Imagine you are the captain of a 47 foot sail-boat that has just been swallowed whole by a roiling cauldron of waves. Escaping the sinking boat by the skin of your teeth, you and your two man crew barely manage to haul yourselves into a torn raft that just about manages to stay afloat. Howling monster waves that reach an incredible eighty feet buffet the raft, slamming into them with a force hitherto unseen and toss the survivors around like ragged dolls. Just when you have spent your strength righting the boat for a third time, the dreaded signs of hypothermia begin to set in. Before even getting into the raft, you have broken ten ribs after getting rammed into and by various moveable objects in the ship’s cockpit only moments before the damn thing sunk like a stone. If this whole scenario reads like something straight out of an apocalyptic playbook, then brace yourself. This was exactly what was experienced by the crew of Sean Seamour II when three intrepid sailors attempted a transatlantic crossing and were pitchforked into a storm of indescribable proportions just off the Gulf Stream. Their nightmare experience is captured in stunning detail by Michael J. Tougias in his rip roarer of a book, “A Storm Too Soon.”
In a brilliantly researched book, bestselling author Michael Tougias, narrates the hair raising and singularly terrifying experiences of Rudy Snel, Jean Pierre “JP” de Lutz, and Ben Frye in a manner that will have the reader shell shocked, poleaxed and stupefied. JP the intrepid captain of Sean Seamour II was no stranger to pain and trauma even before the Gulf Stream incident. Having a sadistic and abusive ogre for a father, he had a pot of boiling water poured over him when he was just ten years old. Making it look ‘accidental’, it was a devious strategy formulated by his father to ensure that his estranged wife and JP’s stepmother Betty gets back to him. The agonizing time spent in the burns ward in a hospital, after being in coma for three months, transformed the boy’s attitude to life. The sea became his succour, strength and savior. JP’s dream was to cross the Atlantic from Florida to France in the Sean Seamour II After a careful distillation of candidates, JP hits upon Rudy Snel, and Ben Frye as his designated crew members. The plan is simple, to sail in May, beating the onset of the hurricane season. The sailing path would be northeast toward Bermuda before turning due east toward Europe.
The fate of the voyagers being toyed around by the punishing waves now solely rests on a US Coast Guard crew manning a HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter. Pilots Nevada Smith and Aaron Nelson, Officer Scott Higgins and rescue diver ATS2 Drew Dazzo wage a battle against time and put their own lives and limbs at risk in what can be termed an audacious, if not an impossible rescue. Tougias describes in a fast, spine chilling and goose bumps inducing manner the sequence of rescue, the near misses and ultimate triumph. The hairs at the nape of the neck bristle with trepidation and excitement as the reader is also immersed into the mountainous waves, wreaking carnage. Every mouthful of sea water swallowed by the trio in the raft and the rescue diver induces a gasp in the reader and every successful rescue, makes her applaud, hoot, holler and whistle.
Interested readers can read the action summary of the US Coast Guard here and also the not so faint hearted can see a You Tube clipping of the actual rescue here.
“A Storm Too Soon”, a riveting, arresting and deserving homage to valour, optimism, camaraderie and the innate human attribute of selflessness!
Imaginatively titling his book based on a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – the reason for which would become obvious to the reader as she reads through – is not the only clever take pulled off by author Jeff High in his first novel forming part of the Watervalley series. A humorous, heartwarming and highly readable endeavour, “More Things in Heaven and Earth”, is a joyous exercise in celebrating humanity. A medical degree from Vanderbilt University, two hundred thousand dollars in debt, and an exasperation over frequently living off peanut butter and jelly, more or less combine to influence young Dr. Luke Bradford’s decision to turn down enticing research offers and opt to set up a practice in the quaint and verdant town of Watervalley instead. Dr. Bradford’s entry into Watervalley is transformed, literally, into a unique combination of hilarity and embarrassment, as a necessary bout of incredulous calisthenics, while driving his beat up Corolla results in his getting out of the car, to greet the town’s mayor, in his underpants. When to add insult to injury, Dr. Bradford almost succeeds in setting alight his kitchen in a neat apartment on 205 Fleming Street, his choice of a career destination seems, putting it mildly, inauspicious.
How Dr. Luke Bradford adapts to a small town life and how he gets to grips with the incredible complexities and simmering undercurrents that symbolize the living and working of the inhabitants of Watervalley makes for some engrossing and enthralling reading. The myriad cast of characters, ranging from the irascible to the ingenious, leave the young and unsuspecting doctor in a whorl of conflicting emotions and contrasting opinions. Guiding him through this maze of human paradoxes, is his stentorian and no-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Connie Thompson. A stickler for discipline and with a middle name for punctuality and hygiene, Mrs. Thompson is also a remarkable cook churning out unbelievably delectable stuff for the Doctor. She also doubles up as his friend, philosopher, confidante and guide handholding him through his triumphs and travails.
Dr. Bradford’s trysts with the townspeople of Watervalley is at the core of Mr. High’s book, and makes for some highly exciting reading. The reclusive John Harris who has blockaded himself out of the town to lead an isolated existence amidst the hills turns out to be not just a connoisseur of good Scotch Whiskey but also a man of multidimensional abilities, who for some unfathomable reason just does not seem to have any lost love for his fellow ‘Watervalleyians’. Then there is the mysterious Toy Anders whose imposing physique hides within a cascade of emotions and untold stories. The doctor’s immediate neighbour, is a bewildering eleven year old Will Fox who seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time not just wearing a bicycle helmet but also perched atop a tree – with the helmet on. Watervalley also induces in Dr. Bradford the stirrings of love and pangs of passion. The bewitchingly beautiful Ms. Christine Chambers is the reason for such an emotion. Instantly falling in love with the dainty damsel, Dr. Bradford realises, much to his chagrin, that she is a tough nut to crack. The doctor would need to bring his best abilities to the table if he was to wing this particular challenge.
