A review of ‘Srirangam to Sivaji’

I just finished reading the short biography of writer ‘Sujatha’ (original name: S. Rangarajan). He is one of the top three writers for me in English and in Tamil. The other two being ‘Devan’ and P.G. Wodehouse. It is a matter of immense satisfaction that my favourite writer Sujatha had the same admiration for the writings of ‘Devan’ that I had. Devan’s full name was Mahadevan. His novels set in Tanjore – Mayavaram – Kumbakonam were masterpieces.

I did shed a few tears when I heard of ‘Sujatha’ passing away in 2008. It is hard for me to rate his books because I rate them highly – most of them at least. For starters, I would recommend the collection of stories based on his early life in Srirangam   – Srirangathu Devathaigal’.

The biography of Sujatha by Ranjan was an interesting read. Sujatha acknowledged with pride that Tamil was the only language, among Indian languages, whose letters could all be contained in a computer keyboard.

He had done a lot of work on the electronic voting machine, demonstrating its usefulness and reliability in front of all layers of the Indian judiciary. Yet, losing candidates routinely blamed and still blame them.

He has had many stellar personal qualities: did not cry over spilt milk; not an overbearing parent; did not dismiss nor was he disturbed by criticisms; took them well and lightly; was able to admire his critics’ stellar qualities and other strengths (remarkable).

For the most part, he was forward-looking. He loved technology and was a keen learner. He welcomed change. His range of interests was as impressive as was his depth in the many subjects that he touched upon – from science fiction to folk literature to the works of Azhwars, Thiruvalluvar and Brahma Sutram.

As is the case with most writers from India, poverty exercised him deeply and sights of the poor moved him. But, surprisingly, economics was one area he did not spend much time on.

While he was right to lament about the rising inequality and the de-sensitization of the rich and the upwardly mobile to sights of poverty and the poor, he did not connect technological advancements (which he was fond of) and inequality. There is strong causality from the former to the latter.

We admired his writings and they captivated us because he exposed to us our innermost fears, desires and vulgarities. He put them all out on paper. He knew all of us very well.

Equally, what this book confirms is that he knew himself very well. We should miss him for that.

On Hinduism

I came across this passage in an email discussion group that I am part of. The passage below had appeared in this blog (?). Apparently, it is from the book, ‘Life of Pi’. It is a good one:

“But religion is more than rite and ritual. There is what the rite and ritual stand for. Here too I am a Hindu. The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes. There is Brahman, the world soul, the sustaining frame upon which is woven warp and weft, the cloth of being, with all its decorative elements of space and time. There is Brahman nirguna, without qualities, which lies beyond understanding, beyond approach; with our poor words we sew a suit for it – One, Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being – and try to make it fit, but Brahman nirguna always bursts the seams. We are left speechless. But there is also the Brahman saguna, with qualities, where the suit fits. Now we call it Shiva, Krishna, Shakti, Ganesha we can approach it with some understanding; we can discern certain attributes – loving, merciful, frightening – and we feel the gentle pull of relationship. Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, and in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it. The truth of life is that Brahman is no different from atman, the spiritual force within us, what you might call the soul. The individual soul touches upon the world soul like a well reaches for the water table. That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite. If you ask me how Brahman and atman relate, I would say in the same way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate: mysteriously. But one thing is clear: atman seeks to realize Brahman, to be united with the Absolute, and it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born and dies again, and again, and again, until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below. The paths to liberation are numerous, but the bank along the way is always the same, the Bank of Karma, where the liberation account of each one of us is credited or debited depending on our actions.

This, in a holy nutshell, is Hinduism, and I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the Universe.”

Those were the days

I am reading the authorised biography of Tamil writer ‘Sujatha’ (S. Rangarajan). Apparently, he did not like this backward-looking nostalgic recollections about some mythical golden past. He always looked ahead. I can believe that. He was such a person. Well, despite having been deeply impacted by his writings and having grown up with his writings through all my formative years and more (for almost three decades), I am going to defy him.

Once upon a time there was ‘Sujatha’ and now, there is no one to fill the gap left behind by him.

In that spirit, I was moved to read this paragraph from Mark Nicholas on the historic innings by Faf du Plessis for South Africa to save the second test against Australia at Adelaide few days ago:

These matches are proof of the sport, they are the reason we live it and love it and must continue to campaign for its pre-eminence. If Test cricket goes, a piece of us goes with it. The piece that is patience, manners and respect; the piece that is without commerce at its core. So pure and old hat was this Test match that one yearned for the pre-hard-hat days, those days without helmets, when the eyes and expressions of the cricketers drove our fancy. Those days before the DRS, when the umpires took our spleen, and technology was a slip-catch cradle that provided hours of fun and hands turned black and blue. There was something of the past in du Plessis’ modesty. His clothes were neat, his kit uncluttered, his hair, when that helmet came off for air, short and side-parted. He played forward defensives as if brought up in Barnsley, and his celebration of a hundred was near apologetic: “Oops, sorry for momentary lapse into self-indulgence,” he seemed to say, “I’ve a job to finish here.”

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha liked Mark’s piece as much as he must have admired du Plessis’ batting. Those were the days when batsmen batted days to save a match or win it. Indians had done it too – Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Viswanath and Gavaskar.

Unfortunately, I did not get to watch the Aus-SA match. But, I followed England’s victory against India at Mumbai. Thoroughly deserved. It had taken a while for many Indians to acknowledge how ill the Indian economy is and they are yet to acknowledge how sick Indian cricket is.

