Banaras by Diana L. Eck

Pages 344

Banaras has always intrigued me so, when I came across this book in a book club, I ordered it. And this book did not disappoint me. Even though it has been written by a westerner, it provides in depth knowledge about the place, its culture and its history. It is a well-researched book which throws light on the Sanskrit scriptures relating to Varanasi, geographical texts, information from Brahmins and the city life.

Unfortunately, Indians have never been in a habit of documenting neither their places nor their travels. To know more about our country, religion and traditions from the historical aspect, we tend to rely on accounts of foreigners who visited India, were mesmerised by its beauty, allure and diversity.

In this book, it is evident from the opening lines to her preface that the author is in love with this place:

“I first knew Banaras 15 years ago when I studied for a year at Banaras Hindu University. It was an awesome city – captivating, challenging and endlessly fascinating. Benaras raised some of the questions about the Hindu tradition which have interested me ever since – it’s complex mythological imagination, its prodigious display of divine images, its elaborate ritual traditions and its understanding of the relation of life and death.”

The book begins with a detailed map of Banaras, which I referred time and again while reading the text. Diana, the author gives vivid descriptions of the life in the holy city, which has attracted millions of pilgrims and seekers from all over India for over 2500 years. The author is fascinated by the early morning activity in the city – the students practising yogic exercises, Brahmins performing puja in the numerous temples and shrines, students in ashrams preparing for the day and most importantly bahkts taking a holy dip in the Ganga.

She documents about the art and culture prevalent in this city during the different time periods and under reign of different rulers. Shiva is known to be the Lord of Kashi and thus a complete chapter is dedicated to Shiva who made Kashi his home. Shiva temples number in thousands here. Shaiva renouncers and ascetics throng the monasteries of the city. The author also writes in detail about the other Gods who visited Kashi or made it their home and are worshipped in this city of lights. She gives references from the scriptures to elucidate her point.

This city is different from all others because dying here, one gains liberation from the earthly round of samsara. 

The book has been elegantly written, in a fluid manner giving an account of the rituals, myths and literature associated with the city. Though the topic is heavy but the writing style keeps the reader engaged and fascinated.

A must read!!


Action – The Teachings of J. Krishnamurti

Publisher – Hay House, Pages – 139

“For me, there is no action if it is preceded by an idea.”

J Krishnamurti

It took me about ten months to read this book from end to end. This book contains the teachings of ‘J’, as he was fondly known, related to Action. The passages have been taken directly from his talks and books from 1933 to 1967. Some of the questions this book deals with are:

  • What are the consequences of personal action based on a belief?
  • Why is there a conflict in the action taken?
  • Why do I react to most things in life?

Through this book, I understood that action is not the step taken from my past learning or in anticipation of the future; action means to immerse oneself in the moment and experience the feeling. If our action is imitative, conforming to the norms, following the pattern of pleasure, then it leads to agony.

Accordingly to J, life needs to be lived in totality! Every experience has to be lived with attention and vigour. When we divide existence into different segments then action becomes contradictory.

“Right action comes in understanding relationship, which reveals the process of oneself. Self knowledge is the beginning of wisdom: it is a field of affection, warmth and love, therefore I feel rich with flowers.”
“The mind that gives root to a problem seizes to act, because action is always in the living present, and the act is present. When the problem becomes something to be solved eventually, then the idea becomes important, not the action.”

My reason for picking up this ‘thin’ book was that reading a book by J takes a lot of effort to read and comprehend. One needs to go on a different plane to be able to relate to his discourses and his thought process. Since this book had snippets from various talks, I was sure to read it at a faster pace. Needless to say, I was mistaken.

I can’t just read past his teachings. When I begin reading, they are not palatable. They make me uncomfortable. They make me question my own beliefs, my knowledge, my conditioning through the years. As I keep reading, I tend to shed this layer of conditioning and I am able to relate to J – his world, the way he sees the world (for me he remains omnipresent)! It is unnerving to embark on a journey with him because then I begin to loose sight of the normal people, their thoughts, their dogmas, their concepts. They become distant. And I begin to realise that I don’t belong to them. And here’s a passage from this book that perfectly describes my feelings:

“After all, to find out anything you must have energy, and you need a great deal of energy to inquire into something totally new. And to have that energy, you must have listened to the old pattern of life, neither condemning nor approving. You must have listened to it totally--which means you have understood it, you have understood the futility of living that way. When you have listened to the futility of it, you are already out of it. Then you have - not intellectually but deeply - felt the uselessness of living that way and have listened to it completely, totally; then you have the energy to inquire. If you have not the energy, you cannot inquire. That is, when you deny that which has brought about this misery, this conflict--which we have gone into - that denial, that very negation of it is positive action.”