“More Things in Heaven and Earth” is a light, crisp and enjoyable book that makes one wish she was a companion to Dr. Bradford in his wonderful experience at Watervalley. Therein lies the victory of Jeff High himself!
Volume 2 in the series takes off from where Volume 1 pauses. The first installment in the series laid significant emphasis on the concepts of ‘Stitha-prajna’ (contended, calm and firm in judgment and wisdom), and ‘Stitha-dhi’ (an intellect that is firm, calm and unmoved). As Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha delectably illustrates, once the state of Stitha-dhi is attained, the beneficiary neither resents nor grumbles about the latent and paradoxical interactions with the world. The ‘Dvandvas’ (“opposites”) are met with an imperturbable equanimity. This is the ‘end state’ which each true and sincere ‘seeker’ must strive to attain.
Volume 2 further dwells into the means of attaining the state of Stitha-dhi. Chapters III & IV of the Bhagavadgita underpin such precepts. In a few stirring, strong and seraphic passages, Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha leaves his readers in no doubt that the only path of refuge for the seeker lies in a ‘Wise Teacher.’ This is the preceptor who is the Knower himself. A fount of ‘Brahmavidya’ (a branch of scriptural knowledge derived primarily through a study of the divine), the ‘Guru’ is an unassailable, unshakeable and unwavering rock which lends succor to a true seeker guiding him through the illusory mores of euphoria and anguish; ecstasy and grief; pure and impure; and good and evil. The talismanic influence of a teacher is encapsulated by a horripilation inducing verse from the Bhagavadgita:
“tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah”
(“To know that – Go to a Knower – the Seer of Truth; prostrate before him, inquire from him with humility, and serve him fondly with all attention. The Knower of Truth will then instruct that Supreme Knowledge to you.”)
As the Swamiji informs his readers, Arjuna’s quest for enlightenment does not end the moment Krishna completes his discourse on the Gita. This is just a temporal respite for the valorous archer to take up his powerful bow, and meet his formidable adversaries arrayed before him. The deeply entrenched attachment for a grandfather, the bonds tying him with his teacher and the blood that courses through the veins of his opposing cousins, all represent illusions that need to be rend asunder if Arjuna needs to perform the true duties of a ‘karma yogi’ (person who does good to the whole world, loves the whole world and all its beings selflessly). However, this does not mean that once the Kurukshetra war is done and dusted, Arjuna will be enlightened for life. He still needs to make the ultimate transition from being a karma-yogi to a ‘Jnana-yogi’ (one who has attained the path of Wisdom and intellect). “‘Atma-jnana’ (Spiritual Knowledge) is unique in every way. There is no parallel to its power and potential. Krishna highlights how it destroys sin, however huge the stock of the sin maybe.”
Another arresting bit of information imparted by the book is the myth busting revelation surrounding the misapprehension, misinformation, misjudgement, and misapplication that has at its edifice the ‘Varna’ (type, order, colour or class) philosophy first found in the ‘Manusmrithi.’ (an ancient legal text among the many Dharmaśāstras of Hinduism). The Varna system organised society into four classes:
Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers;
Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators;
Vaishyas: agriculturalists and merchants; and
Shudras: laborers and service providers
This classification has generated immense controversies and has been equated to the nefarious and insidious evil of “casteism” in many scholarly treatises. Of course, the asinine behaviour of a few imbeciles has only gone to stoke and add fuel to an already burning fire. However, as the Swamiji illustrates, the primordial objective behind the orderly categorization was never to belittle any particular caste or to demean any particular creed. “The soul in the body is the same for all, and the distance to It is also the same. Nature governs only the activities of a person. It does not interfere with his innate divinity, thereby brining any special discredit or disadvantage. This is a point seekers and students should unfailingly understand, if they are to be true to the teachings of Bhagavadgita.”
The Swamiji also expounds that the infantile notion of casteism was a colonial deceit, birthed solely to foster the deadly “Divide and Rule” philosophy that constituted the very métier of the British Raj. Reaching its apogee towards any census, innumerable castes were fabricated by the British and foisted upon a gullible section of the public. All with the principle of violating the tenets of unity and festering an environment of sustained instability. A classic ploy of the ruler to be exercised over the ruled.
The Swamiji also warns the reader not to get entangled in or enamoured by the allure of the ‘rewards’ promised by the Vedas either during the earthly existence or in the heavenly life after one sheds the mortal coil. These rewards are a direct concomitant of convoluted and complex rituals. However, the motive and the motivation for and towards realization is restricted only to those moments during which the Performer of the rituals immersed in his ritualistic deeds concentrates on his doing. Once the elaborate rituals are completed, it is back to the mundane nuances of the world. This rituals-to-rat race-to-the-rituals phenomenon does not lead Man anywhere. Instead as the Swamiji exhorts, the act of ‘seeking’ must be sustained, inherent, innate, and sublimated within the innermost recesses of the mind, body and intellect. This Upanisdhadic expostulation should never be missed by a true seeker.
