EDMing at the Ultra Music Festival 2016

 

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The main stage and some flags

So this happened. I attended the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. A sentence that I hadn’t expected to type. Ever. An event at the apex of the mountain of baffling decisions I’ll ponder upon while on my death bed. I cannot comprehend EDM – the commercialized strain of dance music that’s all the rage. And believe me, when I say, I have tried. My body doesn’t react well to it. Instead of raging, all the muscles in my body go on a strike, only allowing my mouth to work up a scowl. Needless to say, I enjoy it less than I enjoy chewing my own hair. But I wanted to have a peek at the rave scene everyone was raving about, get pissed with my buddies in Miami, and maybe miraculously ‘get’ the music like some flu. And with these discombobulated thoughts, I flew to Florida.

I touched down at the Fort Lauderdale airport to a sunny afternoon and the largest collection of senior citizens per square mile I have ever seen. Though Florida’s famous as a retirement haven, the multitude of the elderly at the airport was slightly disconcerting. It gave the impression they were trying to flee from something, maybe the impending EDM ear drum evisceration.

In contrast, the Bayfront Park in Downtown Miami was packed with millennials -dancing, energetic, and startlingly underdressed. Throngs in thongs took over the roads. As per my expert economic analysis, the rise of EDM festivals doesn’t bode too well for the clothing industry. On the other hand, it does create an excellent market for gym owners and steroid manufacturers. Guys walked around shirtless with juiced up arms the size of my waist. They seemed to be mass produced on an assembly line inside a gym, every unit designed, sculpted, and released after being dropped headfirst into a cauldron of hair gel. The girls were decked in colorful makeup and sparse outfits but suffered from the case of the fashion paradox where everyone tries to attain that look that’s in vogue and end up being indistinguishable from the million others who followed the same fashion advice.

The music blared out from among various tents housing the stages. I have to say there were some pretty good beats streaming out from the ‘A State of Trance’ stage which caused a lot of the crowds to stream in. So, we staggered with other revelers to the main stage where the headliners were to hold the fort. The main stage was indeed a fort – built out of led screens and bulbs and flashlights and lasers; spectacularly designed to dazzle the visual senses and ensure the cameras were taken out and clicking. A sight for the eyes even if the music made your ears sore. There were pyrotechnics so intense that soot lined up every nose in addition to other substances that were being snorted. The arena was tightly cramped with crowds possibly high on MDMA but struggling to move. For a dance party, this can be a bit of a bummer. To prevent an all out electronic dance brawl, the dance moves had to be watered down, just like the liquor being served. A good rule of thumb was to imagine yourself to be straitjacketed and riddled with arthritis while attempting any dance move. Buying a VIP pass would probably afford some room. However, if you were female and attractive, you could save the money and perch yourself on the shoulders of the aforementioned gym-droids for free, and sway about like a Florida palm tree in a hurricane.

Regardless of the spatial problems, people seemed to be having fun. There was a diverse group of people from different countries draped in their flags. I’m no nationalist but wearing your country’s flag while listening to David Guetta should surely count as treason? David Guetta, as expected, continued with his jihad on the ears of every living organism. As awful as he is not self-aware, he spun the turntables of irony in a moving tribute to himself with a song called ‘Bad.’

According DJs the same cult of personality as rock-stars doesn’t actually translate well. The DJs have to be anchored to their machinery and thus sectioned to the same spot, bouncing there like a directionless kangaroo. Since the music typically lacks vocals, they feel a need to make their voice heard which leads to a torrent of platitudes like ‘make some noise’ and ‘put your hands up in the air.’ The latter repeated more than in all police procedural TV shows combined. The point was proven when Guetta called out his fellow aural assaulter, Martin Garrrrrix to join him. He emerged, they hugged, he pressed a couple of buttons, asked everyone to ‘put their hands up in the air’ – which were already in the air since Guetta had blurted it out already,  before vanishing in the blink of an eye. There wasn’t an iota of charismatic aura to lift an expectant crowd; he lasted for less time than a man with chronic premature ejaculation would around Scarlett Johansson.

As expected, I wasn’t taking all this quite well. I had reverted to a state of zombie paralysis with the enthusiasm of a man on death row. My apathy was so radioactive that I was simultaneously offered and solicited for MDMA. The former presumably to make me slightly more cheerful and the latter probably based on my dead-eyed solemnity that’s exhibited only by drug-dealers. My brain had to be sedated to enjoy this. The plan was to pump myself with alcohol instead of water. But the festival organizers poured water on those plans by literally pouring water in every liquor can. So, I was hydrated, sober, and sane – words that are commonly denied entry at any EDM festival gate.

