Category Archives: Reading

Why is Ashwin Sanghi known less and Chetan Bhagat is known more?

Ashwin SanghiBy chance I came across a reference to a book titled The Sialkot Saga written by Ashwin Sanghi. Now I don’t remember what prompted me to log into my Amazon account and purchase the Kindle book. I want to read how Indian writers are writing these days and maybe that’s why I purchased the book.

I don’t mean to sound elitist or condescending, I have never read a single book of Chetan Bhagat. Not that I never tried. I purchased a couple of books. I tried reading a few pages but couldn’t go on. Maybe the choice was incorrect.

I completely read the Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi in one go. The Sialkot Saga seems to be a thicker book (it’s difficult to tell on the Kindle reader) but I’ve completed 53% of it. For the past three hours I was sitting in the balcony (it’s way past midnight and a pleasant monsoon wind is blowing) reading the book, engrossed in the plot. I was chased inside by a rowdy gang of mosquitos.

So I was just wondering, why I am able to read Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi but not Chetan Bhagat? After all movies have been made out of his multiple books. His books sell more. He is read more. And people seem to like what he writes, or at least that’s what his fame tells.

But whenever I tried, I couldn’t go beyond a few pages. It was like, what the heck am I reading? Why am I doing this to myself? There is no soul in his writing. It’s like watching Katrina Kaif acting; no matter how drop-dead stunning she looks you can make out the terrain of acting is barren. It’s wrong comparison, at least for some time your visual senses are stimulated when you watch her.

It’s not that Ashwin Sanghi, in terms of using the language, is a Salman Rushdie or even an Amitava Ghosh; no, with every sentence and phrase you can make out that he is uncomfortable writing in English. But what comes through is his hard work, his passion, and his love for what he is writing about. He has a story to tell, and he is telling it as passionately as he can. The passion comes through so strongly that you readily overlook his childish tendency to show off his English writing skills by randomly using phrases just because he knows them.

So why is a writer like Ashwin Sanghi less known than Chaten Bhagat despite being a better writer? Marketing? Positioning? First-comer advantage? Connections? Or simply vicissitude?

On a positive note, I read that Ashwin Sanghi has sold more than a million books. I remember reading a few years ago that an Indian author became a best seller even if one of his books could sell 10,000 copies. One million books is a lot. Looking forward to completing The Sialkot Saga and writing its review.

Why do you read books?

why do you read booksWhy do you read books? Why do people who read books, read? Why do I read books? You will find literary, and also arcane reasons for reading in this Brain Pickings blog post. For example, Kafka read books because they were axes that helped him cut the ice of the frozen sea within him. Carl Sagan (of the Cosmos fame) saw books as proof that humans can create magic and by reading them we can become a part of that magic or participate in the enactment of that magic. James Baldwin believed that books can change our destiny.

This makes me think, why was I reading the book I was reading (The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi) in the afternoon? Or rather, why do I read? I read a lot less than many people I know who read but still, I read more than an average, literate person does. At home we have always had a decent collection of books. When we dispose of books it’s not because we don’t want to keep them, we dispose of them because we don’t have enough space to keep them.

Anyway, that has got nothing to do with why one reads, but the point that I wanted to make was, I have been always surrounded by a good dose of books since childhood and considering the number of books I’ve read so far, I should have a fair idea of why I read.

Unlike those great writers and thinkers quoted in the above link, my reasons for reading books are quite down to earth and straight forward. Or if I’m using reading books as an axe to break the ice of the frozen ocean within me, like Kafka did, perhaps I have never sat down for a few hours to ponder over the topic. I neither see an axe, nor a frozen ocean.

I remember I have always been inclined towards reading. I couldn’t read till the age of 13-14 because I have cerebral palsy and back then we didn’t have special schools. This reminds me, surprisingly, my parents never made a conscious effort to teach me reading, although they were otherwise quite caring and loving. I remember I used to bug my elder sister to read me comics and other books and she herself being quite young at that time, she couldn’t read to me every time I asked. But I remember I used to feel very bad that I couldn’t read.

In my special school our teacher used to force us to read books. Not just read books, but also write a summary after completing every book. Wanting to read books on my own was one thing, but being forced to read them and then write about them was a different thing and most of the time I resisted. But that was the first reason why I started reading books. Ours was an NGO-run school so all the books in our library were donated and most of the people who donated those books had English books, so I mostly read English books. Later on when my mother started buying books for me she would buy English books (mostly recommended by the bookseller because I couldn’t accompany her) because she had always seen me reading English books.