As verse 1.2.12 of the ‘Mundakopanishad’ (an ancient Sanskrit Vedic text, embedded inside Atharva Veda), instructs:
“pariksya lokan karma-citan brahmano
nirvedam ayan nasty akrtah krtena
tadvijnanartham sa gurumevabhigacchet
samitpanith srotriyam brahmanistham”
(“Having analysed the enticing, but hollow ritualistic rewards and promises of the Vedas, and finding that the Causeless cannot be attained by causal means, the true seeker must grow utter indifference to all of them. He should then humbly approach the great Teacher who is an embodiment of the scriptures as well as the supreme Truth, carrying a bundle of faggots (expressing that he wants the firewood of his ignorance to be burnt by the fire of knowledge to be received from the Teacher)”)
“Essential Concepts in Bhagavadgita: Volume 2” – introspective, informed and inspiring.
The New York Times recently attempted to engage its readers in an invigorating intellectual deliberation and discourse that had at its epicenter, the history of slavery in the United States and its continuing impact on the societal fabric. This initiative was named Project 1619, after first slave ship’s arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. However, as Phillip W. Magness, a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research explains in his short work, “The 1619 Project, A Critique”, many essayists ‘appropriated’ this opportunity to link slavery with notions such as progressive activism and many other similar ‘causes’, and in the process diluting the very purpose of the original initiative. In fact, some of the essayists, as Magness illustrates, equated slavery with capitalism and free market principles and vehemently postulated that modern capitalism embedded within its confines the taint of slavery.
A classic example was an essay penned by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond. Railing against the ‘horrors’ of the plantation system, he argued that modern capitalism was still accompanied by the apparitions of the slave economy. The brilliant and erudite journalist and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates also seems to have towed the Project 1619 line when in a congressional hearing on reparations, he expounded – stunningly – that, by 1836, more than $600 million worth of economic activity in the United States was the direct or indirect outcome of the cotton produced, courtesy a million odd slaves. For the unsuspecting, this whopping number was representative of more than half of the economic activity in the nation!
The inspiration for both Desmond and Coates was a book imaginatively titled “The Half Has Never Been Told” penned by Cornell Historian Ed Baptist. While Baptist himself initially opined that the total value of economic activity that derived from cotton production, was around $77 million, comprising, approximately, 5 percent of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, he then, “proceeded to double and even triple count intermediate transactions involved in cotton production—things like land purchases for plantations, tools used for cotton production, transportation, insurance, and credit instruments used in each. Eventually that $77 million became $600 million in Baptist’s accounting, or almost half of the entire antebellum economy of the United States.” As Magness informs his readers, economists, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode came up with a scathing rebuke of Baptist’s work, emphatically and empirically demonstrating that “cotton-picking yields tended to follow daily variations across the crop season, not Baptist’s posited use of a torture-enforced quota system. In addition to his faulty GDP statistics, they showed that Baptist severely overstated the amount of wealth tied up in slavery.”
Mr. Magness reserves his harshest criticism for the school of thought that goes by the moniker, New History of Capitalism (“NHC”). Terming it an anti-capitalist clique which neither brooks alternative thoughts and opinions nor encourages dissent, he posits that NHC is an embodiment of insularity. According to Magness, the output churned out by the NHC is an unfortunate amalgam of “shoddy economic analysis”, and “documented misuse of historical evidence.” The NHC also seems to adopt peculiar methodologies when it comes to addressing dissent. The two alternatives that form the twin arrows in its quiver are personal attacks and brazen cold shouldering. Noted critics and historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, and Sean Wilentz all found this out the hard way when upon attempting to fact check and convey their concerns to the NHC, they were met with a combination of personal diatribes and strategic neglect. The proponents of this school also dismiss their critics as being “old white males.” The exquisite irony here being, by contrast, the only black voices that find amplification in the piece by Matthew Desmond belong to those who are long gone scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois. This prompts Magness to conclude that the NHC itself suffers from a “whiteness” problem.
Magness opines that by positing theories about the American revolution being a cause against British emancipation, and thus a struggle for the preservation of slavery, and complementing this seemingly ludicrous proposition with yet another one that encourages the logic that capitalism and free market principles are symbolisms for slavery, the NHC is shooting itself firmly in its foot. A fundamental research into the antebellum economy would reveal the fact that pro-slavery proponents were rabidly anti-capitalists who detested the functioning of free markets. George Fitzhugh, one of the most renowned, if not the most renowned pro-slavery advocate, thundered in one fiery speech that “the South must “throw Adam Smith, Say, Ricardo & Co., in the fire.” His book “Sociology for the South”, first published in 1854, emphatically and unashamedly states, “Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.”
Magness alleges that the NHC is thus a novel historiographical body of scholars that is comfortably ensconced in its personal echo chamber, perpetuating and self-perpetuating views that find endorsement and approval from the inmates resident within such a cloistered echo chamber. This echo chamber “misrepresent(s) or completely neglect(s) scholarly works from outside of that echo chamber, and recklessly dismisses their critics on account of a racial demography that has an even more pronounced presence in their own ranks. Furthermore, in doing so, they (the NHC) lay mistaken claim to a competing black radical historiographic tradition, essentially botching its most famous arguments in the process through a careless and politicized reading.”
Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, and author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863” and “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies” was approached by the New York Times editor prior to the publication of the essay that inter alia asserted, “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.” Being an expert in the subject of African American life and slavery, Ms. Harris was asked to verify the facts as contained within the essay. She vehemently disputed the aforementioned sentence and reiterated that notwithstanding the fact that slavery was definitely a key factor in the American Revolution, its preservation was NOT one of the primary reasons the 13 colonies waged war. Despite such authoritative and informed advice from the historian, the Times went ahead with the twisted statement. A reluctant “update”, and not an errata was published much later, amending the original offending passage to clarify that slavery was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”
Till such time the NHC “mends” its ways, and nurtures an environment of informed deliberation and decent dissent, the voices of criticism are not going to abate.
