Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Third Room

The house I stay in right now, has this small extra room, which we rarely use. We have partially converted it into a storage place. But my toddler often visits that room out of curiosity and explores the stuff lying there. Also as my parents and my niece were here recently, I used that room more often in last two weeks. One particular morning, when I was in that Third Room, I felt this strange sense of calm. Also I felt, I have been to such Third Rooms in past. Like that store room, in my grandparents' place which felt cold and haunted at times, but it had those large metal trunks, the ones that held blankets and rajais (bed quilts/duvets) and may be some secrets too. 

As a child did you ever escape into the world of your imagination while hiding in that metal trunk in the Third Room?

There was this cemented water tank on the second floor of the house I grew up in. Everyone stayed in that house - parents, brother, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. The space below that tank was a great way to hide from others and still enjoy the cold there in hot summers. The cold which might have frightened someone weaker than me. 

As a child did you ever think of yourself as a master strategist planning your next battle move lying on your back in a damp space of the Third Room?

The annual grains' supply for the entire joint family used to come in large gunny bags. For few days before the grains were transferred to the steel silos, the bags lied there in a corner in a bulwark formation. The evenings were really exciting. The cops chased all the robbers with their toy guns. The games we played revealed who were on the dark side.

As a child did you ever wait endlessly in the Third Room, behind a wall of gunny bags, to spring a surprise?

The Third Room is not really a physical space. It exists somewhere in our minds. As we grow up, we lock it up and forget about it. It is a place which is a great escape from our routine. It is a place to reflect upon the next move in your life. It is a place which might spring a pleasant surprise. The first two rooms are all about your family and your work. This Third Room is about you. It is time you find it and open it. The key is right there. There in your own hands.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Men Without Women : Book Review

Earlier this year I had read, Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. (Read review here) It was the first time I had read a book by this author. While I had enjoyed reading it, I hadn't fully understood it. So I picked up this collection of 7 short stories titled, Men Without Women, by the same author with trepidation. I knew beforehand, that I will not be fully able to grasp everything, but I took the plunge anyways. I have reached a conclusion that Murakami's writings might enlighten you few times, but mostly they leave you feeling incomplete, incompetent and irritated. But as you try to find answers, you get addicted. Addicted in a bad way, like mind altering substance abuse! I must still confess, that some stories in this collection were highly accessible and enjoyable. 

As the title suggests, each of the seven stories, is about lonely men. Loneliness which may not necessary stem from lack of the company of women. Each story also has some twisted or broken relationship between a man and a woman. While in Kafka on the Shore, there were undercurrents of  Oedipal Complex and Incest, this collection of stories rely heavily on cuckolded men, promiscuity, sadism, fetish etc. But mind it, the stories are not actually about these issues. They are just triggers for a protagonist's journey or for his or her search for answers. The stories are about the emotions or lack of them that emerge out of these triggers. 

The first story, Drive My Car,  is a pleasantly accessible story. The main act in this story is a conversation between Kafuku (a middle aged actor and a widower) and Misaki (a young adroit female driver, he has recently hired and who rarely speaks). During that conversation Kafuku talks about his now dead wife and a question that bothers him. He also talks about a co-actor of his wife whom he befriended after her death. At the end, the usually reticent Misaki says something, that is simple and profound at the same time, which provides a sense of closure both to the reader and Kafuku. For me that is a great reward in a short story. 

A line that stayed back with me from this story - "There's no logic involved. All I can do is accept what they did and try to get on with my life."

Yesterday, is the title of the second story. It was surprisingly underwhelming and felt incomplete. But not incomplete in the sense of wanting more of it. By now a pattern also emerges in the stories. These are stories about men who may not be with women at this point of time, but their presence still looms large in their lives. Also Murakami isn't going for a conclusion or resolution by the end of the story. He just stops at a point, where some resonance happens or a reconciliation appears. This is a story about two boys in their twenties - Kitaru and Tanimura and Kitaru's girlfriend Erik. The story itself is about how Kitaru finds it difficult to take his relationship with Erik to next level and how it impacts others. This simple short, for a non-Japanese like me, gives me an insight into how the haves and have nots are divided in their society. It highlights how your dialect and address can impact your social stature.  

I don't want to give any spoilers, but a quote from the story really resonated with me - "As time passes, memory, inevitably, reconstitutes itself."

One of the weakest stories in the collection, An Independent Organ, has a very laborious narration to make a point which sounds profound but is really not. The story is about a cosmetic surgeon Dr. Tokai who is in his 50s, never married, but is highly promiscuous. So in physical sense he is never without a woman. He finally falls in love at the ripe age and also experiences his first betrayal, which leads him to question his being - "Who am I?"

Despite its obvious trappings, I really like the following extract from the book. It is such a cliche though. "With something like that (love) there's  no such thing as too soon or too late, I told him. Your understanding may have, come a little late in life, but that's better than never realizing it at all."