Even when I was being forced by my teacher to read books, I had the tendency to take notes and try to understand words I didn’t understand. This was the second reason why I read books when I was small. I wanted to learn as many new words as possible. I have always wanted to be a writer. While reading books I would keep a diary and a dictionary with me and every time I came across a word I didn’t understand, I would jot it down and then look up its meaning in the dictionary. It’s another matter I never memorised most of the words (as my wife often says, that I’m a ‘process’ person, I like the process of doing things without actually intending to see them through their conclusion). A read to learn new words and I also read to learn how different writers write and weave plots.

What about reading for the sake of reading stories and spending time. Yes, of course. I have read many books just because I’ve found the story very interesting and captivating. I’ve spent entire nights reading books because I couldn’t put them down. Back then we didn’t have the Internet and TV to compete with the time that we could devote to reading books. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter!

Why do I read books these days? Over the past few years I have been reading lots of non-fiction. Books on religion, books on intellectual conspiracies, books on political intrigues, books on personalities, even autobiographies. I have read these books to expand my knowledge and perspective. I don’t always agree with the writers but still I want to know what they think about particular subjects, so I read them.

But reading non-fiction is not as enriching as reading fiction, especially when you need to write fiction. So I have again started reading fiction, in fact, lots of it. Although many times I feel that I read in order to avoid writing, my experience is that I am most fluid and creative when I’m reading a lot. So I also read books in order to be able to write better. But I’m two-minded about this. My better sense says that these days I mostly read to avoid writing. Why do you read books?

Image source

Do you prefer to read fiction or non-fiction?

The last serious piece of fiction that I read was “The Book Thief”. Of course after that I also read Matsyagandha and The Norwegian Wood but they were intermittent pauses. Mostly I was reading non-fiction. But unless you are really seeking out something specific, non-fiction tends to be boring because there are very few good writers who are good storytellers with facts.

Reading for me is like listening to music. Of course the information, the core of what is being written, matters, but what also matters to me is the way things are written, the way sentences are formed, the way words are interwoven with each other to create literary lyricism. This I find more in fiction and less in non-fiction. You can compare fiction and non-fiction to watching an enchanting movie and watching a documentary. Of course there are times when you want to watch a documentary, but when you want to have a good experience you mostly watch a movie.

For a few months I have been working on a collection of short stories and I was feeling kind of stuck. The words wouldn’t come, the sentences wouldn’t form and the plot wouldn’t budge. It was as if I was having a totally meaningless conversation. Then I realised that it might be because I haven’t been getting my regular dose of fiction. All the time I was reading non-fiction, factual books telling me about this controversy and that controversy, this conspiracy and that conspiracy, how this is bad how that is good, how things are managed and not managed, who screwed the country and who served it well, and so on. I haven’t read something like Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky or even something like Salman Rushdie for years.

In order to write, you need to read. In order to write fiction, you need to read fiction, a lot of it. I don’t remember who said it, on an average a writer reads 200 books and then writes one. 200 books? I’m not even sure if I have read 200 books in my whole life.

Here is an interesting link that says reading fiction makes you a better human being. Whether it is really true or not remains to be seen. Does it really? I have observed many individuals who by all means must have read lots of fiction but are still quite lousy; better or worse, they first need to learn how to be human. On the other hand, I have seen people who have not read much but are quite nice.

But the points outlined in the article make sense. When you read fiction you are exposing yourself to different emotions, different points of views, different situations, different characters with different opinions, diverse backgrounds, cultural peculiarities and religious thoughts. Whether you agree with them or not is another matter, but you are exposed and whenever you are exposed to something you haven’t been exposed before, you are left a changed person, whether you realise it or not.

The review of Autobiography of a Yogi

Portrait of Steve Jobs holding Autobiography of a Yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi, as the name suggests, is an autobiography of an Indian yogi named Paramhansa Yogananda. Prior to becoming a yogi, his name was Mukunda Lal Ghosh and was the fourth child of a financially comfortable Bengali family.

From his childhood itself he was drawn towards spiritualism, search for God and finding the true meaning of life. Once he scared his little sister by drawing three paper kites (being flown by other kids on other roofs of the adjacent houses) to him successively by simply wishing for them to come to him. His father, Bhagabati Charan Ghosh, was employed on a high post in the Indian Railway in British India.