Simple, succinct and serendipitous, “Essential Concepts in Bhagavadgita: Volume 1” by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha is an indispensable guide to the ‘seeker’ and the skeptic alike. The most striking and refreshing aspect of this book is the element of simplicity. This unmissable component is further embellished by the exhortation of practicality, thereby rendering both the attributes inextricable and symbiotic handmaidens of each other. As the wise and learned soul himself recounts in a revealing paragraph, “even today, the widespread appeal and influence of Bhagavadgita is because it is not related to rituals and ceremonies. The message of the Bhagavadgita is more to the non-religious people, although it is immensely important for the religious people too.” This particular notion finds significant resonance with persons such as yours truly who by way of a confession, is an agnostic by preference.
Volume 1 confines itself to an informed dissection of the most quintessential precepts as embedded within Chapters I & II of the immortal epic. As the preface itself admits, this series is not meant to be an extensive and exhaustive commentary on the indelible classic. It is instead, an informed distillation of the key tenets from each of the Chapters constituting the timeless book, considered to be the holiest of holies by many following the Hindu philosophy and Vedantic tradition. Hence the concentration in the first installment in the series is on the eclectic attributes of Visada (grief) Yoga, Sankhya (introspection) Yoga and Karma (“duty”) Yoga.
As Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha eruditely elucidates, intense grief can be the portal for immense knowledge and introspection. No sentient being in general, and man in particular, is immune to the assault of grief. But Enlightened souls are few, who dwell deep into the nature of the anguish assailing them, thereby freeing themselves from the human bondage. It was a racking grief that led to the promulgation of the Bhagavadgita itself. The archer par excellence and the Pandava Prince Arjuna, in a bout of unconstrained ego, demands his charioteer, Sri Krishna, to position his chariot in between the arrayed ranks of the opposing forces in the righteous battlefield of Kurukshetra. His ego is blown to smithereens and his fabled bow, Gandiva, slips from his sturdy arms as he sees, in radiant assembly before his eyes, the visage of his preceptor Drona, the imposing figure of his regal grandfather Bheeshma, and the forms of a hundred other brothers, cousins and relations. The concentrated Visada tormenting Arjuna leads to Krishna expounding Gita, a fount of knowledge that releases him from his predicament.
Krishna enlightens the aggrieved warrior on the need for maintaining equanimity when faced by contrast and contradictions. The opposing Dvandvas (pairs) of Sukha (joy) and Dukha (sorrows) irrigating the mind need to be treated with Samyata (equanimity). Getting unduly excited by joy and getting exasperated over sorrows prevents the seeker from attaining his ultimate goal of finding the Self or the consciousness within. “All experiences must be viewed as the Self’s alone. Experiences may differ but all are in, from and of the same Self. The Self need not be specially sought in any particular experience. In fact, it is present in, and through all. All objects and perceptions have only two resultants to evoke in the mind: Sukha and Dukha. Both are equally the Self.”
The examples offered in the book are easy to comprehend and the takeaways, extremely practical and amenable to implement. A personal favourite being the elucidation of the principles of Karma Yoga. Dispelling a well-entrenched dogma that declares that only a Seeker who ruminates and introspects ceaselessly would reach his Goals, Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha annihilates the notion that the path of Yoga (not in its formal, physical sense) is the sole preserve of the ascetic or a mendicant. “The karma-yogin differs from all other performers of actions in so far as his mind and intelligence are able to feel and understand a transcendental relevance and purpose behind each and everything he does…The wisdom about karma-yoga gained by the intelligence, and its relentless application while doing any karma whatsoever, is what distinguishes the karma-yogin from all other performers.”
This finds direct and empirical representation in one of greatest studies conducted by the Hungarian-American scientist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi, and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago interviewed thousands of individuals from myriad walks of life. Women from Korea, adults in Thailand and India, teenagers in Tokyo, shepherds in Navajo, assembly line workers in Chicago and farmers in the Italian Alps constituted some of the subjects of this extraordinary study. What the researchers found was astounding. All those who were interviewed reiterated that they experienced a theory of ‘optimal experience’ based on the concept of “flow” – “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” True Karma Yogis of the likes articulated by Lord Krishna!
Bereft of jargons, abhorring esoteric philosophical musings and abjuring complex deliberations, Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha does yeoman service to his readers by holding forth, in an extraordinarily simple manner, on one of the greatest contributions in empowering cause of humanity.
A raw, visceral and no holds barred account of the horrors of the Vietnam Var, “Proud Bastards” is a ‘grunt’s perspective’ of the macabre dance of death played out within some of the densest foliage that the Planet has to offer. The mutual mayhem and massacre wreaked upon by the NVA and their opposing American soldiers neither had any precedence nor has – thankfully – boasted any successors. Goaded by the allure of becoming a Marine and a patriot, Michael Helms presents himself as a nervous recruit at the Parris Island Boot Camp. What follows is an ordeal that is downright unendurable. Finding himself under a Drill Sergeant whose USP is an expletive laden abusive tongue and whose inveterate hobby is a sadism towards subjecting the hapless recruits to a killing regimen of punishment exercises, Helms cannot wait for graduation day.
