Several religions ascribe souls to all living things, not just humans but animals and plants as well. Shintoism ,the ethnic religion of Japan, believes that rocks, trees and places possess kami (spirit, essence), which I take to mean they have a soul. It is a view I somewhat empathize with. After all. who has not felt in awe looking at a majestic redwood tree or a towering sequoia or a spreading banyan tree? Or a magnificent monolith such as the colossal Ayers Rock in Alice Springs ( Australia)? I am not sure that is the same as thinking these things have a soul, but they definitely seem to have something above and beyond their physical reality.

I was taken aback, however, to read in a book* by Marie Mutsuki Mockett that some Japanese used to believe that even man-made objects such as chairs or tables acquired a soul if they had been around for a hundred years! Consequently, people often disposed of things that turned ninety-nine to avoid having to deal with them after they got a soul. This created a new problem because the discarded objects, indignant at having been deprived of their chance to get a soul, often became malignant spirits thirsting for revenge on their former owners. What a predicament! ( LOL). The author’s mother explained that this belief should not be taken too literally. The real message was that one should take care of things like umbrellas with respect because even an inanimate object deserves to be treated with dignity and that how you care for objects is an indicator of how you care for the people in your life. That I can understand.

I don’t for a minute think that man-made objects can acquire a soul but I started wondering about things I had that were a hundred years old or more. There are only two. One is a falling apart copy of The Parent’s Assistant by Maria Edgeworth. It is a book of moral tales intended teach young children the virtues of thrift, hard work, modesty etc. It used to belong to my maternal grandmother and dates back to the 19th century; I loved to read it as a kid. The other item is a gold medal that my paternal grandfather earned for standing first statewide in his medical exams. It is safely stowed away in a satin pouch. If it has a soul, it won’t be mad at me because it is as comfortable as can be. The book is another matter. It is shut away with other books in a cardboard box in the attic and is probably furious at me.

Old things may not have a soul but we treasure them for other reasons, usually for their connections with the people they used to belong to. In my case, these are usually books. For instance, there is a book of poetry that my mother studied in her college days, the flyleaf of which is inscribed in her bold hand with her (maiden) name. There are three bound volumes of recipes, dating back to the early seventies, from the long defunct Illustrated weekly of India which my parents lovingly collected and gave me when I first came to the U.S. I don’t often cook from those recipes( almost never, in fact) but I will always treasure those books. Then there is the copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables which my wife was awarded for being the best student in her class, circa 1967. And my son’s second grade essay on George Burns from 25 years ago, complete with his depiction of a smoking cigar, which earned him a ” Great job!” from Mrs. Reid.

All these things, except the gold medal, have no intrinsic value and do not mean anything except to me. The gold medal I will pass on to my son but the rest will be consigned to the trash by someone one day and that is the way it should be. They have been treasured in their time and that time is over.

* Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye. Marie Mutsuki Mockett. ( Norton 2015)

My last post ” The Journey Inward” was based on a passage from Pico Iyer’s book ” The Art of Stillness”. Iyer’s book was a TED publication, and it surprised me to know that TED is more just than short talks. Apparently, some of the talks have companion books which, like the talks, are short and pithy and meant to be read at one sitting. The Art of Stillness is a pocket-sized book, only 64 pages long, actually even shorter when you consider that it has several atmospheric photographs of sunrises and desolate Icelandic landscapes. It can be read in 45 minutes to an hour.

After I read the book, I discovered it was an extended version of Iyer’s TED talk, so I went to YouTube and listened to the talk.I enjoyed it, perhaps a little more than the book. Iyer is a fluent speaker and I admired his presentation and the way he seemed to use just the right word every time. The book was more detailed but not as seamless.

Afterwards, I got to musing about the ways in which we absorb information. It seems to me that we are moving away from reading  and towards watching videos. Perhaps it is only to be expected since so many of us are gravitating towards watching TV in lieu of reading books or magazines or newspapers. We get our news from TV , we watch sports on TV  and even the online newspapers we dip into have an ever-increasing amount of video content. In education, the runaway success of the Khan Academy is an illustration of this trend; MOOCS and online college courses are another. In my library, too, I see increasing amounts of shelf space given over to videos at the expense of books.

