Compulsory Reading for Everyone

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson is mind-blowing in the scope it covers, impressive in making complex, cutting edge science accessible for a non-scientific reader, and delightful in its use of humor to break the complexity of science lingo and concepts.

Tyson starts with the big bang – did you know the big bang took billions of years?!!– and explains it together with a plethora of other concepts and phenomena, from theory of relativity to gravity, nuclear and electromagnetic forces, matter, anti-matter, quarks, hadrons, quasars,  on and on. He goes on to describe the appearance of Homo sapiens from the “primordial soup” that formed our planet. All through this, and through the whole book, he is extremely modest about himself and science: “…ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist. People who believe they are ignorant of nothing have neither looked for, nor stumbled upon, the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe.”

Tyson demonstrates that the chemical elements humans have discovered are the building blocks of all planets, comets and stars in the universe, and the laws of physics, like for example the law of gravity, are the same everywhere in our galaxy too.

The third chapter, “Let there be Light”, talks about the formation of light, temperature of the universe, and the cosmic microwave background. Tyson guesses when questions arise in the incredulous reader’s mind about his statements and with, “You can’t make this stuff up,” goes on to prove the statement/theory he’s proposing. This particular reader doesn’t claim that she understands everything Tyson says, but I did understand most of it, and it was so incredible that I kept on reading and re-reading passages, looking up words and taking notes.

In two separate chapters, Tyson explores the interplanetary and intergalactic space.  At this point I balked. Why hadn’t they told me in school there were BILLIONS of galaxies? All they talked about was our puny Milky Way!  Then I thought that might be the fault of my age, rather than our physics curriculum. They probably didn’t know back then that there were billions of galaxies.

“All the fun in the universe happens between the galaxies rather than within them,” Tyson says. Dwarf galaxies, supernovas, cosmic rays, quasars, pulsars and the effect of gravity on distorting the light they project are discussed.

The chapters on dark matter and dark energy talk about the long process, by trial and error, culminating in the discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, which is “…dark energy ….the most prominent thing in town, currently responsible for 68 percent of all the mass-energy in the universe; dark matter comprises 27 percent, with regular matter comprising a mere 5 percent.”  “Regular matter” means what we see, touch, hear and experience of what forms the universe.

Did you know we can only see 5% of all that exists in the universe?!! I certainly didn’t.

In two separate chapters Tyson explores chemistry and light. These include the fascinating process of prediction and discovery of all the chemical elements on the Periodic Table, the equally tantalizing process of the discovery of invisible forms of light (infrared, ultraviolet, etc.) and electromagnetic spectrum (x-ray, microwaves, etc.)

Tyson doesn’t just analyze science, but relates it to everyday life, often quoting famous people and scripts:

In explaining the reason for planets being round, he quotes Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low.”

In the beginning of the chapter,”Invisible Light” he quotes Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And he uses his refreshing sense of humor every chance he gets. In the chapter on Dark Matter he says: “So dark matter is our frenemy. It’s kind of annoying. But we desperately need it in our calculations to arrive at an accurate description of the universe.”

He often makes self-deprecating remarks, “I am now accountable for some of the solar system’s interplanetary debris. In November 2000, the main-belt asteroid 1994KA, discovered by David Levy and Carolyn Shoemaker was named 13123-Tyson in my honor.”

And he presents philosophical reflections. Regarding our “cosmic perspective” he says, “It’s about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” And regarding our humble interconnectedness with everything in the universe he remarks, ”I began to think of people not as masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years…”

He also makes observations about the nature of science, “Around the world, varying belief systems lead to political differences that are not always resolved peacefully. The power and beauty of physical laws is that they apply everywhere, whether or not you choose to believe in them.”

He ends with a warning against thinking that our knowledge of the cosmos is enough and we don’t need any more scientific explorations: “In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their ‘low contracted prejudices’”.

This book should be compulsory reading for everyone, because it’s about our environment, on a large scale. It’s about our planet, its chemical and physical properties and its scale and place in the universe. And by extension our scale and place in the universe. In Tyson’s own words, “At one time or another every one of us has looked up at the night sky and wondered: What does it all mean? How does it all work? And, what is my place in the universe.” Not only are these questions answered in a most satisfying way in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, but you’re left “hungry for more”.