From training it is straight into the trenches, but not before a fleeting trip to California where the new graduates try to wing dainty damsels before puking their alcohol laced guts out. Helms – a Purple Heart Medal awardee, in addition to the Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry – recollects his nightmare experiences, both physical and mental, in the jungles of Vietnam, with not a trace of mellowness or discretion. No punches are pulled back as he recounts some absolutely damnable days. If he is not in the middle of a murderous combat where ‘gooks’ are getting the intestines carved out and heads blow away, he is “getting the shits and blowing his asshole out of orbit.” Expletives permeate every page of the short book as Helms gives complete and unfettered vent to his emotions.
“Proud Bastards” is where a Jack Kerouac-meets-Charles Bukowski rendition without the alcohol, or rather with an extraordinarily minuscule dosage of it. The ravages of the war on the human psyche and physiology is captured in an unbelievably emotional passage in the book. Spotting a sandbagged tent with a two foot long mirror balanced on a supporting pole, PFC Helms decides to have a look at himself in the mirror. The reflection staring back at him just poleaxes the young lad. “Jesus H. Christ! Who is this bedraggled looking bastard? Can’t be me. But it is. Dirty, sallowy skin. Sunken eyes that seem to look beyond the reflection and focus nowhere. Grimy cracks and crevices, overgrown with adolescent peach fuzz, like some farmer’s unkempt field. My skin bristles, my stomach knots, and I almost recoil at the ogre staring back at me…Jesus, what’s happened to me? What have I become….?”
Mr. Helms also cultivates some memorable friendships along the way and when friends get killed in combat the loss is an irreplaceable vacuum. When Mr. Helms himself gets seriously shot up and is convalescing in the hospital after multiple surgeries and unbelievably painful physiotherapies, he gets to lay his hands on an obituary listing. Pushing aside all his gut instincts, he traverses through the names hoping against hope not to see the name of best every buddy. But when the dreaded alphabet arrives…….
“Proud Bastards” is both a testimony to the courage and valour of hundreds of thousands of young lives unwittingly and inexplicably hurled into a mindless war, and a direct indictment of the blind sightedness of both politicians and policy makers who are oblivious to the futility of armed conflicts.
However, the one glaring and inexcusable element of the book is the insight provided into patriarchy and male chauvinism that was taken for granted in the earlier decades. When Mr. Helms and his mate invade a bar and the latter engages in a flirtatious conversation with the barmaid, Mr. Helms wonders as to what was that his pal saw in the ‘pig.’ “Come on, asshole, must be ten million broads in Southern California that look better than this porker. We’ve only got three days before we have to report to Camp Pendleton, and you’re trying to bang a boar. Headline: Bulldog Boom-Booms Bacon!” I wonder whether such a reprehensible and unpardonable employ of language to refer to any member of the fairer sex would pass by any publishing agency today.
Knitted together as part of a PhD research project on Indian Nanoscience & Technology, Pankaj Sekhsaria’s “Nanoscale” is a revealing homage to a conflation of an unquenchable thirst for innovation and a powerful technology whose minuscule scale belies its gargantuan impact. Mr. Sekhsaria, an Associate Professor in the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, has done yeoman service to bring to the fore the importance of lab ethnography and embellished – deservedly – the outcomes which laboratory research has on the positive prospects for an economy. Building on his stellar work, his foray takes him to the esoteric portals of four niche laboratories in India, each of which is involved in experimenting with a product or a process. The potential for nanotechnology in diverse fields is immense, inevitable and incredible. Take healthcare for instance. As Mr. Raj Kumar, Mr. Keshaw Ram Aadil, Mr. Shivendu Ranjan, and Mr. Vijay Bhooshan Kumar reveal in their paper titled, “Advances in nanotechnology and nanomaterials based strategies for neural tissue engineering”, various kinds of nanomaterials-based engineering approaches have been developed and are under investigation to prevent or treat nerve injuries. “Inorganic nanomaterials such as metal, alloys, silica, magnetic, up conversion nanoparticles and quantum dots; and organic nanomaterials such as polymeric nanoparticles, nanofibers, carbon-based nanomaterials namely carbon nanotubes and graphene, liposomes, micelles and dendrimers. These are promising nanomaterials with suitable physicochemical properties and hence employed for neural tissue engineering applications.” Hence Mr. Sekhsaria’s remarkable and nuanced descriptions of the institutions that he visits and the cutting-edge research that is carried out within their cluttered bowels, does not come as a surprise.
First stop, Savitribai Phule Pune University, and the untidy laboratory of the unassuming Prof. C.V. Dharmadhikari, whose indefatigable and intrepid research team, succeeded in building a microscope at the cutting edge of Nano Science & Technology (“NS &T). The Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), as Mr. Sekhsaria informs his readers, is a machine of extraordinary value. The ultimate testimony of its worth was demonstrated when one half of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to its makers, Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binning of the IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich. The allure of the STM which allows scientists to create images at the nanoscale was not lost on Mr. Dharmadhikari. Within the limitations of a modest laboratory that was the very epitome of disorder, the Scientist and his team began work on the STM. According them company was an eclectic paraphernalia that inter alia comprised of furniture, “computers, bookshelves, cupboards and tables, cutting pliers, screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, small boxes of plastic and aluminium, double-sided tape, glue sticks, scraps of paper, sheets of paper, files, books, pens, pencils, circuit boards, streams of wires running from here to there and, of course, a series of big and small instruments.”
If the laboratory was eclectic, then the materials employed by the project team to come up with the end product was singularly peculiar. As Mr. Sekhsaria robustly illustrates, this is where the inimitably Indian concept of “Jugaad” comes into the picture. A concatenation between ingenuity, practicality and everything in between, the vernacular word signifies a remarkable ability to make good with the available resources, yet not compromising on quality. Some of the tools employed to make the STM dream come true were – hold your breath – abandoned refrigerators, stepper motors procured from junked computers, tubes from car tyres, bungee cords, viton rubber tubing, weights from the grocers’ shop, aluminium vessels generally used in the kitchen, a tuning fork from inside a wrist-watch condenser and bobbins from sewing machines.