I spent most of the three days losing count of the number of times Adele’s ‘Hello’ was played. I did get to observe the EDM scene at the main stage like an amateur behaviorist. The entire atmosphere has a cultish ring to it which vibes well with the cult of personality around the DJ. The EDM song structure uses some drum beat sampling which starts off slowly. It rises to a steady rhythm. It stays there for some time. Then it suddenly rises again. It picks up speed. It reaches a crescendo like some harrowing soundtrack to an alien invasion or a mass exorcism. The devotees already out of their mind feel like they’re about to lose their mind, fearing the worst. At that crucial moment, the savior DJ slides some buttons and the beat switches suddenly to a whole different sampling. Everyone is now redeemed. They see the light(s) and are possessed by the soul of Jesus, Buddha, and Batman fused together. This sudden transition leads to a very visible shift in the tone and mood and is apparently called a ‘beat drop.’ This happened more or less.

An important takeaway I gained from those three days is to avoid the main stage like the plague. The visuals are eye-popping, but the lights seem to attract overrated wankers like moths to a bulb – that includes the ‘artists’ as well as the crowd. Other stages – especially the trance stage served up better stuff with more soul by underground performers still a bit away from being sucked into the vortex of fame.

EDM like most commercial art is predominantly packaged for and lapped up by the impressionable college-going crowd. It’ll be interesting to see how long the craze lasts. Will the fad fade away like disco or will it mutate? Robots(not Daft Punk) replacing DJs and their MacBooks, mixing stuff using super intelligent algorithms. Creating sounds that blow off ears. Sending out high-intensity laser beams that burn holes through the ravers and melts their faces. But the ravers rise again because they are robots too. And that is how they rage. All this while the surviving humans cower in their underground bunkers waiting for John Connor to arrive and the beat to drop…

 

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Books I Read in 2015 – II

Continuing onwards from the first edition, the notes on the next seven:

8. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

An insight into social and family dynamics through the window of absurdism and surrealism that is the hallmark of Franz Kafka. There is a sense of brutal cynicism and hopelessness that Kafka tries to convey through the predicament of the hapless protagonist Gregor Samsa. One’s helplessness or weakness or affliction or addiction will be tolerated only to a certain extent by the society or even by the closest members of one’s family. You are loved till you are useful in some way. Once you become a burden, the hourglass to test the limits of love and tolerance for you is set up and when the sand runs out you are tossed aside so that the society can march on forward without you holding it back.

9. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

One of the most widely read and if not, at least one of most recommended books of our times. It always offers and will continue to offer good betting odds regarding it being brought up in discussions – rightly or wrongly – that involve topics of  censorship, freedom of speech, the passage of laws construed as draconian, or any significant government policy excesses. The concept of thought-crime has always been hoisted upon our society through religious beliefs where it is accepted that a higher being can read your ‘impure’ thoughts and chastise you. This however becomes an issue when a totalitarian entity assumes the role of this higher being. The telescreens used in the book by the Party for monitoring people pale in comparison to the current age of satellites and the internet where mass surveillance of people becomes quite simple especially when people themselves are willing to upload their thoughts and memories onto the internet. Sophisticated machines and algorithms are used to predict and manipulate the thoughts of the public by corporate entities and the government. The Snowdon revelations confirmed the existence of this surveillance that was imposed upon us using the excuse of a war on terror that eerily mirrors the events in the book. The book is quite depressing and reflects many policies of the Stalinist totalitarian government that arose from the ashes of the communist revolution that was launched for the sake of the people.

10. The Martian – Andy Weir

It’s a page turner and relatively straightforward. Man gets lost on Mars. Man tries to get back to Earth. Of course, the straightforwardness is just related to the plot of the novel since getting back from Mars to Earth requires some serious thinking and scientific gumption. Our hero seems to possess that and also some humor. There are obstacles of course that he has to overcome. And he doesn’t have much time. Maybe, this sense of purpose triumphed over the psychological effects of being stranded alone on a planet far away from home because there are people who find themselves battling mental demons on Earth. An enjoyable read, nothing more nothing less.

11. The Trial of Henry Kissinger – Christopher Hitchens

US foreign policy has been responsible for many questionable decisions since the incipience of the Cold War. Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford years was responsible for quite a few of these decisions based on realpolitik. Hitchens accuses Kissinger of acts that could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity. One of these acts includes conspiring against the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and scuppering the peace plan for Vietnam in 1968. The same plan was then implemented in 1973 leading to five more years of bloodshed and Kissinger receiving a Nobel Peace Prize. Others include bombing Laos and Cambodia, instigating the coups that deposed Salvador Allende of Chile and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus – both democratically elected individuals, and encouraging the atrocities in Bangladesh and East Timor at the hands of Pakistan and Indonesia respectively. The prose employed by Hitchens is a bit stilted I felt, but there is a lot of information in there to ponder about dubious US foreign policy decisions that still continue to this day such as the Iraq war and the subsequent destabilization of the region.

