Saturday, September 28, 2013

Little Women - Review

I had been to attend a family function few months back. Meeting a little cousin of mine after a long time, I was trying to get her to talk to me. She ignored me and joined a gang of little children. I tried engaging all of them together, but the little children just mocked me and kept playing their own games. The adult crowd around me scorned at my inability to engage little children. I decided to give one last try. Approaching them, I drew out my flute-like mobile phone and declared "who wants to play temple run?". With those magical words, I had transformed myself into Pied Piper. As the children surrounded me with glee, one little brat climbed over my shoulder, and hugged me with an affectionate "Anna!!". Needless to say, he got the first chance to play.

The children in Louisa May Alcott's brilliantly written Little Women (Volume 1) - a "children's classic" which laid untouched on my book-shelf for years until I picked it up on a severely insomniac night because I had few other choices -  are from the late 18th century, and I wonder how they would have grown out to be if they were to be born today. Margeret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth), and Amy of the March family are the Little Women in this coming-of-age story. The March family is rich with happiness, but not too well-off financially. It is Christmas eve, and the girls are fretting over the fact that being poor, they need to work hard instead of having a good time like all the other children around. 'Marmee' March overhears them, and reads out a letter from their Father (who is away serving at the army) which starts thus :
"Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted.."
As soon as their mother finishes reading the letter, the girls realize that while their father is away serving for his country, they are being "selfish" in thinking of themselves, and vow to work as hard as they can. This is where I started getting a little uncomfortable about the book. It is just a personal belief, but I am not a big fan of sacrificing everything for the country. A collective morality is bound to become immoral at some point. And I didn't like the fact that these little children were made to feel guilty of wanting to play - after all that's what children are meant to do. I compelled myself to persevere a little more. It is Christmas day now, and Marmee March convinces the children to sacrifice a thing they had been dearly looking forward to. Their sacrifice does not go in vain though, as fate (or God) rewards them amply before the end of the very day. At this point, I was so disappointing with the book that I decided I would be better off trying my luck falling asleep.

I discovered the next day - coincidentally (or through fate, or through God) - that Alcott's working title for The Little Women was "The Pathetic Family". The March family is indeed pathetic, pathetically good that is. A perfect Father who doesn't shirk at an opportunity to serve for his country, a mother who is a walking library of wisdom, and children who are adorable, intelligent, generous, hardworking and happy. In today's society, a similar family's ability to stick to such goodness would be challenged immensely. Probably Alcott realized this. Why else would she call them "pathetic"? With this thought, I decided to give the book another try.

And I am glad that I went on to read the book. Alcott's writing is alluring. The narration is largely third person, but she surprises us by unexpectedly shifting to commentary at times (For example, "As young readers like to know 'How people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters"). And there is a very subtle sense of humor permeating throughout. Each of the March sisters' character is well-delineated, and so are the supporting characters. Even the neighbor and close family-friend Laurence is almost the perfect boy that girls dream of (but he is not the macho type). The blurb of the book challenges us to pick one of the March girls to like the most, but it is pretty easy to make the choice. The tomboyish Joe (who is said to be an extension of the author herself) is the most likable of the lot, closely followed by Beth. Joe is completely unromantic, and her spontaneous burst on discovering the prospective romance of her sister is brilliant.
"..and she'll go and fall in love, and there's an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together. I see it all!! They'll go lovering around the house, and we shall have to dodge.."
Admittedly, the author is a little severe while describing Amy (the youngest of the lot, and therefore the most "selfish"). 

The short book is sprinkled generously with some delightful moments. My personal favorite was the episode of "Pickwick Club", a  homage to Charles Dickens, where the girls publish a magnificent (and extremely witty) in-house (literally) newsletter. I really regretted that I had't done anything as exciting as a child. But the book is a little too preachy. Most chapters begin with the girls being a little lax about their work, and end with the girls learning a very useful lesson. Almost every single character is good-hearted, and the pinnacles of evil in the book are petty-jealousy, laziness, selfishness, anger and ambition. The book is a huge ball of goodness being thrust in your face like a cute smiling puppy, and challenges you to hate it.

Also, Little Women sound like religious propaganda at times. A conspiracy theorist can point at Little Women as literature aimed at curtailing the ambitions of the poor. But I will give the benefit-of-doubt to Alcott. There are also instances which would repel modern feminists ("Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands of fashionable accomplishments") Despite its preachiness, Little Women works simply because Alcott's hold on writing. She makes us root for the characters though their little travails, and makes us feel their happiness when they come out unscathed (after learning a moral lesson or two).