However, the glory of such an indigenous achievement is nullified in an unfortunate manner when post retirement of Mr. Dharmadhikari, the laboratories are occupied by other teams and the instruments so painstakingly manufactured, carted away to be either dumped as scrap heap or to be sold. This as Mr. Sekhsaria poignantly illustrates is the gap between the entrepreneur and the technologist where invention is not necessarily translated into commercialization.
Mr. Sekhsaria’s second port of call is the hallowed portals of the Centre for Nanobioscience. This centre is one of the constituents of the Microbial Sciences Division at the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune. This multifaceted institute occupies itself in conducting cutting edge NS&T Research by adopting a multi-disciplinary, integrated and multi-faceted approach. The cocktail of research involved in the Institute encompasses, among others, Ayurveda, biomimetics, nanomedicine, microfabrication, and nanotechnology in agriculture and environment. As Mr. Sekhsaria informs his readers, the output leaving the boundaries of this University is admirable for its quality and use. For example the innovation paraphernalia churned out by the Centre include, “‘development of eco-friendly methods of synthesizing metal and semiconductor metal sulfide nanoparticles using yeasts’, the ‘development of nanocrystalline silver gel for the treatment of burns and wounds’, development of ‘a method and kit for rapid recovery, identification and antimicrobial susceptibility of microorganisms’ and the ‘μSpore® DNA preservation technology’”
But the research that captures the imagination and inclination of Mr. Sekhsaria involves a confluence of Ayurveda and nanotechnology. Jasada Bhasma, an Ayurvedic preparation made up of sub-micronic particles, predominantly of zinc oxide, is commonly consumed by thousands of patients across the country as an anti-diabetic medicine. In the Centre for Nanobioscience, researcher Rinku Umrani prepares the Ayurvedic medicine in its most traditional manner before validating and corroborating its efficacy by resorting to the more conventional and advanced techniques of nano technology. This makes it the first scientifically validated study proving the anti-diabetic properties of jasada bhasma and also that the preparation was free of heavy metals and safe for use even at 100 times the efficacy dose.
Mr. Sekhsaria thus demonstrates that there is immense scope for co-operation and appropriation transcending disciplines that prima facie seem to be tangentially opposite and diametrically different. All it requires is the appropriate bent of mind that facilitates a reciprocal acknowledgment and acceptance of ideas, concepts and methods.
The third illustration in Mr. Sekhsaria’s engaging and engrossing book, is unfortunately a case of what could have been. The International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials (ARCI), Hyderabad, plays home to an experiment which while initially exhibiting extraordinary promise, ultimately fizzled away into avoidable obscurity. ARCI is part of 24 institutions located across the country under the umbrella of the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST). “Four of these are specialized knowledge institutions, five are professional bodies and 15 are research institutions that conduct research on topics as diverse as microbiology, soft matter, nanoscience and technology, paleobotany, geology and astronomy and astrophysics.”
With a view to obviating the insidious impact triggered by contaminated drinking water, ARCI, developed ‘nanosilver incorporated ceramic candles for drinking water disinfection’ and positioned this as a low cost, point of use (PoU) water filtration device. It was made available in the market under the brand name ‘Puritech’ through an arrangement with a small Hyderabad-based entrepreneur. The technology offered safe drinking water at an additional cost of not more than Rs 250. As Mr. Sekhsaria elucidates in an articulate fashion, both elements and environment seemed to favour the ideation, inception and implementation of the technology. A “developing country, emerging nanotechnology, high-tech research, government scientific institutions, industrial participation, technology transfer, low cost, NGO facilitation, appropriate technology and bottom of the pyramid reach.” And yet, within four years since it was launched, the nano-enabled ceramic water filter was termed a dud and vanished into oblivion. G. Bharath Kumar, the Managing Director of SBP Aqua Tech Pvt. Ltd who optimistically manufactured and marketing the water filter had shut down the plant manufacturing Puritech and dumped all the implements and equipment in a veritable heap.
This story portrays the expectation gap between an entrepreneur and the technologist. A failure to include both the entrepreneur and the user at the product conception stage itself created a chasm crossing which was a veritable impossibility for both the technologist as well as the entrepreneur. As Mr. Sekhsaria articulates, “one sees here what the sociologist of technology Wiebe Bijker has called interpretive flexibility in how different sections (he calls them relevant social groups) of society often relate to what otherwise looks like one single technological entity. The consumer was clearly not in the same frame as the technologist or the entrepreneur and the implications of this for the latter were evident and serious.”
