19 November 2010

Many Lives Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss MD

The best that a "man" can hope for
Three months ago today, my father died. It was the first time that I had lost anyone I knew well and cared for deeply. I went through a series of intense and unexpected experiences that reminded me of this book. So it was at the back of my mind, and I happened to recommend it to my friend Anitha who is a doctor in Ireland.

I had read this bestselling book years ago and was curious about what Anitha, who is one of the smartest and most sensitive thinking people I know, would have to say. I was also a bit worried that I may have overrated it, so I read it again to see what I felt now, two or three hundred books later.
Many Lives, Many Masters is a case study written by a psychiatrist in the USA. He is having difficulty treating his patient, a lovely young woman named Catherine, and after eighteen months with no progress, he decides to try hypnotherapy, which he believes will work to help her remember long-forgotten incidents and bring her closer to resolution. During the course of several sessions of hypnosis, Catherine regresses into a series of past lives and this book is about her lives and about what happens between them.
I did enjoy the book this time round, and found it easy to read and inspiring. However, there were a few things that put me off slightly. For one, I believe that the concept of “Masters” should really transcend gender. But this book seemed to me rather male centric. I also didn’t care for the concept that there were beings who were “in charge” and who controlled things, and there was also a slight hint that they had it in them to distribute punishment if they felt inclined.
I prefer to think of the world as controlled by natural laws – and the phenomenon of natural cause and effect. Perhaps these are just different ways of looking at the same thing and perhaps truly evolved people could look at it like that.
I however suspected that the inflexion I objected to had been introduced – maybe not consciously – to make people from religions that preach retribution and male superiority feel more at home. After all, reincarnation is a distasteful concept to some, and it is the central theme of this book.
Another technical point: if one believes in Karma (or just that actions lead to consequences) then Catherine’s long string of lives as an oppressed person is illogical. We should have seen at least some lives in which she was the meanie. Hmm, yes, it is possible that those lives were there and didn’t come to the surface because her soul wasn’t ready to deal with them yet :-)
There’s more, but I think Anitha said it better than I could and, not surprisingly, she had spotted some finer points which I had missed. I’m pasting, verbatim, what she said:
I found it an easy read and quite fascinating. As a Hindu, I was taught to believe in reincarnation and that our present life sufferings are punishments for wrongs committed in past lives. However, I never truly believed in such things. So when I started reading this book, I found the story implausible. But as I kept reading, I began to believe what it said. As it is the case history of a patient written by a prominent psychiatrist, both of them non-Hindus and all hypnotic regression therapy sessions recorded by him, it appears legitimate. Also, I realized that I have no right to be sceptical about things I don't know about. As much as there is no scientific proof regarding reincarnation, there is no proof against it also. Perhaps, we have to realize that if things are unknown to us, it doesn't mean they don't exist. Since we cannot see what happens after death, we can only listen to such astonishing stories and believe in the good lessons they teach us. I'm still thinking about the book as I just finished reading it. I find the messages comforting and at the same time a little frightening in some ways. The philosophy about life, death, reincarnation, the different levels and so on are all quite comforting. Also, it is a consolation that we may meet our loved ones in future lives and that there is no need to fear death. On the contrary, I found it a little frightening that there will be future lives to pay debts, about masters and spirits around us, although they seemed to be kind souls who are only trying to help us. The case history is convincing enough especially as her description of past lives seem detailed and consistent, which gives it more credibility. Having said that, there are a few instances which I found a little far-fetched. For example, his description about Catherine going to the races with her father and winning all that money and donating it to the first street person she met; Catherine recalling the exact year in B.C.; the doctor's claim that his patient had no access to his family history regarding his father and son is not convincing as she works in the same hospital.
I wondered at times whether in his eagerness to prove his point, the author had lapsed into making these flimsy claims. Well I may be wrong about these, as I cannot be certain whether they are impossible or untrue. So maybe I should not dwell on such doubts.
On the whole it was stimulating to read this book and the explanation given by the masters about our purpose in life and I do think it will help people who read it take a positive and brighter outlook on life in general and on our fellow human beings in particular. I think Hindus and Buddhists will find it easier to relate to compared to people from some other religions. I am not aware if any other religion proposes reincarnation theory. But there will always be sceptics as there are people who always question anything and everything that can't be proven and it is a pity that the authenticity of Catherine's past lives cannot be verified from historical data. Whatever the case, I think on the whole, the underlying message of the book makes sense on a spiritual level and if we ponder over the messages from the Masters and take lessons from them, our lives may become simpler and happier.

