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The Sceptical Patriot by Sidin Vadukut

Posted by RB Kollannur on July 10, 2014

Sidin Vadukut’s “The Sceptical Patriot” is the type of book that needs to be in Indian school libraries. In it, he explores the truthfulness of many of the facts that we “know” about India ranging from the invention of zero to plastic surgery. A civilization as ancient as the one in the subcontinent is bound to have many myths and legends, overgrown by hearsay and exaggeration. A course correction is, at times, needed.

In a work vastly more different than his satirical Dork series, Vadukut has matured as an author to move towards an alternate plane. The Sceptical Patriot is not meant for avid historians, but for beginners who are fascinated by many things Indian. The research done is excellent and for most part he sticks to the points being discussed. While it is easy for many writers to focus too much on research and bring out a boring technical book, Vadukut has managed to add just the right bit of humor to keep the average reader interested. He adds a personal touch as well, bringing in anecdotes from his life. While the connect between the anecdotes and the content are at times disjointed, they do well in humanizing the content.

A two chapter summation may sound too much, but it justifies the need for the book. It is often said history is written by the winners, but unless you kill off the losers like the way we killed off the Neanderthals, it is likely that their history will survive, creating a confusing version of the world. For example, have you ever thought why the only two people who would go for ritual circumcision in the modern world prior to Moses were the Egyptians and the Jews? For those really interested in history there are, for most part, material available for finding the truth. However, when history gets taught by the winners, it manages to imbibe itself into a society that may have otherwise rejected it.

The Sceptical Patriot do not seek to rewrite history textbooks, but it keeps the student open to more ideas. And for that it needs to be in Indian school libraries.

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The History of the Church by Eusebius

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Original Publication – 325; Pages – 435

The celebration of Easter was among the most heated debates for early Christians. It was by far the most important festival in the Christian calendar unlike today. But there was considerable strife in how western and eastern churches celebrated the festival. The strife over the dating of Easter and many other controversies, heresies and martyrdom are accounted in detail by Eusebius, the former Bishop of Caesarea (Israel) in his work on the history of the Church. He was a contemporary of Roman Emperor Constantine I, who adopted Christianity for his Empire.

One of the earliest Church historians, Eusebius, sheds considerable light to the ways of early Christians. Unlike today, early Christians were often hunted down for their faith. Going through the detailed martyrdoms in the book, it is not difficult to feel for the sacrifices made by these people. Christianity started its course through a thorny path, very different from its position today. The most enlightening are the heresies described. With no universal Church, Christianity was open to many interpretations Eusebius often sided with the officials in deeming what was heresy and what was not. The abundance of religious interpretations suggest the first three centuries after the death of Christ saw religious intellect peaking in that part of the world. Incidentally one of Eusebius’s mentors, Origen, would later be disavowed by the Church in part for his severity in monastic practices. Origen is said to have castrated himself to remain celibate.

Like any book on history, Eusebius also adds on his propaganda. In his earlier editions, Eusebius speaks highly of the reigning Emperor (and sponsor) and his elder son Crispus. But in later revisions, Crispus is largely ignored, because he was executed by his father for an unknown crime. Eulogizing Crispus would not have served him any purpose.

It was during the papacy of Victor I (incidentally the first African Pope) in late second century, that the first major debate on Easter occurred and led to the expulsion of quartrodecimans, Christians who worshipped the Jewish festival of Passover. However, the debate did not end there. Even in 325 when Emperor Constantine I called for the First Ecumenical Council, the debate continued to rage. Although the issue was thought to be settled then, even now Christians around the world are not unified in their celebration of Easter, with the Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar in their choice of the date.

On a side note Christmas bears no mention in the book. Even historically, the earliest mention of celebration of the birth of Christ is far more recent in comparison to the celebration of his death and resurrection.