The final experience of Mr. Sekhsaria is also the most emotional and heart wrenching amongst all. In India every year around 1,200 – 1,600 infants are diagnosed with retinoblastoma, which is a cancer of the eye. Modern technologies such, chemotherapy, external beam radiation therapy, cryotherapy, photocoagulation and thermotherapy, have all contributed significantly to improve the prospects of children suffering from retinoblastoma. However, this phalanx of technological options work only when the tumour is detected early. A delay in treatment would necessitate a removal of the impacted eye. As Dr, Javed Ali, of the LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, and Vikas Khetan, clinician at Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai illustrate, societal factors, stigma, entrenched dogmas and an archaic bent of mind all play a role in the delay and even discarding of treatment options. At the heart of the dilemma lies the neglected girl child. Parents of a little girl afflicted by retinoblastoma, prefer losing the patient over agreeing to remove the infected eye. The logic accorded being a one-eyed girl would be ‘non-marriageable’ material in the future and hence would constitute more of a liability or a burden than an asset. No wonder India has the second highest rate of female infanticide, lagging only behind Tonga. In such circumstances, as Mr. Sekhsaria learns, a medical practioner must don the mantle of a clinician-scientist-social-activist. Of what utility would be a technology that is too late to be employed? What advantages can be bestowed by a phalanx of sophisticated instruments and a sprawling infrastructure that offers expensive treatment free of cost to those who cannot afford it, when a medieval mindset does not even desire such benefits? Hence as Mr. Sekhsaria alludes, professionals such as Dr, Javed Ali and Vikas Khetan need to treat not just a solitary patient, but four different yet highly discernible ‘users’: “the helpless infant of today; the ‘to be married’ woman of tomorrow; the infant’s immediate family that decides on her behalf; and the eventual non-user, which is both the family and the individual with retinoblastoma.”
It is not that studies and research in the field of STS suffer from a dearth of funds. On the contrary. As Arindam Ghosh, of the Department of Physics in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Yamuna Krishnan, National Centre for Biological Studies set out in a paper published under the aegis of the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) observe, “The NanoScience and Technology Initiative” started with a funding of Rs. 60 crores. In 2007, the government launched a 5-year program called Nano Mission with wider objectives and larger funding of USD 250 million. The funding spanned multiple areas like basic research in nanotechnology, human resources development, infrastructure development and international collaboration. Multiple institutions like Department on Information Technology, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Department of Biotechnology provided the funding to researchers, scholars and projects. National Centers for Nanofabrication and Nanoelectronics were started in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.”
The issue, as Mr. Sekhsaria eruditely identifies is in creating the requisite ecosystem that recognizes the importance of “instrument development” and imbibing such an ecosystem with all the necessary incentives.
“Nanoscale” is a stirring chronicle of intentions that are noble, but an implementation that is woeful. As Mr. Sekhsaria illustrates, India is brimming with intellectual capital. We as a nation, are spoilt for choice when it comes to innovation and ingenuity. However, a confluence of ingrained vices seem to be holding us back from achieving our true potential. An aversion to collaborate, a Byzantine bureaucracy that values processes and policies over promising outcomes, a Neanderthal mindset courtesy lack of education at the grassroots level all collude and contrive to put paid to many an aspiration and many a hope. Only a paradigm shift in collective thinking can overcome such seemingly insurmountable hindrances.
 Advances in nanotechnology and nanomaterials based strategies for neural tissue engineering – Raj Kumar, Keshaw Ram Aadil, Mr. Shivendu Ranjan, and Mr. Vijay Bhooshan Kumar, Journal of Drug Delivery Science and Technology, Volume 57, June 2020, 101617
Nobel Laureate William Golding and author of timeless classics such as “The Lord of the Flies”, once memorably stated this about women: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been. Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she’ll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she’ll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she’ll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she’ll give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her. So, if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit.” Tina Sequeira in her engrossing work “Bhumi” pays unabashed homage to Golding’s woman. A riveting bouquet of short stories, each one of which is a paean to womanhood, “Bhumi” evokes a cascading phalanx of contrasting emotions. Mirroring the protagonists themselves. Ms. Sequiera’s women are vulnerable yet victorious, prosaic yet profound, triumphant yet tortured and aspirational yet ambivalent. But ultimately each one of them is a monumental testimony to an unseen yet explicit collective progress of a gender as a whole.
“Bhumi” explodes with a very touching and wistful story titled “Amma.” The travails and tribulations of a father in bringing up his daughter as a single parent is mitigated by the encouraging yet unseen presence of his deceased wife Swati. Her confident personality and vision goads her husband on in his endeavour to ensure that his daughter Priya gets the upbringing that is necessary. When Priya acknowledges the efforts of her father in a scintillatingly innovative manner, her father realises that it is Swati who has ultimately prevailed.
While it would not do any justice to both the reader as well as the author to reveal the gist of every story, I would like to touch upon a couple of my favourites. “Grey” in my personal opinion is one of the best stories in the book. The quaint setting of Angamaly, a municipality and the northernmost suburb of the city of Kochi in Kerala, India forms the backdrop for this moving story that has at its core and crux an 87-year-old affable woman, fondly known as “Ammamma” (maternal grandmother in Malayalam). Exuding unblemished and pure love towards her family in general and grandchildren in particular, Ammamma is also a strict disciplinarian dealing with nonsense in a ruthless and remorseless fashion. As she battles the insidious disease that is cancer, she knows that she does not have time on her hands. It is imperative that she have a talk with her grandchildren. A talk that is in effect a portal to unearthing secrets hidden hitherto, and a realm that encompasses within, a personality hitherto unimagined.
“Mirror Mirror On the Wall” is not just Meena’s battle with misogyny, male chauvinism and repulsive patriarchy. The story illustrates the dangers faced by every woman at the hands of a bruised ego lying within the deadly recesses of a scorned or a jilted lover. When an ambitious – and duskily curvaceous – Meena decides to call it quits in her relationship with Sunil, her maniacally obsessed lover just cannot get it. First resorting to relentless coaxing, he switches over to nagging coercion. When even revenge porn does not work…
The brazen self-aggrandizement of Dr. Shikha Sharma in “Juxtaposition” is the wolf in sheep’s clothing in this fantastic collection. Ms. Sequeira cleverly explores the darker sides and selfish shades that pervades through the fabric of human emotion. A highflier in her chosen field of expertise, Dr. Sharma deftly manipulates people and emotions like a master puppeteer manipulating strings. Everything that she contrives has at its end, the advancement of her prosperity and purpose.