To end, I wanted to also say that I went online looking for critical reviews of this book and found one which I enjoyed reading. I’ve reproduced the part I liked best:
I certainly do not impugn Dr. Weiss humanity, compassion, or his attempts to help his fellow humans. But by creating a quasi-religion based on clearly fallacious ‘recovered memories’, he destroys his own message by not providing any peer-review or replicable study of his outrageous claims.
Read like poetry, Many Lives, Many Masters is a brilliant modern parable of humanism—it clearly wants to guide people down a path that will help society gain understanding, peace and harmony. The problem is that it ...
click here to read the rest

18 November 2010

The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami by R. Chandrasekar

Parliamentary Language
I read a review that called this book “a delightful page-turner” and had to rap myself on the knuckles for being the kind of person who takes offence too easily.

The thing is, GSMS is far more than that. It is very well written, the theme is one yet untapped in the Indian context, and the plot is inventive and engaging.
Joint Secretary Swami is the Prime Minister of India’s personal secretary (IAS Bihar cadre) and this is the story of the kind of life he leads, his daily routines and preoccupations, and how he stays afloat in the savage seas of political office.
The fictional Indian Prime Minister Motwani is eighty-two years old and has a weak heart and tender libido. His conversations with the Prime Minister of Pakistan are tricky mine dances that made me laugh. You will also read here what happens when the President of the USA telephones the Indian Prime Minister (at 2 am, of course – wonder why he can’t check with the CIA what the time is likely to be in India before he calls). And naturally the leader of the opposition is a great authority on the subject of that ambrosial delicacy, cow’s urine. Ministers and bureaucrats who fall out of favour are rudely transferred to Jhumritalaya (or Mogadishu) – except, of course, when the service rules make it impossible for that to happen.
And when Swami, in a desperate you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours manoeuvre sends his former schoolmate Jugal Kishore Hansraj off to a posting in Geneva, he has recurring nightmares that feature JKH (late of Bulandshahr) urinating against the sides of the Palais des Nations, depositing his chewed pan along the shores of Lake Geneva and travelling ticketless in the trams in Europe’s most cosmopolitan city.
Of course the whole farce has to end in a cricket match where everything hangs on one ball, and all this is woven into an ingenious plot that had me shaking my head in admiration.

When I tracked R. Chandrasekar down to ask him how he knew all this about the way governments work – perhaps he himself was once a member of the IAS or even (god forbid!) the IFS? he laughed before saying he lived in far away Madras and all he knew about any of these things was what he read in the daily papers. What he read in the daily papers, he went on, was in fact so hilarious and unlikely that quite a lot of it had worked its way into the book. “You know, they mention things like empowered group of ministers and standing committees of parliament, and they have all these well-structured devices in case you want to put things off and avoid making decisions. And as for the IAS/IFS divide – well one hears of all these antics in which people are constantly jockeying for positions, of ensuring that positions are reserved for people from a particular service, and the fact is that one of those has been particularly more successful than the other in looking after itself.”

So – not based on first-person research as I had suspected, but just a outsider’s take on the matter which turned out to be hilarious and, in fact, spot on: when he circulated an early draft of the manuscript to some friends, one of them passed it on to an IAS officer who came back with the comment that this was pretty much how things happened in her office. “I was appalled to hear that!” Chandrasekar told me. “I thought I was being funny! I guess I was closer to reality than I had imagined.”

When I asked him how much of Swami was in him he laughed again and said if he was anything like poor Swami his wife would have left him long ago.
Well – I have to admit I quite liked Swami. He was really smart, the way he was continuously able to bail himself out of impossible situations, sneaky and resourceful – and with one-liners of his own that made me laugh too.

The best news Chandrasekar gave me was that he has two more books on the way – both nearly done and currently getting their last rubs of polish. One is a murder mystery set in a boarding school in India and the other a lighthearted novel based in a Management institute in Tamil Nadu.

There’s only one thing that would please me more in this context: to hear that this slick and refreshing book is being converted into a TV serial for thousands more to enjoy and shake their head at the way this wonderful country of ours is run.

14 November 2010

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

Daily life with gentle style but no dramatics
This book is set in a Bombay I remember with fondness and nostalgia. Anjali writes about places that I left behind nearly twenty years ago but will always have a place in my heart – and she describes them with a skill that I enjoyed very much. I could quite well identify with Mohan, the middle-aged hero, a reflective person with a deep commitment to his family but equally the capacity to view them objectively.

I read this book a few months ago and I think I enjoyed it particularly because I read it aloud to my friend Gladys who knew Anjali Joseph as a child. We both admired the literary talent it represents, and didn’t feel the need for more action than it has. I mention this because I read a number of critical reviews at the time which complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. And I thought to myself – I wonder what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype.

