Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945 – Richard Overy

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Professor Richard Overy in this eye opener, details the gargantuan Soviet effort in amassing men and material, which on hindsight turned out to be the most colossal feat of World War II. From the very brink of humiliating defeat after being taken unawares of the German Blitzkrieg – courtesy Operation Barbarossa – to hoisting the Communist Flag at the Reich stag in Berlin, Russia overcame obstacles of every sort, both natural and man made; posed by friend and foe alike to emerge triumphant in some of the bloodiest battles of attrition. When the fighters and bombers finally stopped their savage sorties and the lumbering monstrous tanks ground to a halt, signaling the end of the greatest incursion of mankind into the depths of folly, the casualties suffered by Stalin’s countrymen were mind numbing. Out of a total mobilized manpower of 34,476,700, 11,444,100 were either dead or were captured as Prisoners Of War or were missing in action. The total number killed in action, or who perished on account of their injuries was 6,885,100. The death toll from 1941-1945 amounted to 8,668,400. An unspeakable price to pay for securing freedom.

Overy by concentrating on the physical as well as the psychological factors motivating the Russian War efforts provides various astounding insights which when read together, brings the reader to the startling and sickening realization that the Russian victory could have been achieved at a much lower loss of life, limb and livelihood. For example the atrocious ‘purges’ following the internal civil war in 1919, where a paranoid administration went about culling ‘suspected’ traitors from the officer corps – not before subjecting them to unspeakable bouts of torture with a view to forcing out ‘confessions’ – ensured that by the time Hitler mounted his rampaging attack on June 22, 1941, the Soviet army was in virtual disarray with a grievous lack of leadership capabilities. These abominable purges continued well into the war and even after the World War itself came to an excruciating end. Having a morbid fear of dying, the despotic Stalin not only had himself surrounded by the dreaded NKVD Security guards, but also had a phalanx of cronies and lackeys, who with an objective of scaling great heights of power, committed treachery and treason against their own brethren.

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(Operation Barbarossa. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Professor Overy also highlights the alarming situation of the Soviet ground and air troops itself at the height of the German invasion. Forced to fight behind feeble emplacements and substandard fortifications, the Russian soldier – or ‘Ivan’ as the Germans were wont to term him – was equipped with outdated rifles and inferior weaponry. Against the clockwork precision of the German army equipped with the dreaded Panzer tanks, these pitiful soldiers had only prayers as their best chance of survival. The Russian Air Force was in an even greater mess. Lacking radio communications and trained/experienced pilots, the Soviet air attacks were literally suicidal missions with their planes seeking to ram into the dreaded Luftwaffe when the former ran out of fuel!

From a position of dire disadvantage, the Soviet Union through a process of remarkable political, economic and military transformation, worked a veritable miracle by bringing forth a level of discipline and sophistication hitherto seen in any Armed forces. Even as Germany was bombing the living daylights out of Russian villages and cities, workers transported entire factories over railroads (or what remained of them) to isolated places in Kazakhstan and Siberia and embarked on a mass production initiative of military stockpile. However the most back breaking labour was extracted at an unfair cost. Most of the toil formed the exclusive preserve of the unfortunate prisoners sentenced to a long tenures at the ‘gulags’ or the despicable labour camps. Sleeping on straw beds or even at times, in holes carved out from earth, these prisoners were driven to work in appalling conditions. Braving temperatures of minus thirty degrees and minuscule food rations, hundreds of thousands of brave men and women literally worked themselves to death. By 1945 the Soviet Armed and Air forces boasted technological prowess that was equal to or in some cases even superior to those possessed by their enemy.

The top political echelons also underwent a positive paradigm shift in mindset. Stalin left the dynamics of strategy in the hands of extraordinarily brave and capable generals such as Georgy Zhukov (the hero of both Stalingrad and Leningrad); Vasily Ivanovic Chuikov, the indomitable general who was wounded four times (each time on the 20th of a month) and yet refused to back down an inch, and Konstantin Konstantinovic Rokossovsky. Even though Stalin insisted on being the ultimate Generalissimo, he rarely interfered in the carefully chalked out battle strategies formulated by his generals. This was in direct contrast to the workings of the sociopath Hitler, who insisted on micro managing every front, a disastrous decision which as psychotic as the man’s ambitions, and which ultimately led to the decimation of the Third Reich.