There is nothing wrong with getting information from videos and, in any case, it is impossible to arrest the relentless march of technology. If people feel they can assimilate better by watching a video , they will do so. However, when they do this exclusively or when they stop reading I feel it takes away from their critical thinking ability,and their writing skills. Videos are fine for quick assimilation of basic skills and information but there is a tendency among viewers to accept what they see as gospel. For more complicated subjects, the printed word is a must. Reading slows down the process of assimilation but, in doing so, it also makes the reader think more deeply, more critically. In addition, the reader subconsciously learns to appreciate good writing and to incorporate what he learns into his own writing… if he is a thoughtful reader, that is.

When I was still working, ten , fifteen, twenty years ago I was struck by the poor quality of the memos I came across daily. These memos were written by people whose mother tongue was English, almost all of them college graduates. It was sad to note how the writers, who were perfectly competent in their professional capacity, could not compose even a short paragraph without mistakes in grammar as well as composition. In the years since then, the standard of writing has fallen, if anything. People in this country are very good at expressing themselves verbally, but in writing …unfortunately, no.

I had thought that the fault lay in our education system where the quality of instruction leaves much to be desired, particularly in the subjects of math and science. The teaching of English is better but not by much. That is a whole different subject and I don’t want to get into it here. What I’ve come to realize is the pernicious effect of watching videos instead of reading. Just as calculators and computers have eroded math skills, TV and the social media are harming the way our youngsters think and write.

The Journey Inward

Except for the hassle of checking in and getting through airport security, flying does not bother me. Once I’m in my seat and the plane takes off, I can easily occupy myself. I always carry a book of crossword puzzles and another book, one I’ve been meaning to read. Once the plane has leveled off, I first skim through the inflight magazine and do the crossword puzzle ( if someone hasn’t already done it). Then I start on the crosswords in my book. Since I never do crosswords, except on airplane flights, I’m not very good at them. I allot myself 45 minutes or an hour for each after which I look at the solutions and fill in the answers to clues I’ve been unable to solve. Three or four puzzles, a little reading, discreetly checking out my fellow passengers and wondering what they do and where they been and where they’re going, looking out the window if I can… all these keep me engaged. Before I know it, we are being to told to return to our seats and buckle up as the plane begins its slow descent.

Because we’ve traveled so often between New York and Los Angeles, a five hour flight is something I’m accustomed to. Anything longer can get tedious. On longer flights, I spend a lot of time following the progress of our flight on the video monitor. I note the current speed, the altitude, the distance we’ve already traveled, the distance to the destination, the outside temperature and the ETA. As they keep changing, I do all sorts of mental math with the numbers. Still, there is a limit to how long I can keep myself busy. On long flights, like the 14 hour non-stop from New York to Tokyo, the last two or three hours seem interminable.

That is why I was fascinated by Pico Iyer’s account of his twelve hour flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles which he gives in his book The Art of Stillness.

The passenger next to him was a young attractive German woman who  exchanged a few friendly words with him as she settled into her seat. She then sat quietly, saying nothing , doing nothing for the rest of the flight. During that time,  Iyer himself dozed a little, dipped into his novel, checked out the options on the monitor and visited the toilet. She however never moved, wide awake but absolutely still and completely at peace. As the plane began it’s descent, Iyer asked her if she lived in L.A. She said not, that she was off for five weeks of vacation in Hawaii, a welcome respite from her stressful job as a social worker. She told Iyer that she liked to use the flight to decompress and get the stress out of her system. Thus, she could arrive at her destination relaxed and ready to enjoy her vacation.

How different this is from what most of us do. When we are on vacation, our minds are rarely still. We are constantly worrying about tickets, connections, hotel accommodations and sundry other details. Or we are worrying about things we should have done before we took off. Or we are worrying about what’s happening at the office while we are away or what awaits us when we get back. And , even in the plane, we are keeping ourselves busy with books, inflight movies, crossword puzzles and the like. We are never truly at rest.

