Tuesday, November 26, 2013

‘ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY?’ by DEEPAK CHATTERJEE - BOOK REVIEW

‘ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY?’ by DEEPAK CHATTERJEE
BOOK REVIEW

“Am I really happy?” was the question that I posed to myself after reading Deepak Chatterjee’s book ‘Are You Really Happy?’ If I had been asked ‘Are you happy?’ I would have found it easier to answer for there have been moments when I did feel happy, but these moments like others had always moved on to be replaced by other feelings. So when he says ‘Really happy’, I understand it as a more permanent state, the key word being ‘really’. A state one reaches after a journey through pain, fear, anxiety and having understood and risen above such feelings to a state of eternal bliss.

When he let’s us have a peek into the factors that pushed him on his quest to ‘Fundamental Happiness’, I could immediately connect and empathise for my journey has been similar and I suppose it is true to many of us also. While most have been overwhelmed by their experiences, compromised and settled down with whatever life has to offer, Deepak has chosen to share the solutions that have helped him overcome his anxieties, his fear of death and nothingness.

By classification this would fall under the category of ‘self help’ books. I have myself kept away from such literature for I have always felt that ultimately each individual will strive to find his own way to happiness or whatever he understands of it. But the sharing of experiences does matter for it could trigger that something which you recognise as a path you have tread and opens up alternate possibilities to achieve your goal. I did read Deepak’s ‘Fundamental Happiness’ till the end, not only since it struck a chord in me, but because I found lucidity and a sincerity of purpose in his presentation. He wants to help.

When he talks of ‘Fundamental Happiness’ my understanding is, that it lies at the core of each individual and can be discovered only through an inward journey starting with our normal existence which is always covered with a security blanket (the diagram on page 67) and which is the cause of ‘Fundamental Unhappiness’. The only way forward is by shedding these layers you can achieve fundamental happiness. Fundamental as I understand is the basic state of existence and that defines the characteristics of the subject in question. So I personally have an objection to the use of the word ‘Fundamental Unhappiness’. At the core we are all in a state of bliss and that could be the only true state of our existence. This is covered by all our negative feelings- as per what he calls as our security blanket. Throw away the coverings and you find yourself and this is what Deepak is trying to say. But it was interesting to note his point of view that one should stop one step below the ultimate ‘Fundamental Happiness’. That is the step of – authenticity, higher vision, depth, richness, insight and practically no pain and this helped him immensely in his leadership positions, including his current role as a CEO. This is a very positive and constructive suggestion for he realises that it is necessary for us to be as authentic as possible in our present roles which we cannot shirk and go away into the forests like the Buddha did in search of ‘Nirvana’, after all we are lesser mortals.

The author is to a large extent influenced by existential thought and like the later existentialists like Sartre tries to find a solution in the authenticity of our living. Existentialism dwells on the sense of the meaninglessness and nothingness of human existence and the anxiety and depression which pervade each human life. Whether it is the Buddha or Kierkegaard the starting point for their quest to the meaning in life has been human anxiety. While the Buddha attained that state of ultimate bliss or Nirvana and sought to disseminate it to all through his eight fold path leading to the cessation of suffering and achieving self awareness, Kierkegaard or for the other existentialists there is no such thing as an ultimate state of bliss. They sought ways of overcoming this anxiety which they recognised as the basic human condition. For me the classic examples of existential angst and redemption have been Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ and Camus’s ‘The Outsider’.

Deepak does elaborate on the basic dilemma that an individual finds himself, in trying to breakaway from the shackles that bind him. He says that this is a waiting game “We are either in the future, waiting for something, or we dwell in the past. Future causes anxiety and past creates depression”. He gives the example of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. I was also reminded of Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and the ‘Trial’. He also talks of shedding of attachments and surrender as a manifestation of wisdom. In this sense I would call him a religious existentialist.

The Chapter 20 which comes at the end ‘Death’ I would say is the starting point and the motivation for this book. In his own words –
“This fear of death gave way to more fundamental and unanswered questions within me about the meaning of life, aimlessness, search for ultimate fulfilment and then on to depression, anxiety and emptiness.”
He ends this chapter by saying “We might be very effective in avoiding the deep fear, but the fact that death remains a mystery for mankind cannot be denied”.


The book is an easy read and easy to connect. Whether all what he says is attainable or not there is no doubting the author’s honesty. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

‘FALL’ by VIJAY RAGHAV- BOOK REVIEW

  ‘FALL’ by VIJAY RAGHAV- BOOK REVIEW

Over the past few months there have been two book releases which interested me. They are the ‘Fall’ by Vijay Raghav and ‘Are you Really Happy?’ by Deepak Chatterjee. Both colleagues and who I know. Both bankers by profession and serving in the financial services industry and in that sense they fall in to the club of Ravi Subramanian who though is an award winning author of a number of popular thrillers about banking and bankers. These two writers are first timers and their genre is entirely different. While the ‘Fall’ belongs to the love murder-mystery thrillers, the second is a more serious and introspective work. I decided to write a review of ‘Fall’ first, reserving the latter for a subsequent post.