What if…

I’m not a fan of thrillers.

They seem artificial and formulaic to me.

But I like physics generally, and astrophysics in particular. And when I was raving to my daughter about physicist, Brian Cox’s TV episode, Why We are Here, in which, among other things, he talks about the theory of infinite universes, her eyes lit up and she said, “You have to read Dark Matter! You’ll love it!”

I did, on both counts, despite the fact that it’s a thriller, and it is literally a page-turner. More on that to follow.

The story is about Jason Dessen, a university professor who has a happy family life with his wife and teenage son. One night he is abducted, his life is taken from him, and he’s thrust into someone else’s life, in a parallel universe. He goes on a long, painful and perilous quest across the multiverse to get his former life back.

Blake Crouch’s dedication page for his Dark Matter reads, “For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.” And yes, the novel is about asking yourself, “What if I had done x instead of y?”, but it’s also about a lot more than that. First and my favourite: the book’s premise is the quantum theory as expressed by Schrodinger and Heisenberg. But let that not scare you at all. It is explained in a simple and totally comprehensible way by the protagonist, who happens to be, guess what? A physicist. Crouch applies the quantum theory that is true at sub-atomic level to the world as we know it, at the macroscopic level. The result is an imaginative, mind-bending, roller coaster of a book.

Now that, if you can believe it, is not all that the book is about. It’s about priorities: career versus love, fame versus family, mind versus heart. It’s about taking the road less traveled by and whether or not it will make all the difference. It’s about identity. Who are we if stripped of our credentials, job, family, friends, credit cards, bank accounts, cell-phone, material possessions. It is also a love story, and at this level it’s about the importance of love and relationships in life.

Dark Matter is an ambitious book which delivers what it’s set out to do. It manages to keep its multiple settings, characters and their interactions real, despite its sci-fi premise. It explains the scientific aspect in layman terms, so the reader can understand and buy into the plot twists, surprises and shocks.

And towards the end, when you’re thinking, What?!!! How is this going to end? Crouch also manages to bring the book to a reasonable and satisfying conclusion.

My only beef with the book is its writing style. Particularly the excessive use of two techniques:

About 25% of the book is written in paragraphs consisting of one to five-word sentences or fragments . With that kind of a word count per page no wonder it’s a page-turner.

And there’s a gross overuse of violent action verbs like:

“I kill the engine.”

“Clarity comes crashing.”

“We break out of the forest.”

“I punch on the lights.”

I understand the reason for the use of both these literary devices, but in this case their use is exaggerated. I just don’t enjoy it. Did I mention I’m not a fan of thrillers?

But I really liked this one. It’s a brilliant mental and emotional exercise.

Great Expectations

For fans of Arundhati Roy and her first novel, The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than 40 languages, her long awaited second novel,  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness provides a much needed fix of her outstanding intellect, sharp insight and superb language.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, shares some of the features of The God of Small Things, like political criticism, skillful use of different points of view, and the sheer beauty of language.

But whereas her first novel was mostly written from the point of view of a 9 year old child, and is mainly about one or two political topics, her second novel is much more ambitious in its themes, characters and points of view.

This makes the novel simultaneously richer and less enjoyable to read.                    

The first quarter of the book is about Aftab.  A boy born into a middle class Indian family in Dehli, who discovers very early in life that he should be a woman. He runs away from home, undergoes operations, changes his name to Anjum and picks up residence in a Khwabgah, a communal home for transvestites.  Later Anjum leaves the Khwabgah and starts living in a graveyard.

The rest of the storyline is mainly about a love quadrangle. Four students of architecture in a Dehli university: one girl, Tilo, and three boys, Musa, Naga and Biplap, all three of whom are in love with Tilo.

In chapters that range from nine lines to 88 pages, using paragraphs that are one word to over a page long, the story jumps back and forth in time, following the main four characters, as their lives intersect with Anjum, and hundreds of others over decades.

Roy tackles a cornucopia of issues in her novel.