On his next trip, from New York to California, Iyer decided to emulate his co-passenger’s example. He didn’t turn on his monitor and he didn’t read a book. As he writes, ” I didn’t even consciously try to do nothing; when an idea came to me or I recalled something I had to do back home, I pulled out a notebook and scribbled it down. The rest of the time ,I just let my mind go foraging – like a dog on a wide empty beach. ”  Iyer relates that when he arrived in L.A his mind was absolutely clear and refreshed.

We are going on a flight to Europe next month and I’m going to try this out myself. Even though the journey isn’t boring ,it can be tiring. I must admit that when we arrive at our destination I am far from refreshed. Let’s see if the anonymous German lady’s technique works for me.

P.S Just in case it doesn’t I’m taking along my crossword book.

Ann Morgan is a Cambridge grad,  an avid reader who blogs about the books she reads. Back in 2011, she was struck by the fact that most of the books she had read were by English and North American authors. In order to correct this imbalance, she set out to read one book from each country on the globe and blog about it. It was an ambitious year long project , since it meant she would be reading and blogging about four books every week in addition to working at her job as a full time job as a journalist and taking care of her home. The World Between Two Covers is the title of the book she wrote describing the difficulties that she encountered and what she learned about the world of books and publishing; the book’s subtitle is Reading the Globe.

I must confess that when I began reading the book, I wasn’t sure about the usefulness of her project. My reasoning was that she would not get a feel for a country by just reading a single book from(about) it. The problem would be compounded in the case of large countries which are home to a variety of cultures. For example, the Indian book that she read was Kaalam by M.T Vasudevan Nair, a writer from the southernmost Indian state of Kerala who writes in Malayalam. A book set in Kerala has little in common with others set in Punjab or Bengal or Maharashtra; each state in India has its own language and is very different from the others. Even in the case of small countries, one book hardly defines its literature, its society or its customs, no matter how good it might be. When you consider that the books she read included classics, folktales, novels and short stories her mission seems even more quixotic.

I was mistaken.

Reading one book per country may not give you a clear picture of the country or its society but, taken in the aggregate, it gives you a clearer picture of the world we live in. The World Between Two Covers is a compelling book that covers many different subjects. Some of the topics she covers:
How Culture skews our impression of the world and our place in it.
Cultural identity and the problem of authenticity.
The dominance of the English language.
The difficulty of becoming a published writer if you don’t write in English and/or are not from the UK or the US.
The Internet and the rising tide of self publishing.
Oral narratives and the difficulty of getting them down in writing.
Censorship. propaganda and exiled writers.
And many more…

What started Ann Morgan on this journey was the preponderance of books published in English. I had known English was the world’s dominant language but not the extent of its primacy. On a trip to Jamaica some years ago, I entered a bookshop looking for a book on West Indies cricket. To my surprise, there was not a single book published locally; every single one was imported, mostly from England. No wonder the famous writers the Caribbean has produced ( V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid to name a few) are all expatriates. As English consolidates its position, other languages are losing ground. Of the 6,000 tongues spoken in the world today, it is estimated that 90% are in danger of extinction. Morgan quotes an expert who gives this saddening statistic:” … every two weeks, the last speaker of a fading language dies”.

It is heartening to read of the help Ann Morgan received from different people, many of them strangers who came to know of her endeavor through her blog. People whom she had never met were generous in helping her obtain books from little known countries. Finding titles from countries like Burkina Faso, Benin, South Sudan or North Korea would have been next to impossible without such helpers. In many cases, they made recommendations. Sometimes they gifted their own copies. In one case, they even helped by translate the book into English. There is a camaraderie among book lovers and , perhaps, Ann Morgan’s benefactors recognized in her a kindred spirit.

A book about topics such as reading, language, censorship and publishing can very easily become tedious. Not this one. Morgan writes extremely well and tosses in the odd fact that keeps the reader engaged. Who knew for instance that the puritanical US postal inspector Anthony Comstock was aided in his censorship efforts by the YMCA which gave him $ 8,500 ( a huge sum in 1872)? Or that James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered the finest novel of the 20th century, might not have seen the light of day except for the efforts of Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company? I certainly didn’t.

