What is death for us?

Written a long time back, but posting now.

Why does it happen that, when someone young passes away, I feel we failed as a society. Be it an accident or a mistake, I feel we did not warn our friends enough, did not pay attention to family enough. Youth with such brilliant potential passes away because of some small errors (that no one can foresee). 

But it angers me. Why are we still at the mercy of nature? One of my friends here, passed away a few years back. What kind of support systems have we built in our society? 

How is it that we are so unconnected to their family that we scramble for contacts whenever something happens. It is our mistake. We should have met their family before, we should have maintained deeper friendships with them, not the shallow ones where we only know them because they work with us. We have all the time. We all sit idle at our homes collectively. We can go out and meet people, meet people so that we can form stronger relationships and bonds. So that when something like this happens, and we want to share the pain, we can be there with the family. 

Why don’t lives matter to us more? Why are we like acquaintances? It feels wrong…

Why is it that when you google “Who passed away”, it shows only about celebrities/stars. Why is it that we don’t have a record of the millions of lives which passed away. I checked (later) there are online condolence websites, but I guess they are not so famous in India. 

The pain was unbearable on the faces of his parents. The father, the typical Indian father, was behaving like a child whose toy has been snatched away by a cruel God. I saw him and I saw my father. I saw his mother and I saw my mother. I saw my mother as she would have cried. I somehow felt it was not a time to spread the pain, it was only to absorb the pain and share with his parents our experience with their wonderful child and our cheerful friend. 

It was a time for us to assure them that their child lives in all of us, some parts here, some parts there. That he has affected lives and that he lives in our memories. 

Surviving Schizophrenia – A family manual By E. Fuller Torrey – Book Review

Surviving Schizophrenia, 7th Edition: A Family ManualSurviving Schizophrenia, 7th Edition: A Family Manual by E Fuller Torrey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was recommended this book by a friend and I just hope that by recommending it, I also act as that friend to strangers on the net. It is without doubt an excellent book. I don’t know this, but I am guessing that people in this field regard it as a holy book.

Why should you read this book?

Is someone around you (friends/family or you yourself) behaving in a different than usual manner. To be specific, are they experiencing- difficulty in concentrating, anxiety, restlessness and more importantly the typical symptom of the disease- auditory/visual hallucinations? If yes, they must be taken to a psychiatrist (not to be confused with a psychotherapist). If the diagnosis by the practitioner is psychosis (schizophrenia/bipolar disorder or somewhere on that scale), you should definitely read this book.

Even if answers to both the above questions is no, you can continue to read the book out of curiosity (and awareness) or if you are a psychiatrist, psychotherapist or a medical practitioner.

What does the book cover?

It starts by describing what the patient feels (this develops the required empathy in often frustrated family and friends), defining schizophrenia (what is and what is not schizophrenia) and pondering upon the causes (which are not yet clear). It then moves on to treatment (including selecting a psychiatrist, discussion on medication and therapy), rehabilitation services (what they should look like and examples from around the world) and concludes with tips for the patients and their family in the form of commonly asked questions, solutions to major problems faced by them etc.

The first few chapters give multiple examples of how a schizophrenia patient behaves and lists out the symptoms used to identify the illness (as per different medical bodies around the world). He also warns here that in early stages of schizophrenia a person may be experiencing things that are not visible to their family. They may be hearing voices (auditory hallucinations) for weeks or months before family members become aware of it.

An excerpt of what a schizophrenic patient felt like –

“The walk of a stranger on the street could be a sign to me which I must interpret. Every face in the windows of a passing streetcar would be engraved on my mind, all of them concentrating on me and trying to pass me some sort of message.”

Next, the book also talks about the probable causes of schizophrenia and discusses various theories that were in vogue at different points of time from the 18th century to the present. Dr Fuller was one of the first to tell the world that it is not an illness that can be merely treated by talking to the patient or through therapy. He goes on to discredit some popular cause theories like childhood trauma or depression due to family/marital discord. It is an illness that affects specific parts of the brain and also needs medication.

The next few chapters talk about the medication, the types of antipsychotics and ways of administering them to patients. Another fact the book discussed was that around 50% of such patients suffer from Anosognosia or an inability to know that their brain is not functioning normally. In such cases, the patient is adamant that they are perfectly fine (they could be thinking that you are part of the conspiracy to label them mad or to kill them!) and would refuse to take medications. There are workarounds should such situations arise, as are discussed in the book.

An excerpt from the book, mentioning what might happen if you try to logically counter the delusions –

“If you are walking with such a person and try to reason him/her past these delusions, your efforts will probably be futile…..Reasoning with people about their delusions is like trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket.”