There are many books in my Kindle collection that have just been randomly added for many years. A few times it has so happened that I have come across a book while reading something else and thought of purchasing it. While purchasing I’ve discovered or realized that I already have that book with me. Autobiography of a Yogi is one such book. I had purchased it many years ago and then forgotten about it. Forgotten in the sense that normally when I was browsing through my index, I often used to come across this face of a yogi with a flowing mane staring at me (the cover of the book), I would look at the title and then move onto another book.

Now I don’t remember why recently I started reading Autobiography of a Yogi but I do remember someone telling in a YouTube video that Steve Jobs used to read this book once every year and he would often gift the book to family, friends and colleagues, as a source of self-realization. Perhaps that was also one of the reason why I started reading the book (you see, we Indians have this tendency of finding things more fascinating when they have been accepted and endorsed by Westerners).

But that was not the only reason (Steve jobs reading and recommending Autobiography of a Yogi) why I kept reading the book once I started reading it (I mention this because these days I don’t waste my time if I don’t find a book worth reading, just because I have purchased it).

In the beginning of 2015 I chanced upon a great book called Law of Attraction (another book in my collection that has been there for years, unread) and once I started reading it, I found myself agreeing to almost the entire content of the book and ever since then, have applied many suggestions given in the book to my own life. Not that my life has miraculously changed or anything, but everything described and documented in the book is so logical that even believing in miracles doesn’t seem illogical.

The events described in Autobiography of a Yogi are just a continuation of the central theme of Laws of Attraction, that you are the one responsible for whatever is happening in your life. If you want to remain healthy, you just need to will to remain healthy, if you want things to happen the way you want them to happen, you just need to will them to happen just the way you want them to happen. It may seem absurd, but if you read Laws of Attraction and then Autobiography of a Yogi, you will find a great similarity. What has been described in Laws of Attraction in theory, has been demonstrated as real-life examples in Autobiography of a Yogi. The fundamental philosophy of life remains unchanged, whether it’s the West or the Orient.

The only difference between both the books is that Autobiography of a Yogi doesn’t mince the words when describing miracles. For example, when Paramhansa Yogananda (Mukunda) was a teenager he fell so sick that he would have died any minute. His mother fervently prayed to the family’s spiritual guru Shri Lahiri Mahasaya and even urged Mukunda to pray to the great Yogi, which the child did with great concentration. There was a flash of light in the room and Mukunda was instantly cured, reaffirming his faith in the supreme power of sadhana.

Throughout the book he gives ample examples of yogis appearing and disappearing from and into thin air, of them travelling through length and breadth of the country while sitting in meditation, and controlling the matter and the laws of physics and drawing solid things out of nothingness.

Everything is explained scientifically so there is no miracle. There are many things that are very difficult for us to understand simply because we don’t have that sort of insight and intelligence. You need to read the book with an open mind if you really want to complete it and even if you don’t believe in the miracles described in the book, the philosophy explained in the book will give you an insight into how one should live his or her life.

The lives of many saints have been chronicled in the book, especially of the yogis and gurus that directly influenced Paramhansa Yogananda. There are a couple of chapters on Lahiri Mahasaya who was one of the greatest yogis despite remaining married and having kids.

Then there is the mention of Babaji who is described as an avatar, or rather, Mahavatar. It is believed that Babaji never dies. He lives like a true yogi, mostly in Himalayan caves, and he is also believed to have given yoga initiation to Adi Shankara and then later on, after many centuries, to Kabir. Babaji tutored Lahiri Mahasaya and initiated him, then Lahiri Mahasaya tutored and initiated Sri Yukteswar and then Sri Yukteswar tutored and initiated Yogananda Paramhansa. Once Babaji decided to leave this world but his divine sister urged him not to and then he declared that he would never leave this world, so he is still supposed to be alive.

There are many instances of yogis achieving higher realms of living and being a yogi doesn’t mean that you have to be from India. Paramhansa Yogananda, after having moved to the United States on the instruction of his master (the entire line of masters including Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswara it seems have been preparing Paramhansa Yogananda to spread the knowledge of yoga in the Western world), was returning to India once and on his way he visited a Bavarian stigmatist Therese Neumann who would manifest the wounds of Christ (called stigmata) every Friday. She never ate food. Every morning at 6 AM she would just eat one consecrated wafer. There are a few other yogis who don’t need to eat food because they can survive on the cosmic energy.

