Posted in book review, suicide, TV series

13 Reasons Why: A Perspective

The new Netflix TV series ‘13 Reasons Why’ has created a storm. After a long time, there is a TV show that talks about the real struggles in the life of adolescents that sometimes wrecks their lives and drives them to take the final step.

The protagonist of the show is a 17 year old high school girl named Hannah Baker, who has recently committed suicide. Telling the story from the perspective of two people-Hannah Baker and her friend Clay Jenson, the show begins with the news that Hannah Baker has died. Arriving home from school, Clay Jenson is surprised to find a package containing cassette recordings at his doorstep. On hearing them, he realises that they were made by Hannah before her death, detailing the 13 reasons why she took her life. These 13 reasons turn out to be 13 people in her school who had in one way or another, contributed to her suicide. Some had broken her heart, some her spirit and some her soul. What follows after the people involved hear the tapes, and their actions thereafter, forms the crux of the narrative.

The show is groundbreaking in many ways. Not only does it deal with a very important topic, but it does so in a way that makes people really care about Hannah and do everything possible to save her. It is not that we do not care about people, but the main problem is that instead of offering support, most people offer sympathy, which although is required but is not enough in most cases.

So to those reading this blog post, I urge to take a few minutes out and talk to those who are a bit depressed. There are usually some signs that can help you with identifying such people-they offer subtle hints that they need help; or in some cases, you can sense that their primary nature has changed. Reach out to them, talk to them, spend a few moments with them, make them feel wanted. Imagine what would happen if every individual reaches out to another one in need. The suicide and depression statistics would tell an entirely different story.

As I write this, I get the news that within a few hours of the announcement of Class 10 and Class 12 results in India, 12 students committed suicide because of low grades, even though one of them had secured a respectable 74%.  Imagine if someone had reached out to them and talked with them. Imagine if someone had told them that grades ultimately do not matter, what matters is that you do your job well and be dedicated to it.

Some of the most successful people in the world today are dropouts-Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to name a few and they are a testament to the fact that grades don’t matter.

To those reading this, I urge you again. Help those in need and if you need help, I am one of those you can talk to.

Posted in book review

My Take: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

When Gaiman announced his new book based on the Nordic mythology, I was excited. Excited because there is probably no person better to tell tales of fantasy mixed with mythology than Gaiman. His previous works including American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are a testament to this fact.

When the book was launched in February, I immediately picked up a copy of it. I must admit at the outset that I knew very little about Nordic mythology, and whatever I knew was from the Marvel movies of Thor and Avengers. So, I was quite excited to read how the author would go about weaving his stories which have a factual basis. But in Gaiman’s expert hands, the stories acquire a new dimension, and you get hooked to the book right from the beginning.

Gaiman starts telling his story before everything existed. He tells us how Asgard and the Gods came to be and then introduces us to the central characters of the book-Odin the All-God, Thor the Mighty and Loki the Cunning. He also tells us about the other Gods and Giants who are not well known but are central to Nordic tales like Mimir, who was Odin’s uncle. Gaiman tells us the reason behind Odin’s one eye, about why he is called the Blind God or the One-Eyed God, and that of Loki’s children. He tells us the story of Thor’s hammer and why he needs to swing it with one hand. Gaiman narrates with his characteristic wit how the Gods got their wall, and how in the process Loki was embarrassed.

However, the story that I found the most interesting was about Loki and his children, more so because of the parallels that can be drawn between it and the Harry Potter book. Loki had three children with a female giant, one of which was a wolf named Fenrir and the other was a poisonous snake. To protect themselves from the wolf, the Gods decide to chain him up. While doing this, the wolf bites down on the hand of one of the Gods and thus acquires the traits of a werewolf. This is like the ferocious werewolf in the Potter series, who was also named Fenrir.

Gaiman ends his book with Ragnarok, the foretelling of the world’s end as we know it, where Thor and Loki die, and the birth of a new world.  The book is a must read because of the simple and delightful way in which Gaiman tells us almost everything about the Nordic mythology. So, the next time we watch any Marvel movie, we have some background on the stories of the Nordic characters.