12. A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

I did not know about the existence of the Appalachian trail before I read the book. I won’t get into statistics and geography of the trail – Google’s your friend – but it is quite long and frequented by bears. I’m not a hiking person and one would think it would be a bit of a chore to read about a person who walked through a mountainous road for a long time. Unless of course there is a bear chase involved from the start to end. There is no bear chase but thankfully the person who walked the trail happens to be Bill Bryson, he of affable wit and charm. He is also accompanied by a colorful and goofy friend, Stephen Katz. This turns a long read about a walk and endless descriptions of nature into funny account of the history of the trail, the goof ups in maintaining it, the eccentricity of fellow mountain men and women, and the adventures of Katz and Bryson themselves when they veer off the path.

13. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson

There is a good chance that you have heard or witnessed a funny story about one of your friends or family members being drunk and intoxicated or it might have been you who were the central character of that story. You might remember listening to the story with rapt attention, doubling over with laughter but still thirsting for more content from this substance-induced hilarity. Reading this book is around a couple of thousand times the effect of those stories and the friend narrating the story happens to be Hunter S. Thompson. He and his Samoan lawyer were supposed to report a race in Vegas but instead ingest different varieties of drugs and liquor like Halloween candy. There’s then a hazy trail of events of both of them get into  – including the destruction of hotel rooms, attending a police convention while high, having surreal drug-related experiences, and driving like madmen across Las Vegas. There’s also a lot of lines dedicated to the 60s counter-culture movement in San Francisco. All this in the inimitable prose of Hunter S Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism.

14. Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J Dubner

The authors champion Freakonomics as a book to challenge the conventional wisdom using the tools of economics.Though I wasn’t ‘freaked’ out by many of the truths that trump conventional wisdom. These truths including the importance of incentives and how they can harbor dishonesty in the case of Chicago school teachers who inflated student grades, the hoarding of information to manipulate prices or other economic or social factors, the significant income difference between the top brass and the lower rung of the drug gangs, and the effect of economic status of parents and patterns of children’s names on the all round growth of the child. The findings of these case studies didn’t surprise me all that much. But certain case studies themselves were quite interesting and informational especially the ones with sumo wrestlers that threw matches, the decline of the Ku Klux Klan, and the interviewing of the Chicago drug kingpin by one of the author’s friends. There was, however, one study that did surprise me, and that also happens to have caused a controversy around the book – the claim being that the landmark Roe vs. Wade case that legalized abortion led to a decrease in crime rate rather than other factors such as improved policing and stronger economy. The authors provide some quite compelling arguments in that regard, but it doesn’t seem that clear-cut. There was a recent study that shows the fall in violent crime rates that correlates to the decrease in lead poisoning. The article even references Freakonomics in the argument. So, it would be a bit remiss to accept all the arguments in Freakonomics as the gospel truth but instead keep a look out for better alternatives to these arguments.

Books I Read in 2015 – I

One of my resolutions last year was to read books. Many of them. I chipped away at the ‘many’ and carved it to a manageable number – 21. So, 21 books in 52 weeks which works out to two weeks for a book. Thanks to the presence of Goodreads which arouses shame through the use of colorful HTML and the occasional email, completing the 21 books reading challenge was one – maybe the only one – of the few resolutions of 2015, of the ones that I remember, that I upheld. I wanted to write short notes on each of the books I’ve read. While my memory won’t be that helpful in this endeavor I’ll attempt to base the notes off the bits that I remember and the feelings that were stirred in me while I perused these books. There will be three editions each detailing seven books. I’ll start backward from the very last book I read:

1. Between The World And Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book is quite short, 152 pages, but packs a punch so strong that it leaves you dazed enough to stop and reflect and feel a bit emotional. There’s a lot of energy condensed into the book, and it takes a while to take it all in. Structured as a letter from Coates to his teenage son, the book describes the bitter reality of being a black body that was and is still used to fuel the American dream or the illusion of the dream. And that racial constructs have been primarily created to sustain this dream. Coates outlines his concerns and hope for his son through the profound personal experiences that  – shaped his life in the streets, the schools, the unshackled milieu of Howard University, his interactions with women, his struggle as a writer, his rethinking of the youthful aspirations of black supremacy, the brutal murder of Prince Jones, the experience of living in Paris with a human experience that was different than home. Coates doesn’t offer any solutions but reminds his son to be conscious of the struggle he will have to face as a young black male as the American dream marches forward obliterating bodies and nature; the destruction of the latter which will lead to the end of us all.

2. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

The third Vonnegut book I have read is again dark and funny and bizarre. Vonnegut refers to the book as a repository of thoughts that he has jettisoned off his brain while only retaining all that is sacred such as music, Shakespeare, Armistice Day, etc. These jettisoned items include characters from Vonnegut’s previous works including his alter-ego Kilgore Trout, various illustrations including that of an arsehole and female underpants, social commentary and criticism of the American dream. They all add to the story that leads up to a climactic event in the life of a mentally unstable man, Dwayne Hoover of Midland City. If the arsehole illustration was bizarre, the author himself appears in the novel meeting the characters he created and whose lives he controls thereby making free will an important theme of the book.

3. All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

The book took a lot of time to write, and as you read it, you will experience the time spent in crafting this book through the beauty of the prose. There is something beautiful and sad oozing through every sentence. The depiction of the French coastal town of Saint Malo is very breathtaking. The story focuses on the lives of a blind and smart French girl Marie-Laure who is brought up by her widowed father, and a German orphan Werner Pfennig, who is a science and radio enthusiast. Their lives are upturned as the Second World War breaks out. This tale of historical fiction with a non-linear storyline combines the search for a mythical jewel, the obligation of having Nazi villains, and the wonders of the radio as the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner become intertwined during the fag end of the war. I felt the ambiance and visual atmosphere created by the book to be very similar to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. And Werner’s aptitude for science mirrors Hugo’s precocity.

4. The Looming Tower – Lawrence Wright

A brilliant account of the people and the events that led up to the 9/11 attacks that have changed the world as we know. While it’s quite simple just to categorize Al Qaeda and its 2 main leaders, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the bad guys and proceed with that notion, the book delves deeper into the reasons for the rise and coming together of these two very different personalities, their thoughts and motivations behind the lives they chose and their undying hatred for the West. It starts with the story of Sayyid Qutb, a significant influence on the rise of Islamists who reject Western secularism and lifestyle and dream of the bygone medieval era when the Islamic civilization was at its zenith. Ironically, Qutb’s story starts from his journey to America. The book also details the hunt for Bin Laden led by FBI’s John O’ Neill and the bureaucratic clashes between the CIA and the FBI that hampered the uncovering of the plot.

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

A short account of very young boys stranded on an uninhabited island and trying to survive. Personality clashes that develop in the absence of rules and grownups, survival instincts, the childish naiveté of the boys, and the fear of the unknown leads to gradual deterioration in the innocence and morals of the boys and leads to tragic events. There is a certain foreboding and an eery feeling while reading this book as though things will unravel at any moment. One also tends to forget about the youthfulness of the boys – who are all less than twelve years old  – and think if them as adults. This glaring disconnect in the ages becomes apparent in quite a few situations and it feels like a bucket of cold water has been doused over your heads.

6. Of Mice and Men- John Steinbeck

This one is short but not quite as sweet. It’s a tragic story that covers a lot of themes, issues and literary devices including racism, mental illness, euthanasia, sexuality, the pursuit of American Dream, animal imagery. Considering it was published in 1937, one could only imagine the controversy the book might have caused due to its subject matter.

7. The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros

The book doesn’t have a central plot but sketches the neighborhood around the house on Mango Street, which is the author’s abode. Each chapter touches upon an individual inhabiting the neighborhood and details their character profile or a short, eclectic tale about them. These tales sometimes involve multiple of these characters. The book serves as a social and feminist commentary from the viewpoint of a woman of color and explores topics  such as domestic abuse, coming-of-age, gender roles that curtail women’s priveleges, sexual assault, freedom of movement, etc. The prose is short, gritty and poetic and one quite often feels like singing along than just reading it.

Sufjan Stevens at the Fox Theater: A Sufjantastic performance

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I’ll start off  by apologizing for the horrible pun on Sufjan’s (pronounced: Soof-yan) name in the title, the temptation was way too overpowering. Moving on, Sufjan Stevens’ latest album Carrie and Lowell came out this year. The title and the music, a tender ode to his mother and step-father. The album practically chronicles Sufjan’s early life as he lays bare his most intimate and vulnerable feelings. Loss, regret, self-loathing, suicide, any other harrowing adjective you could insert, they are all covered in there. Certainly, not a party album to boogie. I usually find myself nodding awkwardly or mumbling incoherent words of empathy when I listen to people’s darkest woes. Those conversations are quite uncomfortable unless you’re a psychopath. The music in this album makes you feel exactly like one. It is enchanting and stunning. You are feasting on Sufjan’s sadness and loss, and enjoying the shit out of it. The personal lyrics, the raw and minimal acoustic arrangement and the soulful vocal harmonies are quite affecting. It will make you stop in your tracks. So, don’t be on the treadmill when you listen to one best albums of 2015 by one of the great song-smiths of this generation.