The chapters at the end discuss what medical care, rehabilitation service and community environment should look like for patients. The book discusses consequences of leaving patients untreated and homeless, for the society. It might result in increased crime rate (schizophrenia patients are at high risk of being victims or perpetrators). Justice and policing systems around the world have a history of making erroneous judgements by either over compensating for the perpetrator’s mental illness or by not considering it.

Some successful examples of collaborations between civic, police, and medical fraternity are also mentioned in the book. I wonder whether such services and support exist in India. Sample an excerpt-

“The Mental Health Support Team consists of 10–12 specially selected officers and detectives, many of whom have relatives with a serious mental illness, whose only job is to respond to mental illness-related police calls. Team members wear civilian clothing and drive unmarked cars to minimize the stigma associated with their calls.”

The one thing this book will give to the reader is hope and I believe that is crucial for friends, family and patients. Dr Fuller (whose own sister was a schizophrenia patient) drives home the point (by quoting studies from across the world) that most patients can lead fulfilling lives with proper medication and support. With proper treatment the disease may be compared to diabetes, where the patient might have to take medications for the remainder of their life, but can lead normal lives.

Another parting excerpt –

“If the brain was so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

Note: If you want to discuss anything about the book or topic (or even need any kind of help), just drop in a mail at mani.priyanshu@gmail.com or comment below the post

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who should read this? 

Readers interested in knowing more about our origins as a species, and understanding human behaviour in societies, communities, markets and what not. 

People interested in history, geography, anthropology and even share markets (the reason being, the author gives some excellent insights on money, economy, value of things, and behaviours of individuals).

Interesting Ideas discussed in the book

Although historians and anthropologists might say that most of the things in the book were known, for the common and lay man the book might come as a revelation. Some of the interesting ideas in the book –

How discovery of agriculture was a giant leap for mankind (as giant a leap as reaching the moon) and how it changed the way we live; how capitalism  and science powered much of the European colonialism; how religions, companies, laws, countries are constructs and ideas arising from human imagination (a unique gift given to humans but not other animals) and its implications; the role of language in spreading ideas; the idea of credit as a loan from the future; the value of money and how we come to value things highly when others value it highly.

Having mentioned these interesting ideas, I might add that personally I think that not everything mentioned in the book should be considered as truth and fact, as a lot of it depends on assumptions, conjectures by the author himself and other researchers. Yuva has mostly mentioned the generally agreed upon explanation of events in the past, in the scientific community.

What to expect while reading it?

Almost every line of the book taught me something. Thanks to Yuval’s efforts, here is a book with a condensed history of the humans, with interesting nuggets and stories from our shared past (it must have taken him a lot of time to bring together copious amounts of research on these topics).  

At some instances the book became a bit too heavy for me, almost feeling like a textbook and so I took a long break in between (a few months) and complemented it with another fiction book. Although this does not take away the excellent content and knowledge that the book contains, but I believe that the book could have been broken into two or more parts to make it more digestible. 

I did not highlight much or took enough notes as I thought I might end up highlighting half the book. So I would recommend anyone reading the book to take notes, highlight interesting paragraphs as they read along, as it is easy to feel short changed after it ends and you don’t have something to go back to. 

About the author

Yuval is a historian and professor in Department of History in Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He comes from a secular (this makes sense, because no religious man would have written what he has written about religions so truthfully- that they are imaginary just like other constructs of human imagination like markets, companies, countries etc.) Jewish family. If you would go on and read about him on Wikipedia, you would know that he’s as scandalous as a person could be for religious, regressive or fanatic people (I mean this as a complement). 

You can buy the book from Amazon here –

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Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar – Book Review

Annihilation of CasteAnnihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my professors said in his class that great men almost always have some angularities in their personality, some irreconcilable part. The book gives an insight into the mind of one of the most intelligent leaders India has seen.

This very short book (can be finished in a day or two) is actually a speech that Ambedkar wrote for “Jat Pat Todak Mandal” in Lahore, which Ambedkar couldn’t actually deliver, probably because the views expressed wouldn’t have gone down well with caste Hindus. Thus Ambedkar in his indomitable style published it on his own in the form of this book.

He starts with describing disadvantages of caste system, the associated lack of opportunity and individual freedom. He goes on to bust popular (and mostly illogical) arguments used to protect the caste system such as ethnological reasons, social stability arguments etc. He also vehemently argues against the Chaturvarnya system, the proponents of which (Arya Samajis) assure the oppressed that the system creates different Varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra) on the basis of guna (worth) and not janma (birth). But who is to judge the worth of people?