Posted in book review, Gillian Flynn, thriller

My Take: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

“Books may be temporary; dicks are forever.” This is one of the lines that really capture the witty writing of Gillian Flynn in her new short story “The Grownup”. Originally published in the anthology Rutgers edited by George R R Martin, the story was later brought out as a standalone book.

The narrator of the story is a woman (the author does not reveal her name in the entire book, so we will call her “Mandy”) who gives hand jobs at Spiritual Palms, a place which specializes in tarot card and crystal ball reading at the front, while having a discreet soft sex racket behind closed doors. Mandy has had a difficult childhood: never knowing her father and having had to beg with her mother in order to sustain themselves. However, her mother is ingenuous. She knows which people to target for money (go to women in groups instead of single ladies; never to men in suits), and these skills are passed on to the daughter. The daughter turns out to be a quick learner, managing to earn more than her mother, so much so that she finally decides to escape that life and a newspaper ad leads her to Spiritual Palms. She knows that with a few past records she can never go into prostitution, so she goes on to give hand jobs. Having always been good at judging people and knowing what they want beforehand (also cognizant of the fact that the majority of the people coming for handjobs are middle-aged and perhaps, a bit scared), she tries to ease the situation by asking a few questions and breaking the ice. She excels at it, and starts having repeat clients. It is with one such repeat customer that the story actually starts.

Mark is a normal, middle aged family man who comes to her for hand jobs. Mandy and Mark both share a love of books that makes the bond between them more than that of customer and service provider: one between two book lovers.

Having realized her talent at the back of the room, her boss decides to put her out in the front, advising women and calming their fears. She meets Susan Burke, a mother of two who works in an agency and “defines and eliminates problems.” Susan appears troubled with the strange behavior of her step-son and asks Mandy for her help. Realizing that Susan is rich, Mandy begins of think of this as her gateway card to make a name for herself. She agrees to come over to her house and sort out the troublemaker.

When she sees the house for the first time, she gets the creeps. However, seeing a massive library filled with at least a thousand books somehow calms her down. She decided that she could get through anything as long as she had some time to lock herself up in the library to read.

But, the matter is not so easy as she thinks it will be. The son is really a creep, and there are incidents when Mandy begins to realise that the threat to her life that Susan was talking about, was not a misguided conception at all. She researches the house and finds that the previous owners were killed by their step-son: the father was stabbed, the mother was killed with an ax, and the younger son was drowned before the step-son hanged himself. And the eerie thing was that the step-son looked exactly the same as Miles, Susan’s step-son. Realising something was amiss, Mandy asks Susan to consider moving out of the house.

One day while in the library, Mandy stumbles onto a picture of Mark in a library book. Realizing that she has been giving handjobs to her client’s husband, she things that she has been caught and that Susan will inform the police. This is where Miles comes in and informs her that they must leave, as Susan is planning to kill them both as she knows about Mandy and the hand jobs. Miles tells her that Susan came to Spiritual Palms so that she could seek Mandy out (remember that it was Susan’s job to “define and eliminate problems”). Mandy realises that she was doubting the wrong person and runs away with Miles. On the way, Miles tells her that Susan knew nothing about the affair, and that he had lied to her so that he could leave the place and begin a new life: a life where he set the rules and had to listen to no one. Mandy begins to realise that she can never know who is right, and understands that the best way forward is to use Miles as her son and play the single mother angle to get her way in the world.

Taking a simple theme that has been repeated and retold a number of times (a haunted house; troubled step-son; cheating husband), Gillian Flynn weaves an intricate plot and the story acquires a new dimension in her masterful hands. The book is well worth a read for any person who is a fan of thrillers.

Posted in book review

A True Banker to the Poor

In the year 2006, an Economics professor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on micro-credit. No theoretical model was formulated for which this prize was offered. Rather, the author successfully implemented the scheme of providing micro-credit to the poorest of the poor with almost 100% repayment of loans. That man’s name is Muhammad Yunus and the scheme he started is now the Grameen Bank with replication models in more than 57 countries, including some of the most developed ones. The book “Banker to the Poor” is a story of how a university professor actually took it upon himself to change the lives of some of the poorest in the entire world by providing them capital as a means to reinvent their lives.