A couple of weeks earlier I discovered that Sufjan would be playing at the Fox Theater in Oakland. I stumbled upon this information while deleting one of those random emails from those random websites you don’t recall randomly signing in to. So, every spam does have a silver lining. I then went online to book tickets on TicketMaster. An act that conjures up Sufjanesque levels of loss, regret, self-loathing, suicide, any other harrowing adjective you could insert. The unfathomable service and convenience fees. The incoherent and unintelligible captchas. The incessant loading pages. And the final HTML page that declares the unavailability of tickets and shamelessly asks you to check back and relive the trauma all over again. TicketMaster is a rare entity that masterfully combines evil and shite in equal measures. In desperation, I turned to the only force every human turns or should turn to: Craigslist.

And, as always, Craigslist answered prayers, and I acquired a seat close enough to get a clear view of the stage but far enough to fail a driving vision test. The show had an all-seating arrangement that made sense as you do not want to be standing while drenched in your own tears as Sufjan gives your eyes a good workout. Helado Negro, a one-man band, opened the show accompanied by a couple of sparkly coated, round figures gyrating rhythmically in sync. The distance of the seats ensured I spent the whole act ignoring the music and trying to figure out if the shapes were humans or robots. This brought back unpleasant memories of the dress conundrum, and I gave up to not worsen the trust issues between my brain and my eyes. Those shapes turned out to be humans just for the record.

The stage was then set for the man and Sufjan’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar took over the Fox. Unlike the album’s sparse production, electric guitars and percussion joined forces onstage. Vocal harmonies chimed in. I was hooked and reeled as strains of ‘Death with dignity’ and ‘Should have known better’ caused the hair on the back of my head to stand up. The live performance trumped the recorded version. The live rendition also had more factors going for it; the opulence of the Fox itself and video vignettes of Sufjan’s family from his childhood projected on the background screen. The fairly innocuous video clips – displayed through a frame designed to look like a garden fence – provided a powerful and poignant imagery to the music.

Sufjan, the multi-instrumentalist, showed off his talents by juggling between the guitar, the piano, the banjo. On ‘Eugene’, he crooned ” What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” which seemed a bit ludicrous as the entire audience had their ears turned up. Fourth of July‘s cheerful repetitive refrain, ‘ We are all gonna die’ was hammered home relentlessly using electric guitars and drum crescendo. Enough number of times to convince anyone, even cats with their alleged nine lives,  about the inevitable end.  Sufjan worked his way through all but one songs from Carrie and Lowell in the same order as the album.

After the marathon session, he donned his ‘talking’ hat – a green cap which when worn enables him to initiate his spoken word monologue. The speech gave an insight into why death occupies the largest slice in his pie-chart of song-writing themes. It seems like death was the major ice-breaking conversation starter in the Stevens  family household. He also spoke about his family’s fascination with mystics, rebirth, and naming themselves and their animals after previous historical incarnations. It wasn’t as boring as it sounds, the entire talk was laced with generous dollops of humor. He even incorporated a gag involving John Calvin. There was an attempt by an idiot to heckle him, but that didn’t last long because no one gave a fuck. Possibly, drowned himself in self-awareness, or someone knocked him out. Hopefully the latter.

The monologue was then over. The hat remained perched, and Sufjan went back to singing, now, playing songs from his other albums. Highlights including ‘Heirloom‘, ‘The dress looks nice on you’, ‘In the Devil’s territory‘. The regular set-list ended with ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ from Carrie and Lowell. An unwritten rule of live performances is that the last song of the setlist is reserved for testing the endurance of the human ears, eyes, and brain. It doesn’t matter if it’s a funeral dirge, it will be steered off course and made as loud and flashy as possible until you pop out your eyes and stuff them in your ears. So the song started out slow as on the album and ended with an intense cacophony of sounds – electronica, guitars, drums, vocals – and epileptic light effects. This bedlam continued for a while as people watched in awe or cowered in fear or gave up their lives. Phone cameras hallucinated as well. And then it ended. The people who survived gave a rousing applause as the band took a break before the encore section.

The encore was a trio of songs from Sufjan’s 2005 magnum opus ‘ Illinois‘. Sufjan’s boyish charm and self-deprecation shone through when he fluffed a line while performing ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’. He let the audience know about it while still playing the piano. This was followed by the delightfully sad ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ and he closed out the show with the extravagantly titled ‘The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us’. Finally, the man and his band – who were quite superb themselves – took a bow to a standing ovation. In my opinion, the mark of an exceptional performance is its ability to dazzle me enough to not use the restroom. And at the end of that 3-hour performance, my bladder was threatening to burst more than the Hindenburg.