Throughout his arguments Ambedkar shows consistent and scrupulous scientific thinking. A well read man, I am pretty sure he knew more about the Hindu scriptures than the proclaimed Hindu leaders of the time opposing him (even the Mahatma). Basically, they were no match for his towering intellect. This is evident from his reply to Mahatma Gandhi who tried to protect the Hindu religion from this onslaught by Ambedkar.

On Gandhi he says (don’t judge the book on this, Ambedkar has always supported the fun bashing of opponents with logical rebuttals to their arguments) –

“The real reason why the Mahatma is suffering from this confusion is probably to be traced to two sources. The first is the temperament of the Mahatma. He has in almost everything the simplicity of the child, with the child’s capacity for self-deception. Like a child, he can believe in anything he wants to believe in. We must therefore wait till such time as it pleases the Mahatma to abandon his faith in Varna, as it has pleased him to abandon his faith in Caste.


The second source of confusion is the double role which the Mahatma wants to play—of a Mahatma and a politician. As a Mahatma, he may be trying to spiritualize politics. Whether he has succeeded in it or not, politics have certainly commercialized him. A politician must know that Society cannot bear the whole truth, and that he must not speak the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth it is bad for his politics. The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting Caste and Varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he would lose his place in politics.”


In case anyone misses it in the book (and also because I want to mention it here)- the ultimate and rebellious solution that Ambedkar gives in this work to annihilate caste system is to discard the Hindu religion :P. Undoubtedly quite bold to say in a religious country, but completely logical and sound.

Ambedkar does not sound bitter at any point of time in the whole book, despite having seen and faced it all. Another thing that this book might do to you is open your minds as to why reservation is indeed a practical requirement to keep this country one and is like a patch holding together different communities.

There are plenty of quotable sentences throughout the book and of course the reader would be benefited from Ambedkar’s thorough understanding of caste and such evils. I recommend the book for all Hindus, all citizens, anti reservation chaps (so that they can hear out the other side and decide for themselves), and people who want an introduction to the genius of Ambedkar.

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The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald – Book Review

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book started off very slow for me, but made up for all of it in the end. The major twists and plot were concentrated at the very end of the book. For someone unacquainted with Fitzgerald’s style the events might come as a surprise, since the initial part of the book was used to set the ground for the story that was coming.

Like great artists often do, Fitzgerald expects certain amount of effort from the readers to understand his work completely. It is for this reason I am inclined to mark it as a book to be read again later.

His writing falls like sunlight in the unlit corners of our society. It shows the failings, inequality that still remain despite efforts by man to cover it up with the progress, education. Underneath we still remain humans governed by raw instincts, securing ourselves first, leaving others to their fate.

The following is an excerpt that I could relate to immediately (not to offend any rich friends). Look around and it will still seem true for the super rich in our society.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”

With the cars that they drive (often underage kids), the lack of empathy that they exhibit (in their contempt for anything pedestrian/less sophisticated), the sense of privilege that they feel – the rich in our society are represented by Tom and Daisy. Gatsby is that poor section of our society which even after acquiring the material riches couldn’t find happiness.

Perhaps Nick is right when he observes about Tom-

“I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”

Although the book was brilliant in all sense, I would have wanted to know more about Jordan Baker. I guess Fitz wanted to leave that to our imagination.

You can buy the book here on Amazon  –

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Book Review – Economics: A Very Short Introduction by Partha Dasgupta

Economics: A Very Short IntroductionMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economics is a big word, in the sense that it has many subjects within it, so it is natural to feel skeptical about the ‘very short introduction of Economics’ that this book promises within 160 pages.

However having read the book, these apprehensions are most likely to disappear. The book does not follow the traditional approach to teaching economics that gave us the thick books we are all so afraid of picking but have always wanted to understand. This is just a short introduction to basic ideas of markets, prices and application of economics in everyday life.

The best part of the book that is mentioned in the first few pages before the book starts (would recommend you to read that too so that you can derive the maximum from the short book) is that it has not ignored the economics that governs transactions in poor countries , communities where people do not have the same access to financial institutions, tools that developed countries have. Also the chapters at the end cover how economics should account for the environmental costs that projects, schemes, policies have.

Among other interesting things, some of the topics of discussion were – shadow prices, choices and risks (how our ancestors determined our fate by the journeys/risks they undertook), income inequalities (and how it is a recent phenomenon and is increasing), trust (how and why it forms and breaks, explaining all this using numbers), households and communities as a unit in the economy, how wars and periods of stress break the progress, importance of having good institutions to have a developed economy etc.

Definitely worth a read for economics, management students, policy makers, politicians

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Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner – Book Review

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven_D_Levitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Enough extreme opinions have been given about the book -good and bad, but for what it’s worth – I liked it and would recommend it as a one time read. That there is more to issues/events/problems than meets the eye, is the basic essence of the book. Data has been used by authors to debunk/decipher traditional theories/ hypotheses on how things happen in the world.

