Sunday, 20 September 2020

Guns Germs and Steel - 3 - Ten books that influenced me

I bought this book in 1999, based on Bill Gates' incredibly concise and informative review, and ironically finished it between jobs.

This book changed my perspective on history, and provoked a curiosity for understanding linguistics, history, prehistory, agriculture, the evolution of technology, the cultures of tribes, etc. all of which have still not abated. Criticism that the book is very repetitive is not justified in my opinion, because Diamond packs so much information into it.

The book is an answer to a question by a Yali, an aboriginal native of Papua New Guinea, as to why different cultures and countries are so unequal, if there are no basic biological differences between the races. Jared Diamond's hypothesis is that it is geography, nor race, that determined the fates of human societies. He distinguishes between proximate causes (like steel weapons, immunity to diseases, organized armies) and ultimate causes (like domesticable plants and animals, coastlines, topography) which led to the undeniable differences among cultures or nations.

He lays out the situation on various continents - not just the prehistory of Mankind, but that of the flora and fauna on various continents, in the first chapter. Not just the major clashes - Europe versus Inca - but even the minor but illuminating ones - Maori versus Moriori - are discussed, with telling effect.

Then Diamond develops his thesis in the next six chapters, quite elaborately. His last five chapters, a tour de force of Africa, China, Polynesia etc are marvelous summations of their histories, and the forces that shaped them. I suggest searching for and reading Bill Gates' review to get a grasp on this book. And strongly recommend this book.

Tamil summary / preview of this book

My essays on Literature

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Noddy - 2 - Ten books that influenced me

Garuda was the first comic book I read. Noddy is the first book I read, (or remember reading), that was not a comic book and not a school book. I first read it in the sixth class at PS Senior Secondary school. We had a library period, where a bunch of books were brought from the school library and kept on the teacher's desk; each student would go up and pick up a book, in alphabetical order as per attendance register. My name starting with G, I was seventh or eighth.

I happened to pick a Noddy one week, and loved the story and the illustrations so much, and the characters, and his little adventures, that every subsequent week I picked a Noddy story I hadn't read earlier. There were about forty of these Noddy books, and I remembered and loved each one. Today I dont remember a single Noddy story, but I remember how much I loved Noddy that year. There are much younger kids today who read much more complex and sophisticated books at those younger age, so I was perhaps immature for that age. Some of my classmates would discuss somebody called William (schoolboy stories by Richmal Crompton). These William stories were ten times as long, and I realized my level was Noddy, or comic books and I was quite happy. Sometimes I would bring the Noddy I took home the very next day, so I could exchange with some other student's Noddy book.

School was a sideshow to my Noddy reading life and career.

After a couple of months, some of my classmates got ticked off at my Noddy obsession. Some student suggested that alphabetical order should be reveresed, because the same students were getting the first picks every week. The teacher agreed. One guy yelled out "Let us all pick Noddy books so Gopu doesnt get one." I dont remember who it was but quite a few others laughed, evilly... more evil than Voldemort or PS Veerappa. It was a conspiracy. I would be denied my daily bread, my Tasmac bottle, my voters biriyani, my Art 19(1)sub a-c, my oxygen, my Facebook  ID, my... you get the idea. I waited in Abu Ghraib bench at this Dotheboys hall of a school, while the Noddy monopolizers cruelly snatched one desirable book after another.... until it was my turn... and stoically, like Socrates and Veerapandia Kattabomman, I walked up to the teacher's desk, my head held high, my eyes bravely fighting tears... only to find several Noddys still left. I smiled like the Man with No Name, like Virendra Sehwag facing the first ball, like Tripurantaka when he lifted his bow, like Uncle Fred in the springtime...and picked up one of the unread Noddys and walked backed to my desk not even glancing at Darth Noddymort.

By that year I had finished almost all the Noddys, and I doubt that Enid Blyton was about to write any new ones, so aftera couple of weeks of Noddy revisions, I moved on to other longer books by Enid Blyton, the greatest children's book writer in the history of the universe. The Five Find Outers. The Famous Five. Mallory Towers and other school books. I felt very jealous of England and English kids and their marvelous schools - I mean they had delicious things like marmalade and scones, while all we poor Indians had was paruppusili and vattal kuzhambu and poori kizhangu and such mundane stuff.....I suppose I was jealous until the age of thirty when I first tried marmalade, and never complained about Indian food ever again. 