The most fantastic aspect of the book is the chapter where Paramhansa Yogananda writes about the coming back of his own guru, Sri Yukteswar, after death. Sri Yukteswar tells Yogananda that after leaving Earth, he went to another planet called Hiranyaloka as saviour of more advanced beings (compared to the beings on Earth). At the time of the writing of the book, Sri Yukteswar was aiding the superior beings of Hiranyaloka to liberate them from astral karma. The inhabitants of that planet have already gone through the cycle of life and death on Earth and have attained a higher form of consciousness before they can rise further. On that planet or in that realm of consciousness, they are still trapped in some form of karmic cycles which they need to get rid of before getting nearer to the God being and Sri Yukteswar, being an enlightened being himself, was helping the inhabitants of the planet.

The world as we know, according to the revelations made by Sri Yukteswar after his resurrection, exists as different layers of consciousness. In the consciousness where he was living at that time, there was no sadness and pain and everything was beautiful. He describes in detail in how much bliss the inhabitants of Hiranyaloka live and through what spiritual and physical processes and births the people of Earth have to go through before landing on such a planet. Sri Yukteswar verifies the infinite universes and parallel existences described in the Hindu Upanishads, written thousands of years ago.

Personally the only nagging point in the book is that although the book has been written in and around 1945 and it describes a period between somewhere around 1915-1940, not even once he talks about India’s freedom struggle. He goes meets great scientists Bose, he also interacts in detail with Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, but he never talks about the various events unfolding at that time in British India.

Understandably the book has been written more for Western readers rather than Indian readers and you can make this out from ample examples from Bible and other Christian saints. He constantly calls various Indian saints and yogis “Christlike”.

Would I recommend the book? Yes. Would you trust or believe the events, phenomenon and personalities described in the book? It depends on your personal belief. In order to believe what’s written in the book you don’t need to believe in the supernatural or the miraculous. I’m not a superstitious person but I do believe beyond an iota of doubt that there are many aspects of this world that we don’t understand. Modern-day science was once considered witchcraft. Scientists were put to death for saying that the earth goes around the sun instead of the sun going around the earth. So maybe the miracles that seem miracles may no longer remain miracles once someone can properly explain them and prove the science behind them.

Are digital books changing the way authors write?

Digital Books

A very balanced take on the way digital books are shaping the way books are read and written, in this article. For more than three years now I have been reading digital books and I read paper books only when digital books are unavailable (which rarely is the case these days). Initially I used to read e-books (even when I purchased them from Amazon in Kindle format) on my Samsung tab that was quite outdated. Seeing how much I read my wife motivated me to purchase the Kindle reader.

I read digital books more for the convenience and less for the supposedly positive impact that they have on the environment. The article above talks about how youngsters these days use the same device to read books as well is interact on social media and social networking websites and also use the same device for playing video games, music and movies. This sort of, takes away the exclusivity book reading demands. Book reading is supposed to create a totally different world, segregated from your surroundings. Is this possible with digital books with so much distraction going around? And how does it impact the way writers write, in order to capture as much attention as possible?

Any word in an ebook can invoke its own dictionary definition, simply by selecting it. If a passage in an ebook strikes you as cogent, beautiful or profound you can bet – once you’ve switched the highlight-sharing function on – hundreds of other people have already highlighted it. It’s a short hop from realising that to paying special attention to the highlighted bits – not out of laziness but as a wise learning strategy.

Where I see the problem is that books can be read in almost all the devices. Once you have purchased the Kindle book, for example, you can read it on a tablet, on an iPad, on a phone, on a computer and on a laptop and basically every device that has an operating system and the ability to connect to the Internet. In terms of sales, it must have been profitable for the publishers (as I mentioned above, I had started purchasing Kindle books much before I actually purchased the Kindle reader). But, books should be read on a device that only makes you read books. There should be no distraction. In fact I’m sure, this is how gadgets like Kindle reader were born – to create a digital space where only books are the consumption. There is no social networking. There are no phone calls. There is no instant messaging. There is no notification area. There are no message bubbles. Just pages and pages of the book you’re reading.

Every medium changes the way literature is written and read. This has been going on since the time immemorial. Even before digital books, the way people wrote and read was constantly changing. Just see the way writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote and the way contemporary writers write. Writing styles change. Reading patterns change. This is an ongoing process. Instead of resisting it, we should embrace it, both as writers and as readers.

Having said that, I would insist that there must be separate devices for reading books, just for reading books.