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In Xanadu by William Dalrymple

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 20/03/2013

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 1989; Pages – 305; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 295

Where would a 22 year old college student, recently wealthier by GBP 700 (roughly Rs 58,000 In today’s currency) go to in the world? If you answered an ancient capital in ruins after centuries of neglect, known only to a few, then you have a slight chance in emulating William Dalrymple. The derelict city of Shangdu, deep in Inner Mongolia in China and the capital of Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan, is not your typical picnic trip and it certainly takes a great deal of courage and knowledge to undertake such a journey. But that’s not all that Dalrymple did. He followed the footsteps of another famed explorer to the Orient, Marco Polo. And proceeded to write a rather excellent book about it.

In 1271, Marco Polo, aged 17, set off with his father and uncle to the mystic Orient, with a letter from the new Pope asking for support against their common enemy, the Muslims, and a bottle of holy oil from the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, then held by Muslims. Their road was long and treacherous, but it was a road the Polo brothers had taken before. When in 1291, Marco Polo returned he came with many stories and memories that would later be written down by Rustichella da Pisa as “The Travels of Marco Polo”.

In 1989, tracing the history of that ancient expedition with its full significance, Dalrymple followed the Silk Route from Jersusalem to Shangdu (called Xanadu by Polo). The Polos were on a Church sponsored mission to impress Christianity upon Kublai Khan. But due to an extensively long sede vecante in 1269-1271 (when the Cardinals had to be starved to death to elect a new Pope) the plan had to be put on hold and instead of a delegation of many priests, only two clergymen were sent (who did not even make it out of Levant).

Travelling from Israel to China is an arduous task, not just because of the long road to travel, but also the political situation of the region. The closest route would take you through Iraq and Iran, who were at war with each other, followed by Afghanistan, then under Soviet invasion and finally to China still under the heavy hand of Communism. Fortunately, Marco Polo travelled from Jerusalem to Iran through the northern route through Turkey.

But “In Xanadu” is not just about getting there. Dalrymple portrays each character he encounters on the way with a touch of simplicity and humour, that one cannot help be amused by his stories. Unveiling the life of the people along this the most ancient of the trade routes, Dalrymple tags the reader along for a long and amusing ride.

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The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 11/03/2013

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 2006; Pages – 211

In “The Revenge of Gaia” there is a quote from Mother Theresa said to have been given in 1988, “Why should we care about the Earth when our duty is to the poor and the sick among us. God will take care of the Earth”. Probably many people gave a similar line to Noah before he embarked on his Ark to escape the Great Flood. James Lovelock is a noted environmentalist and the originator of the Gaia hypothesis. It was his work with NASA and his subsequent discovery of the electron capture detector that eventually paved the way for the discovery of the causes to ozone layer depletion. “The Revenge of Gaia” is one of the many the books he has written about his Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia theory, the name taken from the Greek mother goddess, represents Earth as a self regulating entity who keeps herself healthy by physical and chemical changes. But what is healthy for her may not be healthy for us.

Most people forget about their earliest biology classes about the time when the planet was thriving with plant life and very little oxygen. Oxygen, a poisonous substance for the carbon dioxide breathing plants, slowly got its upper hand in the atmosphere due to centuries of its excretion during photosynthesis, enabling the evolution of oxygen breathing animal life. The book is peppered with a wide range of scientific data, among which the most interesting that I found was the one related to algae. The planktons that live in our oceans have seen their liveable area drastically reduce as Earth heated up and as a result their impact on climate, or the lack of it, has the dressing of the harbinger of doom.

Surprisingly for an environmentalist, Lovelock is in favour of many technologies his contemporaries dissuade from – Nuclear energy and DDT. The former, despite all the ruckus over Fukushima in the recent past, remains one of the cleanest non polluting energy source in the world, while the latter used in the right quantities remains an excellent insecticide and preventer of malaria in regions where it is not banned.

In the end the book comes off a touch contradictory. The author sums up saying that the events, as they are now, can only rapidly depopulate the world of human beings and not lead to extinction. As a solution however he suggests reducing the human population to one billion so that the planet can better regulate herself and the living beings on her.