Noddy and Enid Blyton, were my alternates to the comic books that was really my ardent passion. Less visual, more imaginative, less spectacular, more relatable, longer, and longer, and developing my vocabulary better than all the unbelievably dull Tamil stories I was exposed to.....

In the eighth standard, I read the William stories of Richamal Crompton..and loved them too. And also stumbled upon a series called Alfted Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, first written by Robert Arthur, and then by other authors, fantastic adventure stories set in sunny California...not just adventures, mysteries, too. Solved by my first favorite detective Jupiter Jones, a schoolboy like me. 

Because I was reading much longer books than Noddy now, I also accidentally read a book called The Gold Bat, a schoolboy adventure written by an author with a really weird name- Pelham Grenvile Wodehouse. And one of the short stories in my class text was called the Blue Carbuncle, and featured an older more famous detective than Jupiter Jones...

But my reading really started with Noddy.

My essays on Literature

Monday, 31 August 2020

Garuda - 1 - Ten books that influenced me

Recently, two friends tagged me in Facebook, asking me to list ten books that are favorites. I chose to list ten books that influenced me quite a bit. In some cases they just happened to be books I read at a particular age. Hence, very influential; life changing perhaps. These are not necessarily the ten best books I have read or ten favorites, or ten I recommend to anyone. Just ten books that were landmarks in some way. A vast number of them are recent. It is quite possible, that I would have chosen ten different books ten years ago, and ten different books ten years from now. 

The Facebook list were in no particular order. This list on my blog is chronological - from the first book I remember to the most recent book I read.

Anyway; here they are. 

Garuda was the first comic book I read. I had visited my uncle and aunt in Pune for the summer vacation, and I was boarding the return train from Pune to Madras, for a looong journey. I was to be accompanied by my uncle's friends. But they were strangers to me, I wasnt sure how the nearly one and half day travel would go.

I must have looked or browsed at one of the comic books at a book stall on the platform, and my uncle Narasimhan (we always called him Babu periappa) bought me the Amar Chithra Katha comic - Garuda.

It was the first comic book I ever read. Until then I only knew of Garuda as the vaahana of Vishnu - from grandmothers' tales. I didnt know he was a hero on his own terms and a mighty one at that. I didnt even know he had a story.

And what a story it was!

I was riveted. Enchanted. Mesmerized. I must have read that comic book fifteen times on that trip. Kashyapa and Vinita came alive; the deception that led to his mother's enslavement, Garuda's outrage when he understood the backstory, his attempt to win back freedom for his mother more than himself, his attempt to retrieve Amrita, casual defeat of Indra's defenses and his hyperbolic listing of his own strength to an astounded Indra, all made a deep impression. The counter trick he plays on Nagas felt unfair, but on the whole seemed fitting karma for their own deception in the first place. His encounter with Vishnu, and the lesson he learns in humility sank in a lot later.

After that I read quite a few Amar Chitra Kathas (my father never bought me any comic book, unlike my uncle - he deemed it "bad for my studies"). A long and abiding passion for comic books was kindled by reading Garuda. ACK taught me a lot of Hindu mythology I would never have encountered otherwise, as grandmothers tales became fewer and fewer even in Mylapore. My mother told me some socialist stories, of farm worker duped or exploited by zamindars. Even though she was devoutly religious, I dont remember her telling me any puranic or mythological stories.

Amar Chitra Katha soon led to Indrajal Comics, the banner under with the stories of the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician were published by Bennett Coleman. For the next three years, I would borrow a friend's comic book, About a year or two later, I joined a larger school where we could comic books in our school library. By seventh standard I had discovered Tintin and later Asterix, and shortly after that Superman and Batman, published by DC Comics. Then came Archie, Richie Rich, and the universe of comics around these characters. As delighted as I was by the ACK stories, the imagination, plotting, science, humor, ingenuity, art, future vision, ethics, and some of the detective skills displayed by Tintin or Batman never ceased to amaze me. All the great stories of India seemed to be in the long distant past, while America and the west were churning out absolute marvels of imagination, narration, and art.

My father rewarded me with a year's subscription of Indrajal comics, in eighth or ninth standard, as reward for coming first in class in mathematics. The year's subscription was Rs.64 (buying a year's books in stores would have cost Rs.96). 

Indrajal, DC, Archie etc were stocked in local lending libraries (there was a famous Eswari library in Gopalapuram). Asterix and Tintin were rare finds - until one day, I got a rich friend who had the entire collection of both!