The oppression of women by men, religion and society is depicted through Tilo, an independent, level headed professional woman who constantly needs to fight for her choices, despite the support she gets from the three men who love her. Women have to face the trauma of rape and torture, wanted and unwanted children, eager and reluctant motherhoods, with the ensuing guilt, blame and desperation.

The herculean efforts of the LGBTQ community are portrayed in the conflicts and camaraderie of the gay, lesbian, transvestite and hermaphrodite people living in Khwabgahs. They have their internal differences, but stand up for each other in the world outside. And they are delightfully ingenious in earning their keep despite their absolute exclusion from society.

Political, religious, ethnic and class conflicts of all stripes are portrayed.  Clashes between Muslims and Hindus, Indians and Kashmiris, Indians and Adivasis, rich and poor, upper-caste and lower –caste, the government and communists, are portrayed in graphic detail. So is the extreme violence: “It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling form the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over it. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores—as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers—life went on as before.”

Overall the characters and their relationships with each other are well-developed, vivid and believable despite their quirky and twisted natures. Tilo and Musa’s no-nonsense love for each other, and the sacrifices she makes just to be with him are touching and convincing. So are the sacrifices Naga makes for Tilo despite knowing full well she doesn’t love him. Anjum’s exceptional personality is painted with colourful strokes. The way she changes over a lifetime, snapping out of her temporary depression and starting her own business in the graveyard, the way she develops her network of her employees, business partners, tenants, friends, and devotees, the way she manages to gain authority despite being a transvestite in a society that has nothing but disgust and contempt for her, are both magical and credible.

Another endearing quality of her writing is that Roy and her characters treat the animals in her book like people. They are not pet and owner, but friends. The relationship of Gulrez, Musa’s retarded best friend with his rooster, Sultan, and his cats, Agha and Khanum is nothing short of admirable. The same is true about Zainab and her goat, and Anjum and her dog, Biroo.

Roy’s language itself is enough to carry the reader through the book. Her settings are as vivid as a movie. A drive down Delhi streets reads, “As it drove on, the gardens disappeared, the roads grew bumpy and potholed, the pavements grew crowded with sleeping bodies. Dogs, goats, cows, humans. Parked cycle rickshaws stacked one behind the other lie the vertebrae in a serpent’s skeleton.”

The nature of Tilo and Musa’s love is summarized in a nugget like, “In matters of the heart, they had a virtual forest of safety nets.”

Roy’s delightful sarcasm is refreshing and often makes the painful parts of her story more than bearable. Like her use of the refrain:

“Of Course women.

“ Women of course,”  every time she finishes depicting an episode about women.

There is no end to the book’s excellent qualities.

However it is too much.

The scope of the book is too big. There are too many inconsequential characters, too many insignificant names and too many conflicts. Too many points of view, too many Hindu and Urdu words, too many totally unnecessary details. Many of the names are mentioned just once and bear no significance. Like the names of thirteen houseboats anchored in the lake near Srinagar, HB Shaheen, HB Jannat, HB Queen Victoria, etc. etc.  Hundreds of unimportant characters are named and described, leaving the reader baffled about which ones are important enough to remember, and eventually giving up altogether.

Roy wants to show India with all its complexities and intricacies. The result is a multilayered and cavernous maze that at times tests her fans’ perseverance.

Add to this the convoluted non-chronological structure of the novel and the reader feels like being led on a “slow goose chase”. The sub-plot of Amrik Singh and Jalib Qadri, which is introduced in the first half of the book, is out of place, and only makes sense 150 pages later, when we find out more about Singh. By that time, we have met scores of other characters and don’t quite remember who Amrik Singh was.

Roy is a skillful crafter of language, but in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness at times she gets carried away with it. The book is chock full of lists and parallel structures. “Servants wearing their employers’ expensive cast-offs are being walked by even better-dressed dogs  –Labradors, German Shepherds, Dobermans, beagles, dachshunds, cocker spaniels—“ , and “…they grew brinjals, beans, chilies, tomatoes and several kinds of gourds,…”, and “…stories of wars and massacres, bombings and butchery…”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness can be described as The God of Small Things on steroids. It’s beautiful, painful and insightful, but too big, too busy and too tangled for its own good.