Cat’s Cradle and Animal Farm

After an inordinate  amount of time required for reading, ‘ A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson, I decided to focus on fiction. I chose two short and brilliant pieces of work by two brilliant writers.

Cat’s Cradle: My first introduction to Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle is also considered one of his finest works. One can see why after reading it. Every author has a recognizable prose style and turn of phrase. This book has enough humor and cynicism to imprint in you the hallmark of Vonnegut’s writing.The writing is witty and pithy, a breeze to read. There a large number of chapters. Some chapters even consist of a couple of lines.  There are a quite a few metaphorical themes, imagery, and plot devices that are utilized in this story. One plot device I found was interesting was one where Vonnegut reveals a ‘twist’ before it happens and the builds the story leading up to that fateful event. The book has a new doomsday device created by science, a new forbidden religion with its own book, rituals and ideals, a new country with its own dialect  and  unique mix of political, cultural and economic issues, and a plethora of individuals with dubious characters. The story interweaves and brings together all of them  and  leads to a literary work that is funny, shocking, inspiring and genius,  that has and will stand the test of time.

Animal Farm:  George Orwell’s satirical tale about the Russian revolution by allegorically linking farm animals to the main players in the Russian Revolution. It satirizes the idealistic origins of the revolution of giving the power back to the working class as envisioned by the Communist party to it’s ideological disintegration into a dictatorial state (Stalinism) through bloody purges and propaganda. The result being that the new soviet state is indistinguishable from the Tsarist empire which it had replaced in a show of unparalleled political idealism. Orwell uses pigs for the portrayal of the  ruling Communist Party as they are the most intelligent and social animals bred on a farm. Dogs symbolize the secret police with the rest of the farm animals resembling the proletariat. Humans  represent the enemies of the Soviet state – the Tsar, Hitler, and the Capitalist bloc.

Animal Farm makes the point that it doesn’t matter how ideal or noble a revolution is. If the working class is as stupid and naive or can be kept stupid as possible through incessant propaganda and a manufactured and biased education system, the working class will always suffer and the revolution decomposes and rots ultimately. The generations will change, the rulers will change, the cosmetic appearance of the state will change but the condition of the proletariat will continue to fester in a state of stagnation until a new set of challengers emerge with new revolutionary ideals to prey on the raw and basic emotions of a new ignorant generation. And the cycle will continue……

A not so short review of ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson

It took me a while to finish Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. A month or thereabout to be more specific. The drawn out period of reading was not only due to the 600 odd pages or my attention span – that is less than that of a moth – but also because it’s a non-fiction book. Non-fiction always takes a bit more time and effort than fiction – for me at least. They are always peppered with intriguing facts or claims that you tend to cross check or investigate with the help of the internet . ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything being a science book is a honeycomb of interesting theories that cover as the title says nearly everything. Be it cosmology, physics, math, geology, biology, chemistry, genetics, taxonomy, it gives brief insight into every branch of science that deals with how the universe, the earth, ourselves and our fellow organisms were somehow put together and somehow thrived or did not thrive. Every page is intriguing enough to energize you to overcome your inertia and go on a googling spree to uncover more details. So much so that, a month of reading ‘ A Short History…’ cleansed my internet search history, and lend it a dignity that it had lacked for quite a few years.

The book is the fruit of Bryson’s quest to learn about the universe and himself after a shocking realization he probably knows nothing significant about it. And as you read the book, you’ll be as awe-inspired by the vast expanse of the universe as well as the expanse of your memory under which many of the scientific details in this book – taught to us in our school curriculum – lay buried. Those elementary & middle school memories I extricated, I have to say, screamed unmitigated dullness and fear. The importance of evolution was known to us not for changing the course of humanity but for its weight-age in the exams. The inexplicable soporific prose of the school textbooks even made the exciting life-span of the dinosaurs such a chore that extinction did not seem that bad at all. Also, I dare say , unlike proteins, many teachers – in spite of their qualifications – do not have the panache and the patience to bring life into this tedious matter. Bryson is in the same boat and tries to remedy this scientific deficiency by putting in a lot of time and effort doing research and converting it into a book injected with a healthy a dose of quirky storytelling, lucid prose and humor, and insightful analogies. Some might refer it to as ‘dumbing down’ of science, but the book is a useful and harmless way to whet your appetite before you dig into the vastness of the main course.