Scheherzade is highly enjoyable and intriguing account of love. It may be because in this story the male view point of Habara is limited. As a reader, we don't even know who really Habara is and why is he confined to his home or whether it is really his home or why he can't go out. It doesn't matter after a certain point in the story. Because that is not what this story is about. The story is also about Habara's nurse or house-help whose real name is never told, but Habara in his own mind has named her Scheherzade. He names her so because, she narrates strange stories to Habara every time she sleeps with him. The story of her almost debilitating, teenage crush on a boy in her class is told like a thriller. The thrill of doing something taboo is so palpable in this sad account of one sided love. Is Murakami indicating here, that though her love was never reciprocated and she married someone else, but the memories of her early years never make her feel lonely? That she will never be a Woman without Men! The last story she narrates is left unfinished and here I wanted it more. My curiosity kills me here, but no answers are revealed. 

It is in the fifth story, Kino, where Murakami gets surreal. The elements like snakes, rain (and metaphors thereof) and cats make appearance, that reminded me of Kafka on the Shore. Almost till the end I thought I understood everything about this story. The story of a bartender who is going through a divorce. But by the end I lost it. Or may be I think I lost it. Because the core thought of confronting your inner hurt and pain stayed back with me. If you don't confront your inner feelings, they will gnaw at you.

"But there are times in this world when it's not enough just not to do the wrong thing,"a character in this story says so aptly. 

Samsa in Love does it for me. This is the story I loved the most. This is the story which will make me read more of Murakami. A bug turns into a human. It doesn't enjoy being one. It falls in love and it doesn't want to be anything but human. By now I realize that loneliness is not necessarily physical absence of someone.

He thinks to himself , "Yet had he been a fish or sunflower, and not a human being, he might never have experienced this emotion."

The last story, Men without Women, is the story which gives the book its title. Here the narrator is not actually lonely. He has a wife, about whom we don't come to know anything. We also don't know about how is their marriage. It might be actually a happy one. One night he receives a call about the news of the death of one of his earlier lovers. That makes him feel lonely There is lot of rumination after that. Many metaphors are used to drive home the point that she was the kind of love, everyone looks for. But I didn't connect with those allegories at all. I thought this one didn't require more than a page, but the author says this story in about 15 of them.

I also didn't connect with the central thought of this one - "That's what it's like to lose a woman. And at a certain time, losing one woman means losing all women."

Yes! There are few rewarding moments and stories in this one. As I said earlier, the highs are addictive and thus those lows really leave you vacant. Just like I have heard drugs do!!!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Book Review: A Whole New Mind

After a long time, I picked up a book in the genre loosely termed as management / self-help books. My experience with this genre in past has been less than satisfying, mostly. This book, which is pompously titled - A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will rule the future - is also less than a satisfying read. 

The author, Daniel H. Pink, tries to hammer in the fact that jobs moving to Asia, Abundance and Automation have created a scenario in America (or developed countries) where Right Brained jobs will become more lucrative and R - Directed Thinking will become a desired skill. And he reproduces this fact in thousands of ways in his book. If I am that bad a reader, that I need same thing to be repeated for me so many times, I really don't deserve to understand this simple postulation.

After introducing the reasons for Right Brainers ruling the future, the author explains the six senses / tools that are required to develop or nurture R - Directed Thinking. (R - Directed Thinking doesn't mean that left side of the brain is not required. It just means that senses which are dominantly right brained will have to play a larger role) These six senses are - Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. These six senses put together highlight the importance of creativity and innovation as key business differentiators. 

No doubt that the author brings to fore an important change happening as of today, but as an Indian reader, I found the book lacking in several aspects. The book divides the world between developed countries and Asia. So L - Directed thinking jobs moving to Asia (including India), is one of the key reasons, why Americans should incorporate R - Directed thinking in their armor. As a reader, while I can apply the lessons in India specific scenarios as well, the book essentially alienates Asian readers. There is no effort to discuss what these changes mean for Asians. It feels like the issue at hand is not that hot for knowledge workers here in India.

Each chapter on the six senses, is followed by a portfolio of resources, which one can use or visit, to sharpen these senses. This feature is excellent, but I so wished, that the author had kept in mind an Asian context here as well. Indians have a particular way of learning things and sharpening their skills. By focusing on US context here the author misses the fact that some senses / values like Meaning and Empathy are deeply ingrained in our culture. Story-telling is also a key skill which Indian leaders have used since ages. Indian leaders, in my experience, generally have R-directed thinking. I hope in the next edition, author takes this diversity of work cultures and leadership styles into account.

While the set up for the need of R - Directed thinking is done beautifully, I felt there were not enough examples or compelling cases shared in the book, which make it evident how people are really nurturing these senses at their workplaces. May be the book was only meant to scratch the surface so that Pink gets lot of consulting assignments to really reveal the nuts and bolts of the subject at hand.

Out of the six senses, I felt that in the chapters on Meaning and Play, I found things which were great thought starters. These two chapters made this book worthy of an average rating.