Sunday, January 15, 2017

Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas (Book Review)

Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Find the review here too :
Name of the book: Gurus – Stories of India’s Leading Babas
Name of the author: Bhavdeep Kang
Publisher: Westland Limited
Genre: Non-Fiction
Price: Rs. 295
Number of pages: 240

Also available as an ebook

In the author’s own words: “This book is not a piece of investigative journalism; definitely not an exercise in PR. This book neither debunks nor celebrates the subjects. Also, it isn’t a collection of thumbnail biographies. Nor is it a work of scholarship. It is not, even remotely, a philosophical study, a sociological commentary or a psychological analysis. It is a peek at the men (and woman) behind the guru personas.” She has based their profiles on subjective impressions, interviews and research (a lot of it), viewing them from as many angles as possible. However, her reporter’s instincts couldn’t be sublimated at all times and she has analysed and even criticised the gurus’ statements or actions. In the entire process of scurrying in and out of ashrams and meeting devotees to cover varied angles, she found herself grouping them into three categories: the revelationists, the quondam skeptics and the seekers.

India is a land of diversity with almost equal weightage given to doctors, teachers, babas and yogis. While skeptics would question the importance given to certain babas who according to them are fooling around and minting money with their convoluted tips and advises to the needy, there’s no doubting the fact that they have an important place in our society. If it wasn’t so, these yogis wouldn’t have made a mark and considered worthy enough to write a book on – in all their established eccentricities.

A journalist with over 30 years of experience, it is no surprise that Bhavdeep managed to pull off a book on some of the gurus who have grabbed international headlines and who surprise people and make them wonder about their journeys from obscurity to fame, the clout they carry and the enigma surrounding them.

Her witty writing style made sure that this book remained a page-turner until the very end. If it weren’t for her writing, this could have been a very dry read.

Coming to the subjects, she has peeked into the lives of nine gurus (The reason for number nine has also been described in the Introduction). They are: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (The Pop Guru), Dhirendra Brahmachari (Indira Gandhi’s Guru), Chandraswami (The Shaman-Shyster), Mata Amritanandamayi (The Divine Hug), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Selling Love), Morari Bapu (The Chronicler of Lord Rama), Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (The Metaphysical Mystic), Baba Ramdev (The Virtual Guru), Bhaiyyuji Maharaj (The Metrosexual Seer).

India’s godmen are among its most colourful, cultural products and the cover page does justice to that fact. Attractive in red and yellow, with ‘Gurus’ emblazoned on an image of the sun, it sets the tone for the read. However, do not be mistaken by the spiritual, mystic appearance of the cover. It, in no way, professes a particular religion. So atheists and agnostics need not panic! In fact, it is a worthwhile read for all, irrespective of the religion they follow or the lack of it.

Also, there are certain habits that can amuse the reader and some values that can be imbibed from the lives of these godmen – some do not mind marketing themselves and their teachings (How else will people know where to find help?); some give lessons of following a simple lifestyle (no matter what their own realities are); some emphasise on love, brotherhood, charity and the need for empathy and compassion (heavy words for sure, but not without roots); one of them consumes food prepared with the water from the Ganges and drinks water too from there (even though I do not know how safe that is considering today’s scenario where pollution in the Ganges is topic for heated debates and discussion).

There are amazing tidbits too – of how a Godman loves science-fiction, how the Beatles inspired another – that let the reader know that even though some of them claim to have certain powers and moments of enlightenment, they are essentially human beings with considerably normal lives and interests.

There were dull moments at times when I thought why I was even reading about one of the godmen, and considering the time of reading (noon), I did skip his story, only to return and complete reading it again! I couldn’t miss out on that piece of information, after all. That’s the writer’s charm I guess.

Gurus remains an essential read for those who would not mind delving into the lives of those godmen who are sometimes simply considered to be maniacs. It covers their immense public lives and mysterious inner lives. A well-researched piece of non-fiction, it seeks to answer who these godmen are in real lives.

-Divya Nambiar

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Fatal Accidents of Birth (Book Review)

Fatal Accidents of BirthFatal Accidents of Birth by Harsh Mander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fatal Accidents of Birth (Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance)
Author: Harsh Mander
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs. 499
Pages: 203

 The review also appeared in The Free Press Journal on January 1, 2017. Find the review here.

‘Our task is to change some conditions that appear to me as obviously against the beauty of being human’, said Paulo Freire. The quote greets the reader first. Little did I know that as I would turn the pages, I would learn so much about the inhuman intricacies woven into human lives, at times by circumstances and at other times simply because of one’s ignorance about the bigger picture while nitpicking over the supposedly misplaced tiny details.

The preface Other Lives, Other Worlds is hard-hitting and delivers the chills even before the human coldness starts storming in from the seventeen stories ahead.

Far from the hustles and bustles of rural India, where people swear by superstitions and certain beliefs and where caste still plays a dominant role, living in a city like Mumbai with its own cacophony of things ranging from one’s livelihood to his grand plan of existence, this book caught me off-hand. It is not only powerful but also offers riveting accounts of human lives caught in the glare of media at some point of time. While the tales of some characters ended abruptly just like their lives, some other characters’ tales found a better twist and hopefully will have a ‘proper ending’, if there would ever be one. But each of the seventeen stories is a slap on the face of the society that we are a part of. Each story has the potential to leave the reader aghast and rework the so-called rules of the ‘rigid society’ which according to many no longer exists. It very well does exist, probably just outside the confines of the place they call ‘home’ and sometimes inside it too, without their knowledge.

It also provides various angles to the Ishrat Jahan case (The Many Deaths of Ishrat Jahan) and leaves the threads of her tale open so that the reader can try to make some sense of it and make patterns of it in his mind as per his understanding.

It also chronicles the story of Rohith Vemula, doctoral scholar at the University of Hyderabad and a lover of people, who, he believed, are created of stardust, from the time of his mother’s birth. The story of ‘a man who could not rescue himself from what he described as the “fatal accident” of his birth, Rohith Vemula’s first and last letter to the world and the outrage that followed his death also find mention in this book [Mourning Rohith Vemula (1989-Forever)].

From the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, prostitution, bisexuality, begging and certain castes to the consequences and dangers of human trafficking, militancy, murder and riots – there is much insight to be gathered about all of these from this book. Some first-person accounts are dark and gory to the core which will make the reader pause and reflect over the lesser fortunate ones with whom he co-exists and yet is unaware of, or is rather silent when he should be voicing against the injustice meted out to them.

The human race is selfish. It will take kindness and a lot of empathizing to drill a sense of brotherhood and ‘-ity’ into ‘human’. Harsh Mander, maybe because he is a human rights worker and has seen in person and heard the tales of many of the people whose stories constitute this book, manages to bring to life a picture of the lives and tribulations of those hit by tragedy into mainstream conscience, deftly. It gives the reader a chance to step into the shoes of those whom one would generally not give a thought about, or rather whom one would look through, because caught as they are with the cobwebs of their own life, who would want to spare a second to possibly gather more cobwebs? Isn’t it? No. By doing so, we may actually be able to do something better to a lesser fortunate one. We could, even if we cannot clean their cobwebs, at least try to be a ray of hazy light for them to look past their cobwebs-filled existence.

Pick up the book if you think your life could have been better than it is right now. Chances are, you will be grateful for the life that you were granted while in the bylanes, a mother would pray for a son from the confines of a prison and another woman would wince as another hand would grope her unprotected body while in yet another roofless camp, heartfelt prayers would be sent to bring some solace for those with charred thoughts who would have to start learning once again how to live, clutching on to the vestiges of a dream that now lies shattered into a million pieces.

-Divya Nambiar

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