Coming back to the book, it is structured as a story. Every chapter introduces problems concerning a branch of science. And every story needs a hero. The heroes are the brilliant scientists, who are always presented with a short biography of themselves. Their many charming oddities are also brought forth which do give credence to the ‘mad scientist’ trope that is much abused in our culture. There are antagonists as well which usually are either ignorance or petty quarrels in the scientific community. Quite a few times the efforts of the scientist and their solutions are often ignored only to be recognized much later.

An interesting theme noticed from the life of the scientists was that most of them were extremely wealthy. They didn’t really have to wait for their monthly paychecks or ‘shooting’ Monday morning emails to their managers. They could work on solving problems they were interested in and at their own time and leisure.

The book also has like thriller-like narrative bringing us to a cliffhanger where a particular idea or theory or problem becomes hard to solve. An inspired breakthrough by another hero – different time or place – however comes forth to the rescue of scientific enlightenment. Thus the story hops from one link to another, one scientific accomplishment to another, incrementally and seamlessly. Some scientists are often friends and some of their accomplishments are made possible by their social networks. Though many-a-times plenty of inspiring work was left unaware due to the problems of not having an integrated documentation and collection of scientific work and language barriers as most of the scientific work was documented in English.

Humor abounds in plenty, Bryson even makes a chapter regarding lichens – their incredibly boring lengthy life and their taxonomy – have some funny moments. This raises a poignant point about life itself for as how life for many organisms just exists and they have to fight for it. There is no attempt or reason ‘to find meaning’ or ‘experience God’ for these organism.

Analogies also used proficiently throughout mostly to hammer home the point as to how insignificant our species and our planet is as compared to the universe around us and how lucky we are that things have worked out for us – in an evolutionary, climactic and cosmological capacity – to survive and thrive.

At the same time, it also makes a grim reminder as to how are recent we, homo sapiens, are as a dominant species and how a slight disturbance in the universe could spell our end despite all the technology present today. Extinction always works as a life-propelling mechanism just like a reboot for a Windows machine. There is a prescient warning about the hibernation and the sudden explosion of viruses such as Ebola.

The book emphasizes on the amount of information we still do not know about ourselves and this world we live in even with the rapid strides we have made. There are a lot of brilliant people working on these problems however, ready to devote their entire life to the search of enlightenment which is quite reassuring and inspiring. Also a profound point about us, humans, are not the center of everything. We are quite destructive and have lead to the extinction of a lot of organisms knowingly or unknowingly.

There’s a lot of information detailed and there are a lot of scientists, some of whom have worked in multiple areas and thus their names drift in and out several times and keeping track becomes a bit difficult. There’s an index provided to help with the mind mapping and to prevent your thoughts from turning into spaghetti.

It is a very profound, compelling, and a funny book and is worth multiple reads rather than a single one.

Mumblings and fumblings from the trip to India.

I visited India – Bombay specifically – last month after three years. This visit had a certain significance attached to it. Three years back, I had traveled away from India for the first time to the USA. I had experienced a ‘culture shock’. I had ingratiated, embarrassed, and survived myself by precariously holding onto the coattails of a new  culture as time whizzed past. Now I was returning back to my homeland for the first time. There would be a particular novelty of reacquainting myself with my native culture again through a different set of eyes. I would be caught again in a tug of war between two cultures – a ‘reverse culture shock’.

As you can see, I had invested considerable mental time to hype this trip and make it sentimental and poignant. Therefore, I was surprised at my meager excitement levels. It was a tiny streak of piss rather than the gigantic Tsunami I was hoping for. My pathetic indifference contrasted significantly with the people in the same boat or plane as me. Their thrill was so overflowing that it had escaped their body and had flooded the social media in a relentless stream of hashtags, updates, emoji, and check-ins.

I pondered the reasons for this. Maybe it was the visa and immigration process that I would have to go through again – a process that impossibly marries nerve-wracking with soulless drudgery. Maybe it was that catching up with loved ones wasn’t that special, not in this age of technology. I could catch up with them through multiple applications – audio, video, text, images – at the same time and anytime. Thanks to these applications, you already know a lot about them – from their lowest score on the Candy Crush Saga, to their entire range of facial expressions in color-filtered selfies, to the imaginary skill on their resume you endorsed on Linkedin. Or maybe the reason for my grumpiness was my anxiety regarding flying. The claustrophobia in the air, the shuddering dilemma of using a clogged restroom in the air, and the distressing reminders of ‘Lost’ – not the plane crash in the TV series but the plane crash that was the TV series. Recent enhancements to the flying experience such as Ebola, disappearance, and Russian rockets didn’t appeal much either.

I tried to build up my sagging spirits with a shopping spree that only increased the number of clothes to pack which I wasn’t going to wear. My mom as always fixed the problem with her cheerful voice and a list of my long-forgotten favorite dishes that she was preparing. This helped to stem the excitement-bleeding.