“Russia’s War” is an essential accompaniment for understanding not only the noble sacrifices made by millions of patriotic men and women who uncomplainingly charged the enemy and laid down their lives for their Motherland, but also to fathom the very depths of human blunders which have the capability of triggering a damning catastrophe! Russia’s War was indeed a consequence of a monumental catastrophe!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 18 ALPHABET R)

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti

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Carlo Ancelotti once said “Football is the most important of the less important things in the world”. However the exploits of the man both as a reliable midfielder and a formidable manager seem to indicate otherwise. Football has been the lifeblood of this Italian great. He has etched an indelible mark in the world of football as a manager of repute, resilience and most importantly – results. As the collection of trophies in his enviable cabinet would demonstrate, there are very few glories that have escape the clutches of this man from Parma. However the most unique thing about him is the way in which he goes about the business of winning. Unlike the expressive Jose Mourinho, or the unpredictable Louis Van Gaal, Ancelotti has a benign and placid approach towards both the game as well as the players. Carlo Ancelotti himself prefers to term this method “The Quiet Leadership”.

In this book, co authored with Mike Forde and Chris Brady, Ancelotti provides a valuable glimpse of the “Quiet Leadership”. Quiet here ought not to be mixed up with docile. As will be evident from a reading of his book, quiet also embodies an element of steel; a determined and uncompromising attitude that is backed up by an encouraging trait of beliefs. This is the kind of leadership that has players singing his paeans long after he has stopped managing them. Players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Alssandro Nesta; Paolo Maldini and David Beckham have contributed their view of Carlo Ancelotti in the book and they all seem to have only fond and blissful memories. The picture portrayed by them is that of a fatherly figure doing his every bit to further their prospects as footballers in general and leaders in particular.

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(Ancelotti celebrating the 2014 Champions League win with Real Madrid. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Ancelotti traces out some of his uncompromising belief sets in the book. A few of them that grab instant attention are respect for fellow footballers/team mates; aligned leadership and tactical leadership, a sense of belongingness and loyalty. Ancelotti also addresses the eccentricities of the various owners of clubs such as Roman Abramovic and Silvio Berlusconi, who not only demand instant results but also force the hand of the coach to instill in the club a sense of style that is dearest to them! The style of play has to be in alignment with the tastes of the owner! A contraction if ever there was one!

Although not a kiss-and-tell or a bare all fare, “Quiet Leadership” is part autobiographical, part technical and part management. Ancelotti proves that a good book on football need not contain tabloid stuff and that every page need not sizzle with sleaze and simmer with controversy involving alcohol and bribery. This book also serves as an inspiration to every young footballer and aspiring leader:

If the son of an ordinary farmer at Parma can elevate himself to such echelons through sheer hard work and perseverance, so can anyone!

“Quiet Leadership” – Conveys a loud and clear message.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 17 ALPHABET Q)

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable – Seth Godin

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All of us have been indoctrinated into absorbing the various ‘Ps’ of Marketing. In fact, as technology and trends have caught up, moved on, been rendered obsolete, before catching up again in an endless spiral, the number of ‘Ps’ in a marketer’s arsenal has only increased over time. Anyone possessing a basic degree would be able to reel out a majority of the P’s even when abruptly aroused from a slumber – Product, Price, Promotion, Positioning, Publicity…

Seth Godin, the founder and CEO of Squidoo and one of the world’s foremost business bloggers in his book “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable” postulates that every aspiring entrepreneur and marketer should never lose sight of an additional ‘P’ which can make or break a business. This ‘P’ (as many of the readers may have guessed by now) is the ‘Purple Cow.’ Purple Cow is in plain terms, a synonym for remarkable. Hence unless a business can offer something remarkable, there is very little which it can do by way of progress and potential. If this sounds extraordinarily obvious, it is the obvious that is invariably and incredulously ignored. The very essence of remarkability is explained in a remarkable fashion by Mr. Godin:

“When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring.

 They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still cows.

A Purple Cow though. Now that would be interesting. (For a while.)

The essence of the Purple Cow is that it must be remarkable.”