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Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 04/03/2013

Publisher – Faber; Year of Publication – 2005; Pages – 336; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 350

Istanbul is a city with many fading memories. Founded in 330 AD, it began as the most glorious city of the Christian world and for most part of the next thousand years it would remain so. In Ottoman hands from 1453, the city’s new owners made it the greatest city of the Islam world. But with the fall of the Ottoman, came the fall of this ancient city. Having lost its political primacy to Ankara, Istanbul has been on a slow and sad decline the past century.

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is among the most celebrated authors of modern Turkey. His work “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is a semi autobiographical story about him and the city of his birth. Born in 1952 after the revolution of Ataturk, Pamuk grew up in a young nation attempting to forego its Ottoman past. Istanbul, filled with Ottoman architecture and culture, served as the very antipathy of these beliefs. Its glorious past was forgotten and the city was left for ruin. But having shaped Pamuk’s life, Istanbul stays on as a melancholic presence throughout the book.

Situated on two continents on the shores of the Bosphorus, Istanbul is still a very scenic and breathtaking city. But the reminders of a glorious past are omnipresent, adding to the huzun (melancholy) of the city. Pamuk looks back to the nineteenth century with grateful affection when, though the Empire was in a decline, Istanbul had reached its pinnacle in art and literature. Drawing upon the works of that era, peppering the book with photographs and the portraits of the city, new and old, the author has immersed the reader in the sombre lore of the city and has managed to impress the prevailing sadness.

Although it is easy to get lost in Pamuk’s biography of the city, the book also serves as his autobiography. Many stories from his childhood find a part in the novel and so do many of his conflicts with family. All these add to the solemn theme of the book.

We in India do not have an ancient city of the calibre of Istanbul to grieve. But the melancholy of Istanbul can be well reflected by the decline of our ancient civilization, once amongst the oldest in the world.

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The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 26/02/2013

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 2011; Pages – 467; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 499; Purchased from Cosmo

Papacy has suddenly become the news in vogue after the sudden declaration of resignation by Pope Benedict XVI. It is one of the oldest institutions in the world and has a long and interesting history, filled with controversy, politics, nepotism and sex. Despite the long history, resignations are very rare (the last voluntary resignation was in 1294), though there have been many Popes that have been deposed or forced to resign.

John Julius Norwich, a noted English historian and writer, has recounted the history of the Holy See in his 2011 book “The Popes: A History”. Summarizing two millennia of history into 500 pages is not an easy task and predictably, the details improve with the progression of time. The author runs through the first 800 years of papacy without much detail, but this is a characteristic of the status of Christianity as a religion during that time and the status of the Pope within it. Among the early Popes, the noteworthy ones included Leo I the Great who stared down Attila the Hun when he attempted to seize Rome and Gregory I the Great who developed the administrative setup of the Church.

For most part, the Popes have been aged gentlemen of learning, who had spent their life with the Church, and suffering from gout. But there have been exceptions, like Pope John XII, who become Pope when he was only 18 and attempted to excommunicate an Emperor by writing “You have no power to ordain no one”. The usage of double negative was dutifully noted by the Emperor. Pope John’s family, the Tusculani, is credited with having produced seven Popes including Benedict IX, who was one of the earlier papal resignees, because he sold his papacy to his godfather, Gregory VI (who would also subsequently resign).

It was only in 1059 AD, with the help of the Cardinal Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) and his Norman allies that the now familiar College of Cardinals was given the sole power of election of Pope. The custom of locking the Cardinals till they elected the Pope was instituted in 1274 by Pope Gregory X, after it took three years for the Cardinals to elect Gregory X. The papal election of 1287-1288, though it lasted only 10 months, saw the death of one third of the Cardinals present (due to malaria).

The last Pope to resign voluntarily, Pope Celestine V, was also the last Pope elected without a conclave; after an election that took two years. A hermit, incapable of handling the administrative responsibilities of the Holy See resigned within half a year. He was imprisoned by his successor which is where he would die, like a hermit.

It was during the middle ages that Popes got into the habit of making their nephews Cardinals. Nepotism was at an all time high and so was corruption. In fact the word nepotism comes from this practice (Nephew in Latin is nepos). It was subsequently banned in 1692 by Pope Innocent XII.