The reader at this point may wonder, what is different about the things that this man has done. Surely the banks provide credit to the people, and at much lower interest rates, than that charged by the Grameen Bank? (Grameen Bank charges 20% interest on the principal). However, while the part about the interest rates is true, the Grameen Bank (GB from hereon) provides loans without the need of a collateral. And this is where the catch is. Commercial banks are not ready to provide loans to any person or organization without having sufficient guarantee that the person withdrawing can repay the loan.

Yunus studied the poor around his university and came to the conclusion that while they were talented and hard working, their inability to hold capital was what was holding them back, apart from being exploited by local money lenders.

After several futile attempts to convince banks to lend money to these people without collateral, the author, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, started lending money. He designed a system whereby only those who have no property are able to take loans. Women are specifically targeted as empowerment of a woman typically means empowerment of her entire family. Women can be eligible for loans only after they have formed a group with four other women who would all be responsible for each other. These women then have to pass a test whereby they must know and practice the Sixteen Principles of the bank which they are expected to follow. Chief among these rules is the fact that they will educate their children.

Once these women are able to take out loans, the peer pressure from the group ensures that the loan repayment is high. Also, since most of them are daily wage labourers and cannot go to the bank, the bank itself comes to them. Every week, a GB representative cycles to the villages and collects the weekly repayments.

The GB model has also been replicated in many developed countries including USA and Norway. While the above countries do not lack money, the initiative has freed people in the former country from the bondage of social security (a system which the author is critical of, since it does not allow people on welfare to break free and look for employment opportunities), and social integration in the latter country. In Norway, women on an isolated island were provided capital so that they could manufacture traditional items while the men were away working.

Apart from providing poor people with capital, the author also attacks the institutions providing aid (like the World Bank) by doubting their methods. The author argues that the very fact that these people are managing to survive without access to capital means that they have some skills. Rather than teach them new skills (which the aid programs try to do), their existing skills should be leveraged. Also, rather than viewing credit as a means to alleviate poverty, it should also be viewed as a means for social change and integration.

Muhammad Yunus through his work has inspired a generation of young men and women to help him in his mission to change the lives of around 2 million of GB members.  

Posted in book review

My take: Seasons of Trouble

Rohini Mohan’s debut novel touches upon a sensitive topic: the Sri Lankan war against the LTTE. There have been books written about this war from the point of view of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese but for the first time, the horror of the war has been brought to light from the point of view of those affected the most in the conflict-the Sri Lankan Tamils. The author chooses three characters, each diverse in their experiences but united in the grief and suffering during and at the end of the war.

The first of these people is Sarva. He is a young, handsome man in his late twenties. He is abducted while going to work by the TID, the dreaded investigation department for terrorists and is tortured so as to confess his links to LTTE. Sarva recounts the petrol bag dumped on his head; his inability to see anything for hours afterwards and the sexual harassment suffered at the hands of the investigators before finally escaping the country to seek asylum in the UK.

The second person is Indra, Sarva’s mother. The author is highly successful in portraying her anguish and suffering as she goes about preparing the daily meal for her son and taking the bus from the village to visit him in prison. Her suffering is amplified as none of her family members seem to want to do anything with Sarva.

However the character that has the most depth in this narrative is Mugil. A Tamil woman, she first comes into the picture when she watches her fellow soldiers in the LTTE being raped and killed by the Sinhalese soldiers from above a tree. Mugil’s journey has been captured very effectively by the author: right from her childhood; to her recruitment in the LTTE; her training and finally, the time when she and others like her have to flee the north of the country in order to escape the Sri Lankan forces.

What is common in these three people is the fact their helplessness at the situation they find themselves in, their efforts to make their lives easier and their anger and frustration at their leaders who left them to fend for themselves. For in the end, their dream of a Tamil Eelam remained just a dream.