Sujatha’s approval or not, there is something missing in modern life. Well, who knows, he might have acknowledged it himself.


Good friend Nitin Pai had sent me the e-copy of ‘Yugantar’ by Iravati Karve. Was recommended to me by my friend Rupal Majmudar’s father some years ago. I finally had a chance to read it this year. It is a good book but my personal impression is that one would not have to feel terribly sad if one missed it. Perhaps, researchers who are interested in the ‘authenticity’ of Jaya or Mahabharat might be more excited to read her work which seeks to inform readers of the originality of the content by pointing out what she sees as later-day interpolations. These have been done by comparing different versions of Mahabharat available in India and based on the dates of those versions. The book is incisive for its character-analysis of different players in the epic.

The book acknowledges that it is an epic but given its secular nature, seeks to steer clear of divinity. She points out that not all of the eighteen chapters could have been part of the same advice given by Krishna to Arjuna. She says that the Yadava King was just the friend of Arjuna. His divine-like qualities and actions – now part of the Mahabharat – were added later.

Personally, I have no problems in accepting the later day versions. For me living in the 20th-21st centuries, both were versions prepared at a time when I was not around and about a time in which none of us were around. So, what is really ‘authentic’ becomes an alluring invitation for the argumentative Indian. Not for me.

Whether Krishna should have been depicted as just a friend of Arjuna or as a God who knew his God-like status (of course, if he was depicted as a God in the original version, then it is a valid point that his end does not fit in well with that depiction) is interesting for researchers. But, to the extent that it sustains many people, gives them hope and keeps them sane and purposeful, his depiction as God has been more than useful.

This description of ‘Saguna Brahman’ from a passage in ‘The life of Pi’ (I have not read it and I found it in an email that came as part of a mailing list) provides an indirect answer to her dismay at these later-day interpolations:

There is Brahman nirguna, without qualities, which lies beyond understanding, beyond approach; with our poor words we sew a suit for it – One, Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being – and try to make it fit, but Brahman nirguna always bursts the seams. We are left speechless. But there is also the Brahman saguna, with  qualities, where the suit fits. Now we call it Shiva, Krishna, Shakti, Ganesha we can approach it with some understanding; we can discern certain attributes – loving, merciful, frightening – and we feel the gentle pull of relationship. Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, and in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it.

Attention vs. Concentration

A friend of mine had sent me the following quote from Shri. J. Krishnamurthy (JK):

In the cultivation of the mind, our emphasis should not be on concentration, but on attention. Concentration is a process of forcing the mind to narrow down to a point, whereas attention is without frontiers.” — J Krishnamurthi

I thought he was splitting hairs. I sent out a mail with that remark of mine and asked my friends to respond with their thoughts. Several did so. I am grateful to them. Some of them were very thought-provoking. I will cite two here:

Excuse me” said the ocean fish, You are older than I. So, can you tell where to find this thing they call ocean?”
” The ocean” said the older fish, is the thing you are in now”
“Oh! This? But this is water. What I am looking for is the ocean” said the disapointed fish  and swam away searching  for the ocean elsewhere.
Second one:
In ‘meditation/meditating’ people often allude to a process of single-minded focus which then becomes a desperate/futile attempt to prevent extraneous thoughts from barging in. When one pays attention one is in concentration, but beyond mere concentration, since there is a larger positive aspect to the attention when I perceive/realise/feel. Concentration implies effort- keeping thought out. Attention is inclusive. One can pay attention only when there is no thought, just direct perception. And, JK has always talked about ‘thought’ being the primary culprit in not being able to perceive reality as it is.
If attention can happen only when there is no thought and if concentration is keeping thought out, then is concentration a pre-requisite for attention? Well, I am splitting hairs here 🙂
Now, I must confess that, for the most part of my life, I have had difficulty understanding JK. I continue to do so. This particular quote was one of the relatively less difficult ones to understand. So, it could be taken at face-value without having to look at the context in which the remark was made and other such considerations.
For the evolution of the mind, both are needed. Perhaps, attention (as defined in the quote) is needed more than concentration. I do not know. The way ‘attention’ and ‘concentration’ are defined, people would prefer to vote for ‘attention’ rather than for ‘concentration’. ‘Attention’ is broad, without frontiers and inclusive. ‘Concentration’ is narrow and exclusive. These are values-laden descriptions. We all like exclusivity but would prefer to be known for our inclusiveness!
Hence, the way these two words have been defined or described, the game is over before it began.

Ashwin Mahesh

On November 3rd, I had the good fortune of listening to Ashwin Mahesh. He humbled me. I wave my hands feverishly at the Chennai traffic, the pollution, the threats of dengue and chikungunya, etc. But, Ashwin Mahesh is doing something about it. He gave a talk that followed mine at the weekend contact classes held by the Takshashila Institution (I am a co-founder) as part of their 3-month Graduate Certificate Programme in Public Policy.

He presented on civic participation in public policy. This was not his title. I am just paraphrasing it. He talked about how citizens should both pressure and partner with government for delivery on urban and civic services.

He had done that in the case of a lake body near his apartment. He applied to the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation that he would take over its maintenance and upkeep. They did not know how to react because there was nothing to prevent such a private initiative but there was no precedence either. Eventually, they relented. Now, 27 such water bodies are maintained by citizens and they have now become places of recreation and relaxation and pleasing for the eyes than being breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

He plans to set up a Khan Academy type institution for ‘imparting’ education to interested citizens on how to make public policy.

So, in that speech, he showed how one could refine public policy-making into public making policy.

Hats off. Inspiring work.