And, so the trip began by me sleeping throughout the air travel. There were time-outs for food brought about by the pleading cries of flight attendants and co-passengers. This sleepiness was killed by the Ebola screening line at the airport: a process more chaotic than if there had been an actual outbreak of Ebola. While the entire process was a chaotic blur, I remember allowing a wizened elderly lady to cut the line. The elation at this random act of kindness turned to trauma when her entire posse of around 20 members thanked me as I gaped at them open-mouthed.

I reverted back to sleep mode as the jetlag took over. By the time I was fully awake, things had taken a pleasant turn. I was enjoying the trip. There was no ‘reverse culture shock’ as I settled chameleon-like into my old surroundings. I picked up from where I had left off.Things had gotten better for me at home; I was the center of attention again after my infantile years, which I can’t recall. Apart from the endless supply of favorite food, other benefits involved no laundry, increased tolerance for my tantrums, and a noticeable decrease in the ‘How to live your life’ chapters from my dad’s audio -book. I was so full of positive energy, I even agreed to a tour of long-ignored relatives and Gods.

There was also a kindling of this romantic notion of traveling my city and sampling its food, sights, and sounds, then documenting these experiences and subjecting you to the agony of reading them like this blog. Thankfully for you, the Mumbai railways made me stop in my tracks. A rail trip during peak hours is akin to an intense plank, an acupressure massage and a yoga session at the same time and for an extended period. You have to hold your body in a single position while it’s subjected to relentless pressure from every side, and go into a meditative trance to block the hurricane of gibberish flying all around you. You experience the life of a canned sardine, but sardines have it better because they are dead and also have someone to pull them out.

But I did get around a little, visiting a few places and meeting up and having food with old friends. It was fun reminiscing about embarrassing and nostalgic stories that hadn’t been shared on Facebook. But the meetings did descend into a Facebook display and cover photo shoot and were signed off with selfies as is the social norm today.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

From the little travel, Bombay is still a bustling city overflowing with humanity. It can a bit asphyxiating if you haven’t been brought up here. There are colorfully attired people darting all over the place. It’s like a massive multiplayer online role-playing game where the objective is to not crash into each other as you reach your destination; there are added obstacles like animals, fast-food stalls, and bikes to spice up the challenge.

Antilia:   Bombay's own Dark Tower of Mordor
Antilia: Bombay’s own Dark Tower of Mordor

The Gothic and art-deco edifices dotting the city including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Gateway of India, and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel still looked splendid. You do take the landmarks around a place for granted when you live there. Also, got to see, ‘Antilia’- the ostentatious dwelling of the Indian oligarch Mukesh Ambani – while driving through South Bombay. It is Bombay’s very own Dark Tower of Mordor. According to Wikipedia, it’s the world’s second most expensive residential property but, unfortunately looks like a series of turds dropped by a constipated Godzilla in Legoland.

Auto-rickshaw: the cockroach of the Mumbai roads
Auto-rickshaw: the cockroach of the Mumbai roads

Speaking of driving, it’s possibly the only experience that could be termed a culture shock as well as a mental shock. It’s like Mario Kart in real life and the vehicles seem to run on gas mixed with generous quantities of steroids. Rules are minimal as you can drift and overtake wantonly with no blind-spot monitoring. The flag-bearer of this anarchy on roads is an ancient and fragile contraption called the auto-rickshaw. I hadn’t seen them in three years and they stuck out for me during this trip. A  definite part of the cultural fabric of Bombay, they are like cockroaches; they are ubiquitous, scuttle around everywhere with no sense of danger and can survive any age and technology.

So, in order to prolong my life, I decided to stay off the roads and the railways, and check out the entertainment options on TV. TV in India seems to have turned over a new leaf. The shows still depict garishly overdressed gossipy men and women with no redeeming features. But in a twist, these shows are now based on historical figures rather than pointless average Joes in the present. While before it was quite easy to despise every character and the actor on these shows, the producers have now decided to challenge the masses. Could you hate the revered titans of history like Akbar, Ashoka etc. as the spotlight is now focused on their multiple wives and love lives? The answer it seems is yes as I willed Akbar to die a horrible death over his latest shenanigans involving shagging a maid after a late night drinking binge.

The film industry, on the other hand, has churned out a new assembly line of mediocre actors. They all sport gelled hair, possess gym subscriptions, have delicately designed stubbles, and are all named ‘Siddharth’. Despite the Siddharth-proliferation, Bollywood is still in the grasp of the assembly line of actors called ‘Khan’ who continue to defy age just like the auto-rickshaws.

The fag end of the trip was a relapse into the depressive grumpiness observed at the start of this blog before I boarded the plane again to get back to the grind.