For the first time, a journalist has attempted to look towards the oppressed in the Sri Lankan Civil War and dared to question the methods of the “oppressors”. This is a heart wrenching story that needs to be read.

Posted in book review

My take: Smiley’s People

I have always been fascinated by John le Carre’s work; I have said it previously and I will not hesitate to say it again. While Our Kind of Traitor was his first book that I read, what really cemented my standing as one of his lifelong fans was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I have since read majority of his works with The Constant Gardener being for me one of his best books.

Smiley’s People is his latest book that I read. Though published a long time ago, I got a hold of it a few days back and as I sat down to read it, I became hooked. As is the case with his other novels, this one too qualified for a one-sit read although it is quite long.

The book is the last in the Karla-Smiley trilogy from the author that chronicles the mind battles of Karla, one of the top Soviet agent, with that of George Smiley, a retired British Foreign Service officer.

A Soviet woman living in Paris for the past 20 years is asked to write a letter so that she can be united with her daughter. However, when she has no news of her daughter, she informs an ex-general in the Soviet army who now works for the British service. The general, cognizant of the ways of the Soviet intelligence, realizes that the lady in question has been forced to provide a legend for another person, a working strategy that is the trademark of Karla, the Chief of the Thirteenth Directorate in Moscow. He contacts the woman and establishes this fact. However, things turn to a head when the general is shot dead and George Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate the case. What follows is a gripping battle of intelligence between the two arch rivals, with the culmination of all that Smiley had worked so hard to achieve in his career: the defection of Karla.

The novel encompasses all that le Carre is famous for in his novels: the brilliantly told spy narrative, the slow yet gripping unravelling of the plot and the enthralling finish. This is an apt ending to the famous Karla-Smiley trilogy that cemented the author’s place as one of the best spy novelists of his era.

Posted in book review, Current affairs

My take: No Good Men Among the Living

Everyone knew some things about the war in Afghanistan and its impact on the world politics in general. This was in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies and practices of the then Bush administration towards Afghanistan left a lasting impression on the world.  While stories of the trials and tribulations and heroism of the American military are there for the world to see, the impact of the war on the lives of normal Afghan people and also the Taliban factions opposing the American rule has not been chronicled so far.

Anand Gopal in his book ‘No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes’ brings about a whole new dimension to this war by telling the stories of three people caught in the conflict: a civilian woman, a Taliban fighter and a US commander. Public opinions regarding the war and its outcomes have been divided. While it is true that the general administration under US rule in Afghanistan improved, and schools and roads were built, the manner in which these changes were brought about actually did more bad than good for the Afghans.

The author tells us how the Taliban was ousted from the entire country (except for a few pockets) by using the famous American dictum of ‘either you were with us or against us.’ The American forces had two things which the Taliban did not have: money and modern weaponry, and it was actually the first which hurt the Taliban more. Almost immediately, the top faction of the Taliban either turned up as informers for the Americans in return for amnesty and huge sums of money. The Taliban commander interviewed by the author recalls seeing for the first time the amount of firepower the Americans carried and what it did to the morals of his group. Neither did it help that most of the Taliban top brass were simple village preachers with no knowledge of advanced weapons.

The civilian population was not saved either. The author documents how innocent farmers would be picked up for questioning and then shipped to Guantanamo on some trumped up charges and then released a few months later for lack of evidence only to be arrested again and subjected to the same treatment. The author devotes a significant amount of space and time in his book to talk about the contractors or local warlords who made millions when US government subcontracted work to them which included supplying fuel for their vehicles and turning informers.

But probably the highlight of this book is the story of a civilian woman who rose through the confines of the traditional Afghan system after her husband was murdered and went on to become a senator for her province in the Afghan assembly. The story of Heena is really  worth feeling proud of.

While the author started with the old Afghan proverb, I would like to end with it: ‘There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead.’ This is the book that one must read to have a comprehensive understanding of the affair from the point of view of those who ‘lost’ in the war (I quote lost in inverted commas as in a war, ultimately everyone loses).