The essential need for and relevance of a Purple Cow is demonstrated by Mr. Godin as he urges us to take a quick visit to the drugstore. A search for aspirin turns up the following unbelievable array of choices: Advil, Aleve, Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief, Anacin, Ascriptin, Aspergum, Bayer, Bayer’s Children, Bayer’s Regimen, Bayer Women’s, BC, Bufferin, Cope, Ecotrin, Excedrin Extra Strength, Goody’s, Motrin, Nuprin, St Joseph, Tylenol and Vanquish“Imagine how much fun it must have been to be the first person to market aspirin. Here was a product that just about every person on earth needed and wanted. A product that was inexpensive, easy to try, and immediately beneficial.”

Thus, run-of-the-mill is passe. Mr. Godin asserts that we are living through revolutionary times where “the TV-industrial complex” phenomenon fails to deliver. This phenomenon represented, “the symbiotic relationship between consumer demand, TV advertising, and ever-growing companies that were built around investments in ever-increasing marketing expenditures.”  Mr. Godin believes that companies would do well to experiment with inviting their potential and existing customers to alter their behavior thereby making the company’s offerings work exponentially better instead of sticking with the tried tested and clichéd formula of tinkering with technology and expertise to tailor make ‘better’ products. A classic case in point: Otis Elevators“When you approach the elevators, you key in your floor on a centralized control panel. In return the panel tells you which elevator will take you to your floor. Otis has managed to turn every elevator into an express. Your elevator takes you immediately to the twelfth floor and races back to the lobby. This means that buildings can be taller, they need fewer elevators for a given number of people, the wait is shorter, and the building can use precious space for people, not for elevators.”

So how does one go about being remarkable? One of the suggested means is by resorting to specialized, targeted or niche marketing. Instead of trying to – and futilely so – impressing an entire market, a company ought to strategically appeal to a small percentage of “Early Adopters”. These are the mavericks, heretics, lateral thinking ‘nuts’ possessing the necessary wherewithal to not only experiment and evaluate a future “Purple Cow” but also disseminate its utility across the market. If impressed the Early Adopters may well be the vehicles of “free advertising” (Mr. Godin calls them sneezers) for the brand: this act will in turn influence the major constituents of the market (“Early and Late Majority”).

Mr. Godin draws our attention to the fact that points out that 80% of the 30 newest entrants to Interbrand’s top 100 brand list attained their repute and rewards more due to word of mouth campaigns rather than the power of advertising. Super star brands such as IKEA, Starbucks, SAP, Krispy Kreme, Jet Blue, Google are a few examples.

Once the creation of a “Purple Cow” has yielded benefits, there is however, a real danger that a company might just being coasting along in a sea of complacency. This dangerous trend needs to be nipped in the bud. “Once you’ve managed to create something truly remarkable, the challenge is to do two things simultaneously:

  1. Milk the Cow for everything it’s worth.
  2. Create an environment where you are likely to invent a new Purple Cow in time to replace the first one when its benefits inevitably trail off.”

Purple Cow is Mr. Godin’s timely warning to companies urging them to shed to cobwebs of complacency and instead think seriously about reinventing, repurposing and repositioning themselves before their customers. A right step in this direction would be a transformation from the unremarkable to a “Purple Cow.”

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 16 ALPHABET P)

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat

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Reading more like a hyper extension of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” than an introduction to an explosion of technology, James Barrat’s “Our Final Invention”, brings us face to face with the alarmingly potential consequences of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) gone uncontrolled. Banking on materials collected from interviews with scientists, pioneers in robotics, chief technology officers of AI companies and technical advisors for classified Department of Defense initiatives, Barrat coalesces a primer of gloom and doom. Warning the reader of an impending doom, Barrat proclaims, “I spoke with…….trying to create human-level artificial intelligence, which will have countless applications, and will fundamentally alter our existence (if it doesn’t end it first)”.