This was a stage in my life when my only other interest was cricket and street sports - I didn't like films, and never watched them until the tenth standard. I got a reputation as a good, studious boy among the elders, and a comic-book dork among kids my age. But that didn't bother me. I loved the comic books. I still read them. In the last few years of course, I have diversified my reading.

But my life long reading habit started with Garuda.

My essays on Literature

My mother Pushpa, aunt Alamelu, uncle Narasimhan - in 1980.
This uncle bought me Garuda

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Seven thousand wonders of India

I am writing a series of essays about temples in Swarajya magazine, titled Seven Thousand Wonders of India.

The links to the essays are here. I will update this page, as and when new essays are published

  1. shilpam nayanaabhiraama - Sculptures
  2. svasti shree - Inscriptions
  3. prajanaam ishta siddhyartham - Architecture
  4. atimaanam - Rajasimha Pallaveshvaram
  5. ramyam Lokamahadevishvaram - Pattadakkal Virupaksha
  6. adviteeya - Ellora Kailasanaatha

Related Links

My series in Swarajya on Indian astronomy and mathematics 

Art Blogs

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

A Texas table tennis story

In my childhood, I lived on the same street as Ramanathan “Tennis” Krishnan, and his son Ramesh Krishnan, in CIT Colony. He was the big national celebrity of the colony. The sports I played as a kid were Hide and Seek, its variation Ice Boys, spinning tops, seven stones, and of course street cricket with worn out tennis balls. We had a large open ground across our house, which has since become a park, and we played cricket there in the evenings. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play.  Our highest ambition then was to one day play cricket with a fresh tennis ball, rather than a ball which was no longer fit for tennis.

Television had recently arrived. My neighbors bought a black and white TV, and for some months I watched cricket, whose rules I knew, and suddenly one day, tennis! Something called Wimbledon and somebody called Bjorn Borg of Sweden played John McEnroe of USA. For the first time, I watched two entire sets played, not just a three second glance of Tennis Krishnan’s court as we passed by in a bus. When we caught Wimbledon fever, my neighbor Sridhar and I marked our cement courtyard with a brick, and played tennis with our bare palms.

One day I found there was another sport which was almost as much a rich man’s game – table tennis. Instead of a lawn, you needed a table, and used very small rackets and a really tiny ball. This too I saw on television. Nobody I knew had a table, and we didn’t have one at school, and cricket kept me happy, so I didn’t think much of table tennis, except that I probably wont be very good at it. After al, I was less than mediocre at cricket, even though I loved playing.

Several years later, I went to college. The hostelites demanded a table tennis, and the management bought one and few bats and balls too! It was kept in the mess, half of which had dining tables, the other mostly open, except for the TT table and a television set. Our batch was the first in the hostel, and about ninety students and six or seven teachers stayed at the hostel. I suspect two thirds of us had never played. We had plenty of opportunity and I learnt to play. Several times a week I played with several classmates, and occasionally a teacher (I remember Mr Ravichandran, our chemistry teacher as the one who played most often). By the time I finished college, I was perhaps in the top ten percent among hostelites. I developed quite a few shots, learnt to spin and drop, and was moderately good at returning serves. The tendency for glorious smashes and spectacular spins was my weakness, which better players would beat. Several years later, the SQL Server team I worked in also got a TT table. I could never beat two guys, Amrish Kumar  and Sam Hakim, a Lebanese colleague, but I beat everyone else at least in one game upto 21 points. I was evenly matched with several guys, sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. I played only for pleasure, and as a break during work, so I was fine with that.

I haven't played TT in nearly twenty years now.

A photo from my days in College station, Texas

In between Krishnankovil and Seattle, I lived three years in Texas. In a small college town – twin towns actually, called Bryan and College Station. One of our neighbors was an Indian family, and the father, Michael invited me and any interested friends to a recreation room in a church that he attended, for games of table tennis and billiards or snooker, in the evenings. He taught me snooker and billiards, and we played a few games.  Some university students from China also frequented the place, and we occasionally played with them also. Most of them were at my level, though one or two were really good. Having seen Chinese guys on television play utterly awesome TT in Asiad games and the Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised that some were only at my level.