In recent years the papacy has lost the influence it once had, but it has vastly improved from the archaic institution it once was. Ironically, the papacy is an organisation that has been evolving since its inception. But with Europe becoming lesser Catholic, the papacy has largely been an out of touch institution not able to fully accept its diverse electorate. The author notes the positive moves made by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I in this regard, but criticizes the later Popes for their lack of interest in continuing forward. Since Pope Benedict XVI was still an active Pope at the time of publishing the author gives him the benefit of the doubt.

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The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 11/02/2013

Publisher – HarperCollins; Year of Publication – 2003; Pages – 165; Cost at the time of purchase – 295

In 1952, a medical student by the name of Ernesto set out with his friend Alberto on a motorbike for a trek across South America. Starting from Argentina, the intrepid bikers travelled across the Patagonia plateau and Andes Mountains through Chile. From there they traversed through the Atacama desert travelling through the ancient Incan lands of Machu Picchu and later the Amazon River Basin covering Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama.

But all throughout they treated leper patients forming close associations with the poor and the destitute in all the places they went. They, Guevara in particular, were pushed by the oppression of the people, especially in face of their relative economic prosperity back home. By the end of the long journey, the young medical student had become in his mind a revolutionary.

When you look up the meaning for revolutionary or rebel in a dictionary, you will find three letters – Che. Ernesto “Che” Guevara spent most of his life as a rebel. Even when he became a minister with Fidel Castro’s Cuban government, he found it unsettling enough to not rebel and had to leave and was eventually killed leading another rebellion, in Bolivia. But going through “The Motorcycle Diaries”, you can feel his passion for freedom from oppression, which made him the rebel that he became.

Che grew up in a comfortable background, coming from an upper class family in Argentina. After his bike ride through Latin America however, he sought out the oppressed and fought for their freedom. Alberto Granado, Che’s companion, had past experience with leper patients and this guided Che to the leper colonies in South America bringing him in close contact with the downtrodden people of the society. In Chile, he visited the mining communities of Chuquicamata who formed the backbone of the nation. But as is in most cases even today, the living conditions of such communities are considerably bad. But on the other side the owners of mining companies reap huge profits from their employees. All these were contributing factors for young Ernesto’s conversion into Che.

Beyond the revolutionary background of the story, the book is a beautiful travelogue. Guevara’s description of the Incan ruins brings out the literary quality of the author. It is in Peru, in conversations with a local doctor, that Guevara turned towards communism. Both the events had a lasting impact on his life, and death.

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Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 04/02/2013

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1976; Pages – 255

Keralites have a long history of being outdone by con men, be it in money chains or teak scams. More recently, we have seen a rise of con men in the news. But on screen and among books, con men are often romanticized as heroes as can be seen by the success of the Oceans’ movie franchise and the never ending Robin Hood saga of stories. “Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less” is a story about con men, but instead of conning the aam admi, they are out to con another con man.

A dentist, a curator, a professor and a poverty ridden minor lord are conned by a master con in a stock scam. The master con takes advantage of legal loopholes to relieve our unfortunate protagonists of a million dollars. But instead of sulking over their lost fortune, they decide to con it back from the source. Each of them has to come up with a scam to swindle the villain. What follows is an amusing adventure by four normal everyday guys as they bungle their way through cons with alarming luck and earn themselves most of their money, almost down to the last penny that they lost. As the novel progresses the reader is kept on tenterhooks as it is never certain what the plan is or whether it will be a success.

The novel is an entertaining read with witty and humorous sequences, especially when our four intrepid schemers are out on a scheme. One cannot help sympathize with their plight as they keep a stern moral (for most part) while they steal. Most of their schemes are planned methodically but, as has been known in cases of careful planning, all plans run amok when put to the test.

Over the years, Jeffrey Archer has amassed the reputation of being a prolific writer having written over three dozen books. But in 1976, when Archer wrote his first novel “Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less”, he was an out of work politician fighting bankruptcy after falling victim to a fraud. But instead of following the course of the protagonists of the novel, he wrote his way back into green. However, given his situation it is impossible to not draw parallels between his novel and his life.