I would have loved this book without any reservations if I had read it as a child. Little Women would have been a book that inspired me to an extent that Uncle Tom's Cabin (an easy English version) did. But at this age, I realize that the whole morality of Little Women, though romantic, is not very true. Life is more like a movie directed by Coen Brothers, filled with absolutely random justice (the hero gets shot in an unrelated gun battle between two completely insignificant gangs, the villain gets hit by an out-of-place and unexpected car). I loved this book enough though, and I would recommend this book as a must read, for it is fun, enjoyable, and has its heart in its right place. As Loius Mary Alcott says in a low-key line somewhere towards the end,
"Now and then, in this workday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort it is."

Useless AsideLouisa May Alcott wrote a follow-up to this book titled Good Wives. For some strange reason, both the books published together as, again, Little Women. I discovered this in an unfortunate way when I tried to read some reviews of the first book, and ended up starring at some idiotic reviews giving away major spoilers from the second book. I hope that I haven't given away any such spoilers.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Girl arrested for checking in from 29 countries while sitting at home

Inspired by a lot of Indian bloggers, I have been wanting to write satirical news items for a long time. I finally got myself to do it, thanks to the "Citizen Journalism" section of the fantastic website Faking News. Here is a link to my article at their site. For the sake of posterity and my own reference, I am pasting the entire text of the article below :

Girl arrested for checking in from 29 countries while sitting at home

The Tamil Nadu police has arrested 24-year old Soumya this morning following startling revelations that  she checked in from 29 countries in the last two years, all the while sitting at her home in Chennai. On contacting one of our sources in the Police force (who wishes to be unnamed), it was revealed that she is now held in an undisclosed high-security no-internet zone. 

When asked how the girl fell under Police scrutiny, our source replied, “We were going through random Facebook profiles to arrest people who abuse the Government on the internet, while we came across this girl’s profile. We were stunned to know that she managed to visit  29 diverse countries in just two years. I mean, even our former President managed to visit only 22 countries, and the Honourable President took 5 years for that. We were sure that something was amiss”, continued our source, “And we started tracking the IP addresses of all her check-ins, only to realize that all check-ins were made from the same IP address.”

“Initially we suspected a cyber-savvy criminal using sophisticated techniques to mask her original whereabouts, and we hired hacker Bharghava Rallapilli to help us crack the case”, revealed our source when probed further. “After 6 months of sustained effort, we uncovered the fact that all the 29 check-ins came from the same machine located at Chennai. We immediately proceeded to arrest her, but she has been very uncooperative, and has refused to answer to any of our questions.”

Debashish Roy who studied with her in a popular engineering college in Tamil Nadu expressed his shock over the incident. “No man, I didn't know her personally. But I was always the first person to like her activity when she checked in from various places and uploaded picture albums. I had even envied her life. I mean, look at me! I got placed in an IT company and I have been sitting at the same place all these years. But she was supposedly visiting all these funnily named places! What? Did I ever think of asking her what she was doing at all these places? Dude, I didn't even care! I thought she was doing some MS or something.”

Using tremendous journalistic presence of mind, our correspondent managed to get an exclusive interview with Soumya by offering her his internet-enabled mobile phone in exchange for her answering a few questions. “Once I completed engineering, I didn't get placed anywhere. I didn't even have money to do a MS”, declared the visibly emotional young girl. “So, I decided to join a Visual C#, .Net course at a local computer centre. But the only thing I learnt throughout the 6 month training was Adobe Photoshop. Being an optimistic person, I decided to use the skills I had learnt, and started uploading morphed photos of me in front of the Taj Mahal. Encouraged by the fact that I got more than 100 likes for each photo, I started uploading photos morphed photos of me from all around the World. I also started checking-in from various cafes just to maintain consistency”, she trailed on.

“In my virtual World, I have already been chased by bulls in Spain, sky dived over Lake Wanaka in New Zealand, skied on the Andes Mountains, climbed over The Great Wall of China and trekked through the Amazon Rain Forest”, sighed Soumya. “I was about to complete my whole bucket-list, when I was caught”. Saying thus, she refused to answer further questions, grabbed the reporter’s mobile, and started checking-in from Lola’s, Cape Town. At the time this article was being written, the check-in activity had already garnered 77 likes.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi sent out an a strongly worded email statement condemning the “sorry state of affairs in the country”, and referring to the Government in third-person. When we pointed out to him that he was a part of the ruling party, we didn't receive any replies. In Bombay acclaimed director Madhur Bhandarkar announced in a press conference that he was so “deeply moved” by the story of the girl, that he would make it as the theme of his next movie. The as-of-now-untitled movie would focus on the struggles of engineering students, how they lose their identity, and how they lose their virtues when faced with utter-despair.