James Barrat is THE anathema to the optimism of a Ray Kurzweil. But as is apparent from a reading of his book, the claims made by him are neither uncorroborated chunks of lofty nonsense nor the figment of an outlandish imagination that is the outcome of the ramblings of a prophet of doom. Proponents of AI who are convinced that mankind is on the verge of experiencing “Singularity” (a stage where AI will transcend from the stage of Artificial General Intelligence (matching human intelligence) to Artificial Super Intelligence (transcending human intelligence by manifold degrees)) give Barrat a headache in perpetuity. Pulling all possible punches, Barrat takes pains to adumbrate the fact that ASI instead of being the embodiment of an agglomeration of sentient notions, will be a scheming, sinister, surgical monster of intelligence having both the potential and inclination to wipe humanity off the face of Planet Earth. The force of self-perpetuation inbuilt in a machine with ASI, will be in a position to “repurpose the world’s molecules using nanotechnology” thereby leading to “ecophagy” – eating the environment. “Through it all, the ASI would bear no ill will toward humans nor love. It wouldn’t feel nostalgia as out molecules were painfully repurposed”. This clinical, dispassionate probability of impersonal destruction sends an eerie chill down the spine of the reader.

While Barrat is left to ruminate the existential crisis that is a direct offshoot of the burgeoning improvements in AI, progress in this domain continues to be made at a rampaging pace. Barrat gives examples of organisations such as Google, Cycorp, Novamente, Numenta, Self Aware Systems, Vicarious Systems, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) not to mention a whole slew of covertly funded stealth companies which are optimistic about attaining human level intelligence within a little more than a decade.

At the core and crux of the intelligence explosion of an AI lie four primordial drives in the words of Barrat: efficiency; self-preservation; resource acquisition and creativity. These are the four principal and critical drives that ensure that AI attains its objectives and preserves its existence. “The AI backs into these drives, because without them it would blunder from one-resource-wasting mistake to another”. For fulfilling these basic drives an AI or an ASI whose intelligence will be exponentially sharper and greater than that of the most intelligent human being on earth, will stop at nothing including acts of annihilation. Pioneers of AI and robotics, while choosing to play deaf to impassioned pleas of skeptics and preferring to hurl a blind eye to the attendant perils of AI, underpin their faith in the three laws of robotics immortalized by the science fiction writer Issac Asimov. Asimov’s three laws state:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But as Barrat poignantly points out unless an AI is programmed with a sweeping notion of friendliness and retains the same at the time of its intelligent explosion from AGI to ASI, these laws remain exactly what they are – a brilliant concoction of stupendous fiction. Moreover an ASI that is infinitely more intelligent than a human being will have no reservations while transmogrifying into a manipulative machine of death and destruction.

Employing AI to showcase its power to win chess games against world champions or to display a level of dexterity hitherto unimagined to win contests at ‘Jeopardy!’ is far removed from expecting ASI to play God. The God in the Machine that would emerge at the other end of the intelligence spectrum might be frighteningly indistinguishable from an unpredictable Ghost in the Machine. Mankind might be unwittingly finding itself in the proverbial grip of a Faustian bargain.

Ray Kurzweil, arguably one of the founding fathers of AI and the undisputed doyen of his domain developed his Law of Accelerating Returns (“LOAR”) to describe the evolution of any process in which patterns of information evolve. Kurzweil’s LOAR is expected to bring manifold returns upon its application to AI, including – yes you read it right – immortality. However a more sedate and sobering view is preferred by authors such as Jaron Lanier of “You are not a Gadget. A Manifesto” fame. He and psychiatrists such as Elias Aboujaoude warn about the weakening of character and individuality which are the direct results of an immersion in technology.

However, a paradoxical quote – by the egregious Kurzweil himself – with which Barrat chooses to open the final Chapter of hi book before closing the lid on AI has the last word:

“Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them”.

In the meantime we as inhabitants of the only Planet that we have the privilege to call home, can only hope and believe that in the near future, we are not reduced to being helpless and hapless experimental beings oblivious to the dance macabre that is the preserve of a devious laboratory worked by AI, AGI, ASI or any other acronym that expands to mean the arrival of doom.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 15 ALPHABET O)

NO SPIN – SHANE WARNE (WITH MARK NICHOLAS)

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Shane Keith Warne’s only approach towards the game of cricket was one rooted in intensity. An approach that never took any prisoners and brooked no opposition. An aggressive in-your-face, no holds barred attitude, which more likely than not, won a multitude of games for Australia, some of which literally involved wresting victory from the gaping jaws of defeat! It is this same barn burning tactic which the ‘Sultan of Spin’ brings to the fore in his recent offering, an autobiography that is unsurprisingly titled, “No Spin”. Written along with the redoubtable Mark Nicholas, “No Spin” (“the book”) is explosive, energetic and in more passages than some, extraordinary.