Now, that I have read the book, immersed myself once more in the concepts, resolved the mental conflicts and lived by positive action in the recent past; it seems impossible to turn back……

Ram Ram India by Alex Thomson

Ram Ram India…the words are so delectable; delightful indeed! This was one main reason to choose the book. And the other reason is that I have embarked on a journey to know more about my country. Sadly, we Indians, rarely document about our experiences, our journeys or our findings. So, we have to turn foreign writers who spend time to know about India and later write about it.

Ram Ram India documents the bicycle tour of Alex Thomson and Nick Rossitier, two BBC correspondents; the journey is undertaken to raise money for Oxfam. They started their journey soon after Indira Gandhi was assassinated and riots had gripped Delhi and Punjab. The British Embassy tried to dissuade them but they were relentless. And that’s the kind of spirit required to take on a bicycle journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari in the inhospitable climate across the vast land of India.

The two Brits travelled light and stayed mostly in ‘dak bungalows’. Alex writes about their varied experiences with the chowkidars of these places. Most of them denied accommodation. He writes about large switch boards, huge bathrooms and the presence of cockroaches there. It took me back to my days living a carefree life as a fauji brat. We lived in the Mess at different stations and devoured the food that tasted almost the same everywhere. The descriptions of their journey through the countryside brought back memories of my own; we mostly lived in Cantts, far away from the city life. I was hooked, I wanted to know more about their experiences and yet I didn’t want the book to end.

Both the Brits get undue attention because of their skin colour and sometimes they became irritated with the frankness of Indians. There were Indians who wanted to leech them of their money and on the other hand many locales helped them in the true spirit of “Atithi Devo Bhava”!

There are times when they have portrayed India and Indians in a poor light and I felt disgusted but to be honest, they have portrayed the true picture of India. The places are dirty, dusty. The officials are difficult and corrupt. This is how we are! And they give the credit where it is due…

“Meanwhile, Charand’s mechanic has fixed the wheel and we put it back on. I’m certain he’s never seen a wheel like mine before, let alone a ten-speed bicycle, but it hardly matters and the wheel is true once again. It seems to me that this facility of getting something fixed, made or patched up is the essence of Indian streets, lined with tiny workshops often not much bigger than an allotment hut. How often do you see anything actually being repaired or made in England? And again it’s very unusual here to get the ‘oh, we don’t do that here’, or the ‘That will take two weeks’, which is a way of life at home.”

The book is exorbitantly priced at Rs. 1000. Don’t be too impressed with my review and order the book on a whim. The book is worth a read so, try to grab a secondhand copy instead or borrow it from a library.

Wabi Sabi: The Wisdom of Imperfection by Nobuo Suzuki

The perfectionist that’s ‘me’, now seeks solace in Wabi Sabi – the wisdom of imperfection. Oh yes, I am tired of being a perfectionist. I love craft work, stitching and (nowdays) writing. Unfortunately most of my projects do not see the light of the day because I am scared of making mistakes…I am self-demanding and self unforgiving when I do start the project but it isn’t ‘PERFECT’.

So, when the book was reviewed in one of the reading clubs, I instantly added it to my ‘To Be Read’ list! I have fallen in love with this philosophy which has three principles:

  • Nothing is perfect
  • Nothing is finished
  • Nothing lasts forever.

All the three principles are explained with examples from real life. But my fascination was for the first tenet. The book celebrates imperfection. The author goes to the extent of saying that perfection and beauty are western concepts which create stress in our life. Who can better understand this than me? I am well acquianted with the other two tenets because they are inspired from Buddhism and Zen.

The author writes about Wabi Sabi as a way of life, in art and the philosophy. He motivates the reader to live by its principles to simplfy life, be present in the moment and living in tune with Nature. He advocates life of ‘minnimalism’; something I could relate to because I have already started traversing on this path.