Morgan has a light touch and a way with words. As a young child, she saw protesters burning piles of Salman Rushdie’s ” Satanic Verses” and it left a deep impression on her. A few years later when she was still in her early teens, she used her precious pocket-money to buy a copy of the book. Alas, she was in for a disappointment. In her words, ” … I pushed myself on to the final page with the same sense of duty that I applied to Brussels sprouts on Christmas Day: the thing just had to be got through.” (LOL)

At the end of the book, Morgan gives a list of the 197 books that she read. If you want to know what she felt about each of those books you can read about them on her blog ayearofreadingtheworld.com. It would be interesting to know how she feels about a certain title and I plan to dip into her blog now and again. Whether you do or not, you might want to read The World Between Two Covers. It is an interesting book on many levels and your time would be well spent.

In the opening scenes of ” Phantom”, the hero Daniyal Khan( Saif Ali Khan) loses his cool in a road rage incident, pursues the other driver and forces him to a stop on a bridge. After a furious fist fight, Daniyal throws the man to his death in the icy river below, is quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to prison.  At this point, viewers may wonder whether they are watching the beginning of the film or the end. Fortunately, a flashback makes things clear…

Six months earlier, a small group of operatives in RAW ( Research and Analysis Wing, India’s version of the CIA) determines to seek retribution for the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, when 10 heavily armed terrorists brought the city to its knees, killing over 150 civilians and setting fire to one the city’s best known landmarks. As one of the analysts bitterly remarks, India’s only response has been to stop playing cricket matches with Pakistan. The group seeks out Daniyal Khan, an ex-army man who has dropped out of sight after being unjustly cashiered out of the army with a dishonorable discharge. They convince him to go on a virtual suicide mission, targeting and killing the masterminds behind the 26/11 attacks. Daniyal’s mission takes him to London, Chicago, Syria and Pakistan as, one by one , he seeks out the terrorists and eliminates them. He is aided in his efforts by a beautiful ” security agent” Nawaz Mistry ( Katrina Kaif) who works for a shadowy military contracting firm , Dark Water. More of the story I do not need to tell you; you can guess the rest.

Predictable though the storyline is, this is still an enjoyable film; a good” time pass”, as my nephew is wont to say. The screenplay is based on the novel ” Mumbai Avengers” by S. Hussain Zaidi and the action-packed film moves briskly, particularly after intermission. The fight sequences are well choreographed and every cinematic gimmick is used to ratchet up the suspense. The plot has some ingenious twists but it also has plenty of holes. How could a looker like Katrina Kaif tail a terrorist mastermind without his being aware of it? How could Daniyal be convicted of murder without there being a dead body? But one has to suspend one’s critical faculties if one wants to enjoy movies like this. The foreign locales, nowadays a standard feature of Bollywood movies, add to the interest. The London scenes which include Lords cricket ground, Tower Bridge and Charing Cross station are really shot in London but the “Chicago” scenes were shot in Vancouver and  the Middle Eastern scenes in Beirut. I was curious about the scenes shot in “Pakistan”. It turns out they were actually filmed in Malerkotla, a town in Punjab which was completely transformed to give it the feel of a Pakistani town. It certainly looks authentic. In an action movie of this sort, one doesn’t look for great acting. However, Saif Ali Khan makes a believable hero and Katrina …. looks beautiful. The supporting cast is more than adequate, particularly Mohamed Zeeshan Ayub as RAW officer Samit and Sohaila Kapur as Ameena Bi. The music score by Pritam is enjoyable especially the song Afghan Jalebi.

Phantom has come in for some criticism as being jingoistic ( so , what’s wrong , even if it is ?) a copy of earlier films like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod ( Haven’t seen them) and anti- Pakistani ( anti-terrorist, yes: anti – Pakistani, no). To those who are offended by it , I say: Chill, it’s only a movie.( *** and 1/2*)

This has been a memorable U.S Tennis Open for me even if I didn’t get to watch the finals and the players I was rooting for both wound up as runners-up. However, for different reasons,I am not in the dumps about the result.