Unashamed in content and unsparing in context, Shane Warne’s memoir is to put it mildly – an eclectic collection of exploits and eccentricities. Delectable on-field performances clash with deplorable off the field adventures, (misadventures rather), as Warne strives to lay bare the various nuances which both constitutes his persona and makes it tick. Whether it be the magic ‘ball of the century’ which heralded the entry into the cricketing world, of the greatest leg spinner (or arguably even bowler) in the history of the game – but not before leaving Mike Gatting in a shambolic state of befuddlement – or an immoral tryst that involved two women and an inflatable sex toy (yes you read that right), Shane Warne’s life has been a roller coaster saga whose sweep has been unbelievably broad to embrace within its ambit the admirable and the abominable. The awe-inspiring magician who could change the course of any form of the game with an unparalleled sleight of hand could also be a naive man who was forced to miss a World Cup for his country after swallowing a diuretic, courtesy the educated recommendation of his mother!

(Shane Warne, Mike Gatting an the Ball Of The Century)

Mark Nicholas and Shane Warne take on in an uninhibited manner the task of reconciling the very cleave which, while lending an aura of invincibility to Warne the cricketer, also births an attribute of vulnerability, in Warne, the human being. The Monarch of all he surveys within and around the twenty-two yards of many a hallowed cricketing turfs across the world is reduced to remaining a torn individual racked by a plethora of emotions outside of the playing arena.

The inimitable and abrasive personality of Shane Warne, inevitably results not just in differences of opinion but also in simmering feuds. Shane Warne, in his book reignites one such feud and reopens an old wound that has at its center piece the former Australian skipper, Steve Waugh. Slamming Waugh for an attitude that Warne perceives to be self-centered, Warne ensures that no punches are held back as he launches into a blistering tirade against his former team mate. “Steve Waugh was the most selfish player I ever played with and was only worried about averaging 50. It was about a lack of loyalty. Pretty childish, I know, but that’s the way it was.” Recalling an incident where Waugh dropped Shane Warne from the playing XI against the West Indies contrary to accepted wisdom, Warne holds forth, “Disappointed is not a strong enough word. When the crunch came Tugga didn’t support me, and I felt so totally let down by someone who I had supported big time and was also a good friend. I lost a bit of respect for him after that. I believe he should have backed me — as I always believe the art of captaincy is to support your players and back them every time. This gains the respect from the players and makes them play for you. He didn’t, it’s history, but I never found it easy with him after that.”

Former Australian Coach John Buchanan also comes in for some criticism, especially in relation to his unconventional methods of coaching that involved reading excerpts from Sun Tzu’s “Art Of War”going on remorseless boot camps and waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of simulated explosives to belt the “Underneath The Southern Cross” at full volume.

Warne also is refreshingly open about his obsession towards cigarettes and a predilection to alcohol. “Ten Vodka/Red Bulls and 50 darts” represent a night well spent. A few facts about Warne that has not made the rounds in the public domain in general, and outside Australia in particular, get deserving mention in the book. For example, many of Warne’s fan and followers would be pleasantly surprised to note that this legendary leg-spinner is the first man to have got a hole in one with the pin in the back right position at the Augusta Masters. Also the fact that Warne was a talented Australian Rules Football player having clocked in regular games for his beloved club St Kilda is a fact that has been obfuscated to a great extent by his overwhelming exploits with a cricket ball in hand. The book also has its share of wicked wit. A photograph that has Warne turning over his arm under the eagle eyed tutelage of Terry Jenner bears the caption, “with Terry Jenner, the teacher. John Buchanan is in the background, where he should have been more often.”Typical, indomitable Shane Warne!