Nationality, Ethnicity, Identity

Sometimes it seems like despite all the progress we’ve made, despite having landed on the moon and planned to go to Mars, despite creating literature, poetry, music and arts, despite the ability to be philosophical, spiritual and imaginative, human beings are stuck in the pit of their primal instincts. The need for power leads to abuse, violence, torture, agony and genocide.

Every time, at some point after this happens, heads of state tsk tsk the perpetrators, utter some evasive statements to appease the survivors, but fail to do anything resembling delivering justice. In time the memory of the victims fades and life goes on as usual, leaving those survivors and the grief stricken to fend for themselves.

Koom Kankesan’s latest novel, The Tamil Dream, is about this scenario’s repeat performance in Sri Lanka in 2009. But the book is set in Toronto and is written from two alternating points of view. Daniel, a Canadian high-school teacher of Tamil ancestry, who doesn’t even speak Tamil, and Niranjan, a 16-year-old Tamil boy, whom his parents have managed to send  to Canada, lest he, like his older brother, be captured and enlisted by the Tamil Tigers.

Daniel is seemingly fully Canadian. He lives with his ambitious Canadian girlfriend, resents his own very Tamil parents, whom he criticizes bitterly for his strict and physically abusive upbringing, the guilt trips they put him through, and their generally stingy and miserable existence.

Niranjan, on the other hand, misses his family who are in Sri Lanka and worries about them. He runs away from the family who sponsored him and housed him, and is ironically taken in by a Tamil drug-dealer, working for Tamil Tigers. He starts failing at school, where Daniel is a teacher. The family who sponsored Niranjan asks Daniel for help, Daniel reluctantly agrees, tries to help, but it’s not that easy. His girlfriend doesn’t want him to get involved. Niranjan is less than straightforward with him. Each one of them has his own set of problems. And politics and power plays get in the way.

Through the intersecting and widely contrasting lives of Daniel and Niranjan, the book portrays the plight of the Tamil immigrants.  It explores the internal conflicts of its members, the conflicts within the Tamil Diaspora living in Toronto, the conflicts between Tamils and other ethnic groups, and Tamils and the Canadian society and government.

Young Tamils whose family upbringing is very strict and whose corporal punishment at the hands of their parents is considered normal by their families, but criminal by their teachers and government, have a serious dilemma. Those who report the abuse risk severing their ties with their families, who love them, and want the best for them, despite their abusive ways.  Kankesan creates colourful characters of surviving Tamil Tiger expats and their various ways of collecting money for their comrades at home. They use any method at their disposal, including drug dealing, intimidation, and extortion from members of their own community, many of whom can’t stand them and try to avoid them at any cost. He paints gruesome scenes of rivalry between Tamil and Korean drug dealer gangs, with some gratuitous violence thrown in. But the violence isn’t just inter-racial, it is also inside the Tamil community when dues are not paid on time or the pecking order isn’t observed. And what’s interesting is it’s as if the police does not exist. Nobody goes to the police for protection or to complain. Scores are settled strictly internally.

That doesn’t seem far-fetched in the world of Kankesan’s novel, because it portrays the authorities as indifferent to the plight of the Tamils. Despite accepting Tamil immigrants and refugees from Sri Lanka, and giving them the opportunity to survive, prosper and raise their families in peace, Canada, its people and institutions—schools, boards of educations—don’t understand and aren’t interested in Tamils’ problems. Neither do they want to get involved in the politics of Tamils’ country of origin, even if it involves genocide. The weeks long, thousands strong protests by Tamils demanding Canadian government intervene in the slaughter of thousands of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka by the ruling Sinhalese government, do not get any response from the government. To add insult to injury, they occupy only a few minutes on the evening news, and are but a nuisance to the commuters, (who are delayed because of road closures) employers, (whose employees take days off work) and school officials, (whose absenteeism doesn’t bode well for their reputation.)