But I was also reminded of Mohsin Hamid and his sparse, laidback style which uses few well-chosen words to bring a whole region and culture alive. It struck me that one of the central characters of Sarawati Park could even, in all facetiousness, be described as The Reluctant Homosexual. I will also say that I wouldn’t like to call this “a coming of age novel” even though it does focus on a brief period in this young man’s life when he suffers, as young people do, while struggling to find themselves.

Finally, as Gladys pointed out, this is one of those rare books about an India which is not dramatically dirty and corrupt, desperately poor and wretched, or exotic, or disgusting in other ways and therefore may not be of great interest to gaping audiences in other countries and perhaps will not win the acclaim of The White Tiger or God of Small Things (though perhaps it should). It’s just about normal, decent, reasonably comfortable people like you and me; and that is why she, for one, liked it a lot and would recommend it to everyone she can who doesn’t know India, as representative of the life many of us are familiar with.

11 November 2010

The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

Poirot in a turban
This is a book in the tradition of Murder on the Orient Express: a corpse, a small group of improbable suspects, and a caricatured but lovable detective.
Inspector Singh is now in his third book and just as roly-poly, cynical, scornful of authority and X-ray eyed about human nature as before. And yes: he’s still soft hearted and crusty-exteriored too.
I love relaxing with books like these – especially when as well written as this one. It’s not just the tight, precise, almost formal and aesthetically appealing language it uses that I admire but also the liberal sprinkling of offbeat expressions and creative metaphors that it frequently surprises readers with.
As crime fiction per se I must admit I wasn’t very impressed with the plot because almost all the whammies were visible way before they were executed. What I did like was the use of Singapore as setting and the glimpses of this unlikely tourist, education and career destination as police state, multicultural and multiracial paradise, haven for expatriates (where life is a carefully arranged dream) – and even little treats such as a visit to the legendary Raffles Hotel, that famed Meeting Place of the World’s Travellers.
At one level the book even serves as an incisive exposé of oppressive Indian society and the hidebound traditions and deep rooted prejudice which have the power to cripple and destroy its very brightest and most precious people, even as India claims its place as a user and supplier of high technology and a greedy market for the developed world.
I also liked the interpretation of life in a traditional Indian arranged marriage, as seen through the eyes of Mrs. Singh. There’s underlying warmth, of course, but the two are basically from different planets. Here, for instance, is a little of what Mrs. Singh is about:
When she had married Singh, he had been a junior policeman with a bright future. He had been smart, fit and ambitious. She had imagined him as the commissioner of police, attending functions at the Istana, the palace residence of the President – wife by his side, of course. Instead, Singh had been assigned to his first murder case and never looked back. He had abandoned his bright future to devote his life to the business of hunting down killers. It was all so sordid. People didn’t get killed without good reason. She, Mrs. Singh, didn’t condone murder, of course. But there was no doubt in her mind that the victims were at least partly to blame.

10 November 2010

Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

Unnatural nation, unlikely democracy
Would there be any possible reason why I might want to raise yet another bleating voice to sing the praises of this book?
Well – there nearly wasn’t, but a few days ago I saw something that I felt I would like to contrast it with: another book, A Better India, A Better World by N. R. Narayana Murthy.

Makers of Modern India is a collection of essays. In five chronological parts, this book profiles nineteen Indians whose ideas, Ramachandra Guha suggests, have come together to define modern India. Partly commentary on their thoughts, and partly original and well-chosen writings by these nineteen people, this book gives us a chance to experience first hand the giant thinkers that shaped our nation and also understand them through the analysis and insights of a rare genius historian of our times. Ram Guha’s perspective, his attention to detail and his clear thinking is impressive and very fulfilling too.
He writes, “This is a book aimed in the first instance at those interested in Indian history, who might wish to acquire a fuller understanding of how this unnatural nation and unlikely democracy was argued into existence.”
There’s nothing more I can say except – go get the book and read it, or at least keep it on your bookshelf and dip into it every now and again for a fresh look and deeper understanding of why India is the way it is.

A Better India, A Better World, on the other hand, is a collection of speeches by N. R. Narayana Murthy, ("who pioneered, designed and executed the Global Delivery Model that has become the cornerstone of India’s success in information technology services outsourcing"). These speeches were made in various countries Mr. Murthy travelled to, and the collection is pegged by its publishers as extraordinarily inspiring. I did not feel inspired by it one bit and I sat down to try and understand what was missing.

Both books use different approaches and different perspectives to look at the strange entity that is modern India.
Both books are intelligent and written in simple, easy to read language.
Both authors are so highly regarded that interviewers and reviewers tend to get overwhelmed and frequently sycophantic.
But while Ramachandra Guha has written an objective treatise, I felt that Narayana Murthy’s book is a rather pompous collection of opinions with the author and his ego firmly at the centre of them, and that’s what put me off.