To a question by a reporter from The Times of India on whether the move would have any love scenes, he quickly retorted with “Arey! Didn't I already tell you? The movie is about engineering graduates.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Weekly Digest - Must read online articles

Having spent the last few hours reading various articles on diverse subjects I had bookmarked throughout the week, I am overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge present in the internet. Here is a pick of the most interesting articles I came across last week. There are few more I haven't found the strength to read yet, and I am holding them back for now. Hopefully they wouldn't be piling up to insurmountable levels by the time I sit down to compile next week's digest. Hopefully, I would sit down to compile the digest next week.

1) Women in India : My first link from last week's post had two contrasting articles on the experiences of women from foreign countries visiting India. Another article which surfaced this week sounds credible and reasonable, and it has only good things to say about men in India. Read it and feel a little happy. Here is another interesting response. This article reasons that it is the duty of women in India to just accept the state of affairs, and be extra-careful. Meanwhile, a television actress from Mumbai had her bag snatched. How did she react? By chasing the miscreants and attacking them with the help of another female friend. They were able to hold off the thieves until a few Policemen came to their rescue. Encouraged? Well, all this happened with a bunch of people watching the spectacle without making any effort to help.

2) Seriously, this was not planned. Having linked a wonderful article on Roger Federer last week, I accidentally came across a super profile on Novok Djokovic. I am not an very serious Tennis fan, and I know of Djokovic only as a Djoker and as a player who has started playing some great Tennis recently. But this super article sheds light on a lot of things that I personally didn't know. Things that increase my respect for Djokovic.

3) Here is something from Cinema, an article on one of my most favorite Hollywood directors (along with Hitchcock, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers), Woody Allen. Woody Allen is also in my opinion, a great modern philosopher. Approaching the age of 80, he is still making movies non-stop. When questioned on why he is so relentless, here is his reply:

"You know in a mental institution they sometimes give a person some clay or some basket weaving? It's the therapy of moviemaking that has been good in my life. If you don't work, it's unhealthy—for me, particularly unhealthy. I could sit here suffering from morbid introspection, ruing my mortality, being anxious. But it's very therapeutic to get up and think, Can I get this actor; does my third act work? All these solvable problems that are delightful puzzles, as opposed to the great puzzles of life that are unsolvable, or that have very bad solutions. So I get pleasure from doing this. It's my version of basket weaving."
4) Here is the pick of the week. The story of a very brave lady, Laura Poitras, who has been instrumental in getting Snowden's revelations public. Reading about the treatment this documentary filmmaker has been subjected to tells us a little more about America's Orwellian attitude. While on the topic of piracy, here is a very very interesting take by Scott Adams (creator of the very famous Dilbert strips). He says privacy is not as good a thing as people claim it to be. Have a look at his take on Gun Control too.

5) Here is a filler. Mark Zukerberg talks about how he is going to make the World a better place by, hold your breath, making the entire planet go online. What do you think about his stated intentions?

6) The headline grabbing personality this week has been Asaram Bapu, the now-infamous-spiritual-Guru. This article does a sort-of-insider scoop on the allegations against the self-proclaimed-Godman.

7) Cricket now. Trust Michael Holding to speak his mind. In his characteristic straight-forward style, Holding laments on the partiality ICC shows towards bad English pitches.

8) Again, this is not by design. We had Forsyth last week, and we have Jeffrey Archer this week, claiming that his experience of being in a prison made him better, both as a writer and a person. Budding writers, you know what to do next, don't you?

9) For a change, there are some positive signs for India on the economic front. At least potentially. Don't believe me? Professor Jayanth Varma explains very quickly why he believe so. He makes some sense too.

10) Manmohan Singh is the best Prime Minister India has ever had. No, that is not a joke. Amitava Gupta says so, and defends his opinion here. An article that makes me reconsider my own opinions. It is always good to have contrasting claims.

11) Apparently Mary Shelley, famously known for her novel Frankenstein was born sometime last week (years back, of course). While most of us know Frankenstein as a discourse on the ill-effects of Man playing God, here is an argument that we have completely misread the theme. "The novel is not about bad science, but bad parenting."

12) And to wrap it up, why does the USA keep entering into needless wars? And why are these wars needless? An attack on America's foreign policy.

Happy reading!! Let me know if you find the links useful. 

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