The match of the tournament, of course, was Roberta Vinci’s shocking upset of Serena Williams in the women’s singles semi-finals. Commentators have been trying to think of past upsets of this magnitude and they have failed. The closest, they agree, was Helena Sukova’s ambush of Martina Navratilova in the Australian Open semi-finals in 1984 when Martina was gunning for a Grand Slam. But, unlike Sukova, who was an up and coming player and later had a decent singles record, Vinci is hardly known to tennis fans except as a doubles specialist. I myself had never heard of her before Friday’s semi-final and it is no wonder that she was a 300 to 1 underdog. I tuned in to the match rather late and was amazed that it had gone to three sets. Even as I watched the final set unfold, I still thought that Serena would pull it out. Then , as the set wore on, as Vinci hung in there and ran Serena ragged before finishing off rallies with delicate half volleys and drop shots I began to have second thoughts. I had started watching without any particular rooting interest , so sure was I that Serena would win, but Vinci won me over when, after a winning a marvelous 16 shot rally, she gestured to the crowd exhorting them to cheer for her play too. From that moment on, I was for her and, I think, so too were many in the crowd at Flushing Meadows. Such a pleasure to see her repertoire of shots, so rarely on view in women’s tennis today. Such a pleasure to see her candid oncourt review after the match and share in her joy at this unexpected victory. I was hoping that she would pull off one more upset against the higher ranked Panetta in the final but it was not to be. I was otherwise engaged and couldn’t watch it but by all accounts it was an enjoyable one, marked throughout by class and sportsmanship and capped by Panetta’s announcement of her year-end retirement.

As for Serena, I’m sure she will win more Grand Slams and pass Steffi Graf on the all time list but another such opportunity for all four Grand Slams in a calendar year is a long shot. I saw a photograph of Serena from some years ago and she looks to have put on weight; at age 34 ( the same age as Roger Federer) one wonders how much she has left in the tank. The power game is still there but I thought she was winded by the extended rallies. The pressure she was under definitely was a factor in her defeat but so too was her conditioning, or lack thereof.

The articles in the N.Y. Times about these matches have attracted a lot of comments with some expressing their appreciation for Vinci and Panetta’s playing style and knocking Serena’s demeanor and others characterizing such sentiments as racist. I am firmly in the first camp and racism has nothing to do with it. I was a fan of the Williams sisters when they first came on the scene and I always thought Serena was the more talented of the two even when Venus was beating her. Knowing their impoverished background and the difficulties they had to overcome made me admire them. Since then, however, I have flip-flopped about them often. In Serena’s case, I was charmed to read that she speaks French fluently and is well read. However, her meltdown some years ago at the U.S Open when she berated and threatened a helpless lineswoman and her surliness after defeats were off putting. So was her on -court behavior, the screaming and fist pumping and loud grunting ( I hate that in Sharapova too) have turned me off, permanently.

The Mens singles final was delayed and was not available on TV because of conflicts with regularly scheduled programming;  so I did not see Novak Djokovic turn back Roger Federer in four sets. From the newspaper accounts, it seems that Federer was not able to replicate his form from previous rounds. Earlier, he had been masterful in handling the big-serving John Isner and in utterly demolishing Stan Wawrinka. I had hoped he would continue to play at that elevated level and win his 18th Grand Slam but it was not to be. Novak was just too consistent and Roger failed to make the most of his chances. Novak is so good a player that Roger has to be absolutely flawless to even stand a chance; anything less than his best just will not be enough. Too bad but, from Roger’s post match comments, it looks like he will be around for some time more and we can continue to enjoy the beauty of his game. Who knows? Perhaps he can recapture the magic one more time and make it 18 and 8.

Reading the Obituaries

When print newspapers were still popular and I used to get one, sometimes two, daily I often read the obituaries. Not all of them, and not every day. Just once in a while. Before you think  me ghoulish, let me tell you my reasons.