The author Scott G. Fitzgerald once said, “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” However, in the case of Shane Warne, one of the greatest ever sporting legends of any generation, personality has been an unbroken series of gestures, not necessarily successful. This man’s gestures have alternated between spontaneity and confidence, oscillated between gestures of conviction and indiscretion. Nevertheless, they have been gestures animated by freedom and exemplified by naturalness. The gestures fizz with the same verve which induced the fear of the devil in every batsmen as they watched with impending doom the breathtaking trajectory of the ball leaving the conjurer’s hand. In the same way as there was no knowing what would happen to either the delivery or the prospects of the batsman facing up to it, this remarkable human being’s gestures do not lend themselves to prediction.

That’s exactly how it ought to be! For Shane Keith Warne, both cricket and life are tenets of glorious uncertainties!

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

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Reading Haruki Murakami is like sampling the Durian. For the uninitiated, the Durian is an obnoxious smelling, even more obnoxious tasting, ravaged and ugly textured fruit which is glorified as the “King of Fruits” in South East Asia. There are only two categories of homo sapiens when it comes to the Durian. Those who are totally addicted by it and the rest preferring thorough abhorrence. Over the past many decades, Murakami has whipped up storms of deliberations that dissect his style of writing; whirlpools of opinions that are both reverential and damning; and a core universal contradiction that has a few sections of his die hard fans clamouring for the Nobel to be handed to their adored author, and a diametrical segment of the population aghast by the very notion of such a happening!

This extraordinary cleave notwithstanding, there is no shard of doubt that Murakami represents the very monument of human imagination. Every work of his is a venerable tribute that is reverentially laid at the altar of the swirling imagination. From perversity to piety; metaphysical to the mundane; infidelity to treachery, his stories are wefts that are drawn through, inserted over-and-under the pantheon of the tapestry that is the human mind. “Men Without Women” is no exception. This much awaited offering which had Murakami fanatics queuing at the book shops awaiting the break of dawn, so that they could lay their hands on the very first copies of their idol, does not disappoint one bit.

A collection of stories that has at its epicentre, men who are either estranged from the company of women, or who have never known the succour and strength that could be lent by a woman, takes the reader through a magical journey leading to amongst others, dully lit bars, lazily wandering cats, a sudden proliferation of snakes bearing ominous portents, a sophisticated cosmetic surgery unit that is manned by a perennially brooding surgeon of immense competence and roiling inner intensity and a theatre personality who has his soul seen inside out by his chain smoking, hardly speaking lady chauffeur.

Men without women

Infidelity colludes with impetuosity; virtues collide with vicissitudes; and revenge coalesces with remorse as the master breezes along his tried and tested path that cocks a snook at plots and leaves the conventionally accepted thematic style of prose in ruins. There are the usual metaphysical convolutions that makes interpretation an arduous exercise germinating feelings of both vexation and introspection. The title itself is a clever take from Ernest Hemingway’s collection of short stories in 1927. Murakami’s protagonists seek salvation in quietude as did Hemingway’s characters when their lives were characterized by a gaping absence of women. Both authors clothe their male characters in loneliness to fill a void which is totally incapable of being either filled or excised. Writing in a fashion that is ‘Kafkaesque’, Murakami leaves it to the reader to either redeem or damn the men who seek solace in a plaintive and unassuming fashion. This exercise of distillation takes the reader to the very end of her imagination, an end which for Murakami represents a mere beginning. Non-linear, chasing peripheries, couched in ambiguities, and blurring the contours of commencement and conclusion, “Men Without Women”, is Murakami at his inimitable and irascible best.

And as his with all his other books, “Men Without Women” is a paean to originality and a homage to thought!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 13 ALPHABET M)

Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How To Find Hope – Johann Hari

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Finding a typically ingenious yet deep way to describe her harrowing experience with bouts of manic depression, the indomitable late Carrie Fisher once said, “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” According to the World Health Organisation(website accessed on 15th February 2019), depression is referred to as a ‘common illness worldwide’, that afflicted over 300 million people. After setting out these grave statistics, the WHO proceeds to expound further on this pernicious illness in a matter-of-fact way, “depression is different from usual mood fluctuations and short-lived emotional responses to challenges in everyday life. Especially when long-lasting and with moderate or severe intensity, depression may become a serious health condition. It can cause the affected person to suffer greatly and function poorly at work, at school and in the family. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.