At a time when the whole of India is yet to come to grips with the heinous, dastardly and unspeakable crime committed on a young woman in Hathras, the question of protecting, preserving and pursuing the dignity of a woman has assumed paramount importance. We seem to be steadfast in our obstinacy that despite a thousand Nirbhayas we will continue to proceed unheeded in a manner reprehensible and in a fashion deplorable. Ms. Sequiera’s book serves as a timely reminder to usher in not just a paradigm shift in mindset but a very revolution in our thoughts, actions and deeds towards a woman and her self-respect, self-esteem and dignity.
Art and technology critic Joanne McNeil’s debut work “Lurking” is a trenchant, topical and thoughtful verdict on the incredibly complex but almost symbiotic relationship between digital platforms and users. The adjective lurking, usually employed in a pejorative sense, is however used in an ingenious and original fashion by Ms. McNeil to conflate innocuous prying with insidious stalking or even usurpation. Such a usurpation is more likely than not, of intangible attributes such as dignity, privacy and opinion.
While paeans extolling the achievements of tech entrepreneurs compete with excoriating indictment of cut-throat Information Technology mercenaries for shelf space and eyeballs, there has been a surprisingly, and unfortunately negligible coverage dealing with that one important element in the entire digital/online transactional or consumption value chain – the passive user. Before Ms. McNeil’s book, that is. She hold forth on the now well recognized and accepted principle prevalent in internet communities, going by the moniker of the one percent rule. An alpha numeric euphemism for lurking, this rule expounds that only one percent of users in any given digital community create new content. The remaining 99 percent hover about apparition like (my analogy), clicking links, absorbing posts, and unwittingly volunteering to be the fodder driving the digital economy. It is this 99% that is the focus of Ms. McNeil’s engaging book.
But who is a ‘lurker’ in the esoteric and ephemeral online universe? A lurker is one whose involvement is not tantamount to participation. For example, I personally neither leave frequent comments on Facebook, not “like” posts. But I keep browsing through the variegated feeds appearing on my timeline. This makes me a ‘lurker.’ However, an inveterate gravitation towards Twitter to express my angst, anxiety and anger in 280 furious characters makes me an active participant. Blending together a tapestry of personal experience with interesting interviews, Ms. McNeil takes her readers through the early social networks, like Friendster, MySpace, and local BBSes (bulletin board systems), explaining how users of devolved their online identities. An identity brought about via a technological visibility that serves as “another tool of privacy—a way of controlling one’s image as others regarded it.” Ms. McNeil also highlights the unquenchable thirst for profits that has made the Big Tech commodify the user. The experience of a user is a contrived, artificial one dictated by the unseen workings of complex algorithms and powered by the insatiable greed of advertisers. Stoking fuel to an already brightly burning fire is the invidious impact of cyber ostracism and bullying that leads to undesirable consequences such as segregation and totalitarian outlook. “Google and Facebook… have taken over functions of a state without administering the benefits or protections of a state.” But this is not a recent phenomenon. As Ms. McNeil informs her readers, the once ubiquitous AOL, during their pioneering days, once ended up hosting a page for the Texas Ku Klux Klan. The ridiculous and febrile argument for such an act being the right to assemble as accorded by the first amendment.
Ms. McNeil reserves her choicest polemic for Facebook though. “Facebook shoehorns values into patterns, removes nuance, and presents it as ruled by a ‘fundamental mathematical law.’” As Ms. McNeil illustrates once a raw and not so suave Mark Zuckerberg famously termed people voluntarily handing over data to him as “dumb fucks.” Even though this irreverent remark was made when the concept of a social network was just a seed germinating in the founder’s mind, this did not prevent the global populace from willingly handing over both themselves and their data to this glorified Ivy league drop out. According to Ms. McNeil Facebook is a corporation of “data gluttony and shamelessness,” as well as “endless ethical quagmires.” The monolithic and leviathan status of Facebook was given a slight tickle when Ello an online social networking service created by Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger in March 2014 made a hopeful appearance. Created as an ad-free alternative to existing social networks, it was noble in its intent, but miserably and woefully short in its execution. As Ms. McNeil informs the reader about her personal experience with Ello, an attitude of misogynistic pugilism and patriarchy put paid to the hopes of this upstart, to dismantle the behemoth. At the time of this review, Ello has morphed into a poor man’s Pinterest exhibiting art, photography, fashion and web culture.
We have traversed a long, exciting and conflicting journey in so far as the internet is concerned. Our experience has ranged from the vaudevillian to the vapid. However, as Ms. McNeil illustrates in a poignant manner, it was always not like this. “The internet was never peaceful, never fair, never good,” says Ms. McNeil, “but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory.” ECHO, an acronym for “East Coast Hang Out” was one classic example of a benevolent version of the internet. The quintessential idea underlying the creation of echo was for users, most of whom lived in the New York City area, to meet one another. The group organised open-mic nights, softball games, and film screenings. An unseen celebrity was the young John F. Kennedy Jr. posting under an imaginatively titled username, “flash.” Echo founder Stacy Horn describes the platform’s essence in her invigorating and compelling memoir: “Everybody has a trace of an ache—some eternal disappointment, or longing, that is satisfied, at least for a minute each day, by a familiar group and by a place that will always be there.”
But as Ms. McNeil brilliantly demonstrates, internet in the current age only goes to exacerbate the ache that Ms. Horn refers to instead of acting as an ameliorating balm.