I casually mentioned this church recreation room to a friend from Coimbatore, Ramesh – we both attended an AI class the first semester; and he said he would love to come. So we went together a few times. And I played against him. The rallies were simple. The strange thing was that unlike every other player, he never tried anything fancy. No spectacular smashes or brilliant drop shots, or complicated spins on the ball. I guessed he too had learnt to play in college, but was conservative. After a few rallies we played some games. With no spectacular moves at all he took every set, never allowing me to cross fifteen points, before he got to twenty one. I didn’t think much of it; just some bad shots I played – I gave him his victories. And anyway it was all for fun.

Then we went there a couple of days later, and this time a couple of Chinese guys showed up. We mixed and matched and played, and while the rest of us won and lost a few games, Ramesh seemed to never lose a game. I was impressed. His conservative strategy really paid off. Next time I should try that.

Which I did. And he won again. By this time, he got under my skin, and I really wanted to win against him. So I decided to focus, concentrate and avoid rash shots. I could feel my game getting far better; I didn’t try silly or complex serves, and I didn’t gave away easy points but he still won. More confident, this time I tried some aggressive shots; and he returned several of them, impassively, unfluttered. The better I got, the more normal he stayed and still kept beating me. The only thing he ever tried was to put the ball on my side. No gimmicks. He returned even my excellent shots and brilliant spins.

Maybe he didn’t learn to play in college.

“Wow! You are excellent,” I said in admiration. “Utterly unflappable. Were you on your college team or something?” I asked. He gave a nonchalant shrug and a neutral smile. “Were you?” I persisted. He kind of gently nodded. “Wow! You played for college. No wonder I cant beat you. Did you play any tournaments against other colleges?” He gave another nonchalant shrug. “Come on, did you?” He nodded. “Did you win?” Another neutral smile. “Wow, awesome! How good were you?” He was now really being shy. I waited for an answer. “Did you make the university team?” I asked, suddenly wondering if he was that good. There were several dozen universities affiliated to Bharatiyar University, Coimbatore, including engineering colleges, besides arts and science colleges. It was one of the five big universities in Tamilnadu, each of which had more than a hundred colleges affiliated. Madurai Kamaraj University, to which my college AKCE was affiliated then, had nearly 180 affiliated colleges – which I knew because most of them competed in the Cultural Competitions every year, and I had participated in several of those. A university table tennis team would have five to ten players picked from among thousands of students from one of those colleges.

He finally dropped his mask. “I was captain,” he said. “Captain of what?”

“Captain of the university team.”

Boy, did I feel silly. How kind he was to let me get to fifteen points once in a while.

A few weeks later, we ran into a couple of new Chinese guys along with the regulars. And naturally played with them too. One of them really good, spectacular in fact, and he beat everyone of his Chinese friends comfortably.

Then I played against him.

Six points.

This was humiliation. Twenty one to six.

Wait, was this guy that good? I was not happy.

Next it was Ramesh’s turn, and I grinned to myself. Maybe this Chinese guy was a University player or something. Ramesh pretty much could beat every other Chinese player, so here was a fascinating contest. None of the others knew Ramesh was a former University captain, did they?

It was a nice contest, but Ramesh barely crossed ten points.  A couple of the Chinese guys grinned then went back to neutral expressions. I was impressed. But maybe it was a stroke of luck. But it was my turn again, against the new guy. I tried to bring full concentration, nothing silly, but quickly he was leading something like fifteen to three. Abandoning all caution, I tried a few spectacular shots. He just returned them casually, some even quite acrobatically. In fact, I too got in some spectacular returns because his placement were fantastic. A couple of the Chinese guys applauded my shots and returns too.

21 to 4.

Yeah four. Not even six points. Four.

This time I was too shocked to be humiliated. I don’t remember, but I think Ramesh played him again, and got beat again too. He just kept shaking his head in admiration after that.

I told Ramesh, maybe he is a university captain like you too. One of the Chinese guys overheard. He told us, “Don’t feel so bad.  He is a province champ.”

“What does that mean I asked? Province champ?”

“Henan province, in China. He won the state championship.”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and couldn’t help laughing. Wow, no wonder he was that good.

The Chinese guy nodded sagely. Then unleashed the final shot : “Just missed out making the Olympic team.”


I once played table-tennis with an Olympic guy from China and scored six points against him. Cool, huh? 

(PS: It may not have been Henan province, but some other province of China. Still...)

Related links

The Sehwag difference

The art and  Aesthetic of Driving

Rabbit roars

Personal stories