The Tamil Dream is not a criticism of the Canadian society or government, neither is it a judgment on the Tamil culture, although it is not very complimentary about it. It is simply a portrayal of an all too common story: that of an oppressed nation in its desperation to cope with its predicament. It doesn’t matter how far they flee, or how poorly or well they assimilate into their host country, there’s no way out of the trauma of their ethnicity for these people, at least for the first two or three generations. Daniel, who doesn’t speak Tamil, is harshly critical of his culture, is as Canadian as any immigrant can hope to become, and is accused by his father of not being a Tamil anymore, muses despite himself, “ I am Tamil, and no matter where I go, that cannot be excised. My hands are Tamil, my legs are Tamil, my tongue is Tamil. My very brain is Tamil, no matter what my father said.”

Kankesan weaves a rich tapestry of people, lives and events to paint a truthful portrait of a Diaspora of a persecuted nation. It is realistic and relatable for anyone with a similar experience, and enriching and educating for anyone without.


Not the Same Degree of Satisfaction

Although it explores profound themes in an intelligent and underhanded way, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a laborious read with excruciatingly repetitive dialogue, artificial and stilted language, and unnecessary and long-winded descriptions of landscape and strategies of hand to hand combat.

There are reasons for each of those choices which, after the novelty wears off, do not justify their prolonged use, and the time-investment required to read the novel to the very bitter end, and still be left with many loose threads and inconsistencies within its fantasy world confines.

The story is a road trip set in medieval England, where Britons and Saxons live and kill side by side. An elderly British couple sets out to find their son, who they believe lives in a nearby village. On the road they pass through villages and forests, take boat trips, come across and share parts of their journey with a Saxon warrior, a young Saxon boy bitten by a dragon, an Arthurian knight, a medicine woman, a she-dragon, a variety of monks, soldiers, animals, birds, ogres and people.

As the couple encounter road block after road block, they notice and explore memory loss, its advantages and disadvantages. They are close, tender and loving towards each other. Is it to their advantage to let the bygones be bygones and not to try to remember the past? If they did remember all the details of their long life together, would they still love each other as much as they do now? While the wife insists that remembering everything will strengthen their already affectionate and loving relationship, the husband is not so sure. What if she remembers a trespass on his part and stops loving him? What will he do at this stage in his life, when he doesn’t have anyone else?

On a larger scale is a general amnesia useful to keep two warring parties at peace? There’s been a long-lasting peace between the Saxons and Britons, because somehow they have forgotten all the carnage and ransacking that took place in the past between them. They have forgotten the war-crimes so they don’t seek revenge. What if the amnesia lifted? Is it always good to know and speak the truth, keep records of wrongs, and keep reminding and teaching the younger generations to hate the enemy and seek revenge?

Is it possible to remember, but forgive? What if people from the enemy’s tribe help you? What if they raise you and are kind to you, and you become close friends with them? Are you betraying your nation? Do you have a duty to fan the flames of hatred and revenge, because their fathers killed your fathers? Where does it all end?

When is guilt warranted? When you slaughter the innocent, or when you forget the enemy slaughtered your innocents? Is being a warrior, with all the courage and skill involved in becoming one, an honourable occupation? Warriors are trained to kill without mercy. Is being able to do that, while you call yourself a Christian, cause for pride or guilt? What about conscientious objectors? Are they heroes or traitors? What role does religion play in all of this?

And finally what happens when you cross the river? Does anyone know? If they do, are they telling you the truth? Does it matter?

All these ideas and more are explored throughout the busy parable that is The Buried Giant. The themes loudly reverberate with all the wars and atrocities going on in the world today.

Similar to Never Let me Go Ishiguro uses a technique that for lack of a better term I’ll call reverse dramatic irony, whereby he leads/misleads you to believe one thing, whereas the truth is something else. The characters either know the truth all along, or find it out before the reader, but their behavior doesn’t betray that knowledge/discovery. The reader is the last one to find it out at the 11th hour and gets a nice jolt.

Whereas the use of this technique is smoothly integrated and effective in Never Let me Go, it feels arbitrary and bumpy in The Buried Giant.

If Ishiguro’s previous books have you hooked so much that like me, you can’t resist reading The Buried Giant, go ahead and do it. But don’t expect the same degree of satisfaction.

You have been warned.