The tables to enlist ‘Antithesis of wabi sabi philosophy’ and ‘Wabi Sabi philiosophy’ help to get a clear comparison of the two concepts. On one side is the life we are living and on the other side is the life we aspire to live. But change in life doesn’t come so easily. It has to be studied in depth and this is where the book lacks. The author quotes excellent examples but to ask people to set out on this path would require a little more…motivation!

As for me, this book has set me off on a new journey. I will read more about it, take some notes and more than that I would put the philosophy into practice so that I can celebrate imperfection.

“Be the best imperfect person you can be!”

Wabi Sabi philosophy

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

I picked up this book for two reasons: firstly, the previous book by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow, had left me awestruck with his exclusive writing style and storyline, it became an instant favourite. Secondly, this book too was highly recommended in the book clubs. I am happy I read this heart warming book.

The novel picks the pace from the very beginning. The 576 pages whizz past in no time at all. It is the story of two brothers who set out for California; each for their own reason. The younger one – Billy, wants to look for his mother who abandoned him when he was just 6 months. She sends them postcards on her way to begin a new life with her boyfriend but after that there is ‘silence’!

The other brother Emmett, an 18 year old, who just stepped out of the juvenile work farm, wants to go to California because he doesn’t want to break his brother’s heart and he is sure to find work and start a new life. After all what other option do the brothers have. Their mother is long gone, their father recently deceased, and their farm in Nebraska foreclosed by the bank.

Even before they begin their journey to California, the story takes a different turn. Emmett discovers that his two friends from the juvenile farm had sneaked into their house. The friends insist they accompany the brothers but just few hours into the journey, his friend Duchess runs away with Emmett’s car and they are left stranded. At every step the brothers face challenges and their life is in peril.

While reading the book, on numerous occasions I put away the book because I was scared…scared for the boys. Whenever they came face to face with danger, I kept the book away lest I have to read through to know about the evil befallen upon them. I know it is hilarious; putting away the book wouldn’t change the story! But I did not have the heart to read on…and within minutes the curiosity would get the better of me and I would pick up the novel…again!! But the beauty of Amor Towles is that he sees the brighter side of life. So any amount of challenges faced by Billy and Emmett did not leave them bitter nor could adversity touch them.

Though the story is gripping and kept me hooked but it wasn’t as magical or exclusive as ‘The Gentleman in Moscow’! So, I a little disappointed too!

Chasing the Rainbow: The Growing Up in an Indian Village by Manoj Das

It is a book of short stories. They are light hearted and give a vivd description of the village life. The author paints an enchanting canvas of the sea and the village through this writings. He takes you alongwith him to the places he explores in his village Sankhari, District Balasore, bordering Medinpur districts in Bengal. Or the time spent at his uncles home in Koraput, bordering Andhra.

The author recounts amusing tales from his childhood. Most of the stories are from the time before India won freedom. The author claims that he lived in a village in Odisha, which was untouched from the stirrings of freedom struggle of the nation. A ‘gora’ had never set foot in the village and neither did they witness a vehicle being driven. The village administration was headed by the President, a person appointed by the British to govern twenty villages. And the author had the privilege of being the President’s son.

Even though his father was appointed as a President, they lived a humble life and the author wandered to every nook and cranny either alone or with his friends. Each stories narrates the escapades with charm and delight a child experiences while discovering new places and encountering new challenges.

“The sun was setting. Outlined on the opposite horizon was a range of hills. Over it had flashed a rainbow. A year ago, another rainbow spanning the eastern horizon in my own village had tempted me to try catch its end hidden behind a row of trees though it had eluded me rather treacherously. But who knew if the rainbows in this region were not more friendly.” What an innocent description of a rainbow! I have always been awestruck with a rainbow but never did I try to catch it but after reading this account, I am waiting for the rainbow to appearing so that I can be a child once again and look for its tail end!

All of the stories are also a homage to the rural life which has almost disappeared and with its disappearance it has taken away the innocence of the humble souls residing in them.

The book has 28 stories in 160 pages. You can read all of them together or pick this book while you read another one. A good read indeed! Go for it!