Many of us read biographies of famous people to learn how they got to be successful and , perhaps, to use those lessons in our own lives. All very well, particularly when one is young and still making one’s way in the world. However, if one is looking for life lessons, or lessons on living a happy life, reading obituaries makes more sense. Not those of famous people , like the ones you read in the New York Times, but those in the smaller newspapers which are those of ordinary people like you and me. Their stories are more relevant and they have a lot to teach us.
Most of the obituaries deal with mundane details – age, career highlights, place of birth and death, survivors etc. but one or two get into the details of a life well lived. I remember one for instance about ” Jack”, who retired at 65 and spent the better part of the next two decades learning new things. He read voraciously, mostly books on history and other cultures, learned Spanish and French and taught himself to play the piano. Isn’t that a great retirement and an example to emulate?

The last page of The Economist magazine is devoted to a single obituary, usually of a person who never achieved fame though he did something notable. A recent obituary was that of Nicholas Winton, a seemingly unremarkable man, a stockbroker by profession who, before the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia in 1938, rescued almost 700 children and found them homes in England. He did this single-handed, without  any help from the British government and he did it because he felt it was the right thing to do. Doggedly, he got the entry permits, forged them himself if necessary, brought the children over and found them good homes. He never thought of himself as a hero and his story only came to light half a century later. In 1988, he was the subject of an episode of the British TV show ” That’s Life”. At one point in the show, the entire audience got to its feet and applauded him – every one of them was a child he had saved, now grown up.  And this man, who had never been one to show his feelings, wept with long-suppressed joy. What a moment it must have been ! Sir Nicholas Winton passed away last month, aged 105.

I was reminded about my penchant for reading obituaries when I came across a slim book ” Find the Good” by Heather Lende. It’s a wonderful book. Lende is an obituary writer for a small newspaper in Alaska and in the book she describes how she interviews surviving friends and relatives to find out about the life of the deceased. ( Hence the title of the book). One of the people she wrote about was Hilma, one of thirteen children born to a poor farmer family, As a young woman, Hilma worked as a cook and housekeeper in the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. There, she met a group of World War II veterans who had purchased an army base outside of the tiny town of Haines, Alaska. Seizing the opportunity, Hilma and her husband Clarence relocated there and set up the Halsingland Hotel ( named for her home province in Sweden). Running a hotel is hard work but Hilma and Clarence thrived on it. Clarence was disabled, so Hilma shouldered most of the burden. Everything she did , she did well. During the tourist season, Clarence and she worked around the clock, seven days a week to keep up with the busloads of tourists that passed through. The rooms were spotlessly clean, the floors were sparkling, the flowers at the hotel entrance thrived under her care and her cooking was sublime. She picked the berries for her home-made jam and baked the hotel’s breakfast biscuits herself. When the tour buses pulled in at dinnertime, she would make the guests, often sixty or more, a buffet style dinner; they’d spend the night at the hotel and next morning she’d give them a fine breakfast before they left for their cruise ship. Immediately the guests left, it was time to strip the beds and begin all over again. Hilma and Clarence themselves lived a spartan life, sharing a tiny room just off the kitchen.
It was a hard life but Hilma had her moments of fun. After working a full day, she would sometimes ski expertly across the town in the moonlight for fun, and exercise too. Sometimes too, in the mornings, she would zoom down the hill on her Swedish bobsled to run errands.
But was there more to Hilma’s life than just hard work and success? Did she know contentment? This little story will answer that question.
Sometimes, when the hotel was not full, Hilma and Clarence would leave their cramped little room and check into the best room available. There Hilma would have a long luxurious soak in the claw footed tub and they would collapse on the sundried sheets for a night of deep dreamless sleep.
By the time, Hilma passed away at age 98, she had outlived two husbands, owned and operated the Halsingland for thirty years and managed the adjacent Port Chilkoot Camper Ground and Laundromat for twenty years more.
Hers was a life well lived, wouldn’t you agree?

Golden Ripples

About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

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