but I do know that nothing will match the happiness and exuberance of winning 500 rupees by tentatively working out a few answers and pouncing on them with your tongue between your teeth. Collegiate quizzing can never return.

Sure, there'll be a bunch of business quizzes soon and I can imagine some tournaments are still to be hosted by other campuses in Ahmedabad. But frankly the overpowering sense of an ending is undeniable.

Nihilanth (I apologize to the reader for my incoherence and the return to this particular event) took me exclusively to the IIM campuses - A, B, C, I and L. In my last appearance in the holy tournament I was on stage more times than ever before in the past. Not winning this time hurt but more than that I am overcome by the mischievous and, I fear, slowly soul-possessing prospect of coming back as a PhD student. It's only fair...

We won the General Quiz today. It feels great to sign off with a win. There were questions I should have answered (Rhodes island, stent and what not) but I guess I have to let it pass.

I won 3166.66 INR in Chaos this year (my personal stash after the customary division process). Money may never have as much value as with this little loot.

Till we meet again. Thank you for everything