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Nightfall by Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 27/01/2013

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1990; Pages – 339; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 259

Imagine a world with no night. It was said “Let there be light”, but the day was never meant to be endless. If it had not been for the night, lovers could not have cherished their forbidden love in moonlight, but left to grope at each other in the shadows of dark alleys. The wonder of the stars that fill the night sky would be lost forever and so would be the serene calm of moonlight. There would be no respite or relief from the heat of the sun. Cat burglars would be left jobless and nocturnal beings would be fast-tracked to extinction. But for the people on the planet of Kalgash, there was no night. They were surrounded by six stars which, in coordination, gave them endless light. They knew of no stars or moons since they saw neither in their sky.

But all good things must come to an end. And so the night falls on Kalgash, with an eclipse; an event that happens once in two millennium and all chaos breaks loose. “Nightfall” was originally a short story written by Asimov in 1941 to answer a quote by the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, about what would happen if the stars appear only once in a millennium. While Emerson chose to draw an optimistic view, Asimov came up with a chaotic nightmare. “Nightfall” was later expanded by Asimov, with the help of another scifi author, Robert Silverberg, to give a completion to his short story. The story pits a doomsday cult, who expects the finality of their beliefs in the eclipse, against a group of scientists, who wishes smooth eclipse.

Celestial events have always held a strong fascination for humanity, especially among people purporting to predict events out of them. But our incomplete knowledge of the universe gives an author unlimited scope to experiment his most fantastic ideas, without inviting ire from the general public. Although over the past century we have made tremendous progress in astronomy and astrophysics, there are still enough unknowns left for future generations to discover. It may still turn out that we are dumber than dinosaurs in the field of astronomy.

In “Nightfall”, Asimov takes on many religious views that believe in inevitable doom and judgement. But with “Nightfall” he also identifies the wisdom of such beliefs and the relevance of it in normal society. As an astute historian, Asimov can break down and separate the significance of religion from superstition.

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The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 20/01/2013

Publisher – Penguin; Year of Publication – 1936; Pages – 184; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 90

The nation of Belgium was formed in 1830 by cutting up two nations (France and Netherlands) and was ruled by a German prince as a constitutional monarchy. Even now the nation remains divided in two, as recently as 2010-2011 when Belgium went without a government because they still longed for their long lost origins. Ironically perhaps, the most famous of Belgian characters in literature comes from a completely different nation; that of the British writer Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot, with his hilarious and memorable eccentricities, made the Belgian nation popular with avid mystery readers. My fondest memory of Poirot is the TV series that used to come on the old Star Plus starring David Suchet acting out the role of Poirot with an immaculate precision.

Poirot is an intellectual detective. While he relies on his observation skills to figure out the clues, it is his mind, or “the little grey cells” as he likes to call it, that profiles the psyche of the criminals and catches them. At close of most stories is a summation where all parties relevant to the crime are brought together and the criminal is revealed from among them. The reader is left guessing for most of the book on who the actual criminal is.

A letter is received at the residence of Hercule Poirot which taunts him to prevent a crime in the lonesome English town of Andover. When a murder happens on the designated date at the designated place, most detectives would have left it for coincidence. But in a mystery novel, there is no place for coincidence. So, when the second letter comes predicting a death on the beaches of Bexhill, Poirot and his intrepid companion, Captain Hastings, know they are in the hunt of a serial killer. Parellelly, the author visits the life of a travelling salesman, Alexander Bonaparte Cust, whose job takes him through the towns of Andover, Bexhill, Churston, Doncater and so on perhaps even to Yorkshire.

The A.B.C Murders is a departure from the usual Poirot. Varying from the strict first person narrative, an additional narrative is added to follow what appears to be the criminal at his work. This adds an interesting dimension to the novel as it adds to the confusion of the reader. Diversion and distraction are among the best tools a mystery writer can use to keep the reader thinking, and a skilled writer like Christie knows how to use both.

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