Our stereotypical understanding – bolstered by the findings of research scientists, egged on by discourses on this topic by various medical practitioners constituting experts in this domain, and goaded on by the profit motives of Big Pharma – of depression has been that it is an insidious disease having its origin in an ‘imbalanced’ brain. Just a step removed from branding the unfortunate sufferer as one who is off kilter.

In a fundamentally path breaking and breathtaking book, the New York Times bestselling author Johann Hari upends the received wisdom regarding depression before proposing a radical set of principles that would combat this dangerous phenomenon with a bare minimum recourse to antidepressants. Hari must know being a sufferer himself. Recounting his painful experiences with candor and a dash of wit, Hari reminisces about the reasons proffered by his doctor for depression. Naturally depleted levels of a chemical termed serotonin in the brain is the direct, most proximate and ascertainable cause for depression. The solution – a new generation of drugs termed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) or simply anti-depressants.

This spiel linking an innate deficiency in the brain with depression has ruled the roost thereby enhancing the coffers of the Big Pharma immensely. At the time of writing, the market for antidepressants is a whopping $100 billion plus. Hari debunks this obviously causal link by resorting to a degree of research that is frankly, astounding. Examining the social and psychological factors triggering depression, such as disconnection from the future, childhood trauma, disconnection from meaningful work and relationships, loneliness, lack of fulfilment, absence of status and disconnection from nature, Hari argues that these are some of the ‘lost connections’ that both accelerate and exacerbate the onset and course of depression.

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(Big Pharma illustrated. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

Crisscrossing continents, clocking humongous air miles and poring over millions of academic papers in between, Hari has made research the cornerstone and crux of his book. The people whom he has interviewed for this work span a broad spectrum of professions and viewpoints. From a junkie-transformed-into-neuroscientist in Sydney to an avid mountaineer primatologist outside Banff in Canada, from interviewing isolated Amish community members to watching a spider weave its web outside a rehabilitation centre for gaming addicts, Hari leaves no stone unturned to strike at the core of the causes responsible for triggering depression.

Hari also interviews pioneers in path breaking methodologies such as Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University. Professor Griffiths amazingly secures the relevant approvals to bring back experimentation using psychedelic drugs to correlate the effects between the outcomes affected by an imbibing of psychedelic drugs and the results of deep meditation. The conclusion startlingly reveals identical patterns and experiences. Similarly, in the city of London he meets George Brown and Tirril Harris, authors of a groundbreaking study of the social causes of depression that had the duo venturing into the community and interviewing women about their lives. He makes clear the importance of their work and spends 10 pages telling their story, but quotes just a few sentences from each. However, most curiously – and this is a conundrum that manifests itself in almost every page – he devotes a surprisingly short amount of space for their narratives. While there has been no dearth of experts who have been interviewed both formally and informally for this book, the narrative does not find their voice. The results, opinions, methodologies and probabilities are all summarized by the author himself.

So how does one restore such lost connections? Hari’s solution is to “find practical ways to dismantle hierarchies and create a more equal place, where everybody feels they have a measure of respect and status”. This he argues may be done by simple actions such as bonding and banding together and finding meaningful work. Demonstrating fulfilling real life stories that include the now famous Kotti housing project protests in Berlin to a therapeutic horticulture group in east London; a bunch of bike mechanics in Baltimore responsible for setting up a workers’ cooperative to a short-lived albeit successful Canadian government tryst with universal basic income, Hari strings together a succession of ameliorating tales that warm the very cockles of the heart.

Image result for therapeutic horticulture group in east London

(A therapeutic garden.  Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

Depression has for far too long remained undisturbed as the elephant in the room. A combination of forced as well as ingrained factors such as shame, stigma, societal isolation and reluctance have taken an unfortunate toll on the minds and bodies of the hapless sufferers. It is time that all the relevant stakeholders unite, cutting across personal motives and materialistic drivers, to obliterate this scourge. To accomplish this, as Hari illustrates, huge steps, both mental and physical would need to be taken, boldly and brazenly. “One of the most important slogans of the past few years has been ‘Take back control’,” hari notes.  “People are right to connect with this slogan – they have lost control, and they long to regain it – but that slogan has been used by political force . . . that will give them even less control.”

Indeed, the time has come for us to take control. A control that embraces an welcoming environment rather than an addictive cycle of antidepressants.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 12 ALPHABET L)