Some of the examples given, are about – Cheating teachers in Chicago Public school systems, corruption in the Sumo tournaments in Japan, Ku Klux Klan (and how access to information helped in removing these evils), the real estate industry (and how it cheats), why drug dealers still live with their moms (how much do they earn, their relation to various crimes) and one of the most popular ideas in the book – how crime rate suddenly dropped in the 1990s (US).

The book is definitely interesting to read, the writing style is engaging, probably because it comes from a journalist (Stephen J Dubner) and propounds the ideas of an unconventional economist (Steven Levitt).

You can buy the book here –

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Glimpse of Yogi – KYC (Know Your CM)

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato

Yogi Adityanath as UP CM is painful, it’s painful because he is popular, because he has a strong backing of MLAs. It is painful when educated (and well meaning) people support such people, maybe in ignorance (maybe because they believe he is right? 😦 ) or because they are disconnected with what Yogi Adityanath represents and don’t want to get into details. So two types of people still support this- 

1. Type 1 – The well meaning secular people

Their arguments- 

Argument 1- After all we have a strong PM who supports Yogi. He’ll handle it. And they have put up two deputy CMs, they will keep him in control? Won’t they?

Response- Why to put such a person in power that you need to control him? Will the PM control it in the same way he controlled it in Gujarat? (sorry to bring this sore point up again). And we and Mr Modi will just stand by as spectators? (just like the germans when jews were attacked)

or

Argument 2- Yogi is not that bad. Find me one video where he says something like that.

Response- pls go through the list I could compile in a very short while –

yogi wiki

2. Type 2 – The not well meaning

Their argument –

In short they want a mandir, Ramrajya and those kinda things. Water, elect., education can be sorted out later acc. to them.

I believe the type 2 type of people can be corrected only through the means of education and we have long passed that stage. It seems the governments want to keep large sections of populations uneducated, so that they can be fooled repeatedly in the name of religion. Government schools are still full of apathy and are breeding ground for disgruntled and angry youth that turns out to be jobless. The only way forward is to pick a leader who is able to control them. What we really lack is a good orator on this side of politics, who can connect to the masses.

What are your thoughts about it?

 

Crime and Punishment- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Review)

The review is not exactly structured, though an attempt has been made. Its mostly just random praise for a brilliant book that has really surprised me. I never knew one book could incite so many thoughts and emotions. Its full of deep philosophical thoughts….a level-II kinda book.

Who should read it?

Absolutely everyone capable of reading it, should do it. Specifically I am sure the book will be a delight for psychology students and for lawyers and for those who have a habit of overthinking. Of course someone about to commit a crime could also read it.

Comments

This book was totally planned, just like the crime that it describes. Beautiful attention to detail on the chronology of events in the book, makes you stop every once in a while and admire the intelligence of the author.

All characters (especially Rodya’s best friend) of the book have been beautifully painted. Even characters with devious intentions look like they have been derived from the author’s life (not to insinuate the author). Because of this the characters retain a touch of reality. The usual bad habits of normal human beings (those we encounter in our lives) have been exaggerated and written down in a manner that makes them look bad. I wish I could describe and examine each of the characters in much more detail, but that would be a futile effort.

Specific Parts I liked

One of the best parts that I enjoyed in the book was when Rodya confessed to her (not taking any more names). It covered almost all ranges of emotions possible and felt so real and plausible. Like in all masterpieces, there is also a beautiful understanding of how people (men & women) judge each other (refer the part where Rodya’s sister and her stalker talk). The book is also a delight for feminists. I read multiple times and relished the part when Rodya’s sister rejected a particular person’s hand.

Conclusion

I was fortunate to read this book at the right age (not too late at least). It reiterates an important fact that we all know, at least intuitively- Man is a social being and that sharing grief and pain makes it less of a burden. The guilt factor reduces in case of crimes.

Despite all the gloom that this book evokes in the one who reads it, it is in the end a happy story. It is heartening that Rodya and his family stick together and understand each other. The love between characters totally makes the pain sufferable. The book asks a pertinent question any sensible person with a loving family asks of themselves at some point of time, “Why are they fond of me?”.

This book is not an effort by the author; it is a masterpiece of a genius. It is effortless on the part of the author, it seems.

A line that I loved (apart from many other)

“Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.”

It beautifully sums up the futility of careful planning and logics that we sometimes apply on life (which many a times Rodya did too).

Too long did not read (TLDR as they say it)

I have not yet read a better book. I may, after this, but that too may be written by Dostoyevsky. This was his first book I read.