How To Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh or ‘Thay’ as he is lovingly known, spread Zen Buddhism far and wide. All through his life, Thay practiced ‘mindfulness’ and preached the same to his disciples to resolve internal and external conflicts.

In this short book, he reiterates the tenets of Zen Buddhism – compassion, mindfulness and self-reflection. Though most of the concepts were known to me but it is always refreshing to read and practice them. In our busy world, we tend to forget to concentrate on our ‘breathing’! It is the easiest and basic way to reslove conflicts, both internal and external. So, such a short book reminds of the technique of mindfulness and doesn’t seem overwhelming. The beautiful and heartwarming illustrations added to the charm of the book.

“When you feel upset or angry, it’s important not to do or say anything. We need to calm down first. Don’t speak or act with energy of anger in you. Just come back to your body and your breathing. Breathe in and out mindfully, releasing the tension in your body and mind, or go for a walk until you are calm enough.”

“Any peace talks should begin with making peace with ourselves. First we need to recognise our anger, embrace it, and make peace with it. You don’t fight your anger, because your anger is you. Your anger is the wounded child in you. Why should you fight your anger? The method is entirely non-violent: awareness, mindfulness, and tenderly holding your anger within you. Like this, your anger will transform naturally.”

Though it was a short book but I took over a month to read it because I wanted to make the most of it. As I read along, I highlighted few lines and jotted down a few more. Afterall, these books are not only to be read; they have to be put into practice. Thay’s books have been transformative for me and this one is equally good.

The only shortcoming I felt was that the title ‘How To Fight’ should have been connected to the writings either by Shantum Seth in the foreword or by Thay himself in the book. The books talks about peace, anger, self-reflection, argument, etc. but nowhere does it mention…How To Fight!!

Nonetheless, it is a delightful read packed with wisdom!

Awareness of Sorrow

Breathing mindfully, you generate the energy of mindfulness that you can use to recognise and embrace your pain and sorrow. This brings relief and joy, diminishes pain, and transforms suffering. We do not try to run away from our difficult feelings and emotions. Breathing mindfully, we embrace them. Mindful breathing calms and purifies body and mind. It helps us let go of any tension in the body, and of any worries we may have about the past or the future. Mindful breathing helps us see reality as it is, and helps us let go of our wrong views and afflictions. Breathing mindfully relieves suffering and restores balance and happiness. The practice of mindful breathing can bring well-being, solidity, and freedom.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The People in The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Here’s one book which is captivating, disturbing and yet enticing. I am a slow reader or rather a very slow reader. It takes me days to read a novel but I could not put down this book till I completed it. 

A marvellous book about a lost tribe!

This is the story of Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. The author writes flawlessly about his parents, brother and the kind of upbringing he had. It was always glum. The complete story of his life was glum but it is narrated in a way that the reader is immersed in the life of Norton Perina.

In 1950, he embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian Island, Ivu’ivu, as part of a team to search for a lost tribe.  The author gives vivid accounts of the expedition into the tropical jungle. I have been fascinated with the descriptions of these jungles written by Gerald Durrell in his books but this novel had a different allure to it. She (the author) describes the journey initially as enchanting; giving details of the flora-fauna  and the feelings of awe that erupt while in a land covered with different hues of green. And later about the boredom that sets in while traversing the same scenery day-after-day. Similarly, the author beautifully describes the emotions of the characters associated with every event and that’s what made it an interesting read.

Another remarkable thing about this novel were the ‘footnotes’. The story is presented in the form of Norton’s memoir which he writes from the the prison and is edited by his friend and fellow scientist, Dr. Kubodera; who adds these well researched footnotes, which make the script more realistic and engaging.

Though this book reeks of superiority of the fair race, colonialism, abuse , the justification of ruining a tribe and an island but the way the author presents it, they are befitting for the story. 

The Daily Mail claims this novel to be ‘Impossible to resist…brilliantly told’, and I fully agree to the verdict!

I am going to be purposely vague, because although I could quite easily make it definite, it is not my intention to do so. Because once you define a thing it becomes dead. If you make a thing definite you are trying to give an interpretation which in the minds of others will take a definite form and hence they will be bound by that form from which they will have to liberate themselves

J Krishnamurti