I was intrigued by the title ‘Fall’. To me ‘The Fall’ by Albert Camus has been a bible and it was only natural that my attention was drawn to the book. In the first page the author defines ‘Fall’ as - to descend freely by the force of gravity, to hang freely or to drop oneself to a lower level. But I presume that the author decided on this title from his own prose-poetry ‘Autumn Leaves’ which is central to the theme of his novel. Autumn has always been associated with introspection and in poetry is associated with melancholy. As the leaves wither away and the tree stands stripped of all its grandeur to be slowly covered by the snow of winter, one is overcome by a feeling of sorrow at the process of aging and approaching death. The book starts in early spring and ends with the onset of winter and in that sense moving through all the stages of love, passion, glory, decay and death.

This book is a love murder-mystery thriller and as such is not open to serious introspection. It has been written solely for the purpose of engaging the reader only for that period of time till he finishes it. In this the author has succeeded, for the book is well crafted and written in a very lucid style. It makes you want to complete the book at one stretch and which of course is what happened to me. It was after a long time that I was reading a book of this genre.

The author is a young finance professional and this is his first attempt at publication. I do not know how he was able to manage both the job and the book. This could have happened only if he had been writing for along time. The poems in the book slacken the pace and I personally felt that it was not necessary to give so much space for them in the book, but they do reflect a sensitive and creative mind.

The entire scene of action is in France and Vijay as has written it so authentically that one would think he had stayed in France for a long period of time. It is evident that he has done a lot of research in this aspect. Of course the question arose in my mind as to why he did not base it in Chennai or in Mumbai, both places he is familiar with and which could have lent additional authenticity to his writing. I could find three reasons – one that he wanted to cater to an international audience and the more important reason being that the kind of relationships he depicts in the book are not possible here. I felt that the relationships between the main characters, is a bit too impulsive and contrived, and of course we do not have a Fall season here, which is central to the book and which is woven around ‘Autumn Leaves’. Only the author can answer that.

The book could also have been named as ‘The Closed Door Murders’ but this would have taken the focus away from the author’s intention to highlight the poems in the book. Since there are a number of books with a similar title it could have also been named as ‘Autumn Leaves’. But that is the author’s choice.

There are two or three pages which are devoted to the solving of a puzzle important to the clues to the happenings in the book. Though interesting, they may sound like a lecture on mathematics and may not hold the attention of some readers.   

One should acknowledge that the book does keep you engrossed till the end. A good and well developed plot and well told. The author has a way of narrating in simple words and sentences and this makes it easy reading.

It is mentioned that though this is Vijay Raghav’s first published novel, he has also published a collection of poetic essays ‘The Peak of all Thoughts’. I am yet to read it but I am sure that he will be getting into some more serious writing as he has already tested the waters now.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

ALBERT CAMUS – CENTENNIAL


ALBERT CAMUS – CENTENNIAL



Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 into a largely illiterate family in the slums of Algiers and died on 4th January 1960 at the age of forty seven as a Nobel Laureate in a tragic car accident. In an article on Camus in the September/October 2013 issue of the magazine ‘Philosophy Now’ Ray Cavanaugh writes –

“Among the wreckage was the incomplete manuscript for his book The First Man, and in his pocket the train ticket that he hadn’t used after accepting the lift to Paris. In an instant, Camus had gone from being a generational voice to being a corpse on the side of a highway. One wonders what meaning can be derived from such a sudden change. Or perhaps life is simply absurd.”

One cannot but wonder that the master of the absurd met such a fate. Through all his novels and essays the central underlying theme has been the individual’s quest to understand and overcome the meaninglessness of life. Ironically the very first novel that Camus wrote but published subsequently to ‘The Outsider’ was called ‘A Happy Death’. The heroes of both the novels are called ‘Mersault’. We never know if Camus had found that elusive happiness which the hero of ‘A Happy Death’ searches. Some quotes from the book are revealing –

"Only it takes time to be happy, a lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time." The book is actually in two parts – ‘Natural Death’ and ‘Conscious Death’. In the first the hero kills a rich man for his money so that he can create time for himself and in the second towards the end he buys a house near the sea in a village and lives alone, consciously moving towards death being severely ill. In Camus’s own words-
"At this hour of night, his life seemed so remote to him, he was so solitary and indifferent to everything and to himself as well, that Mersault felt he had at last attained what he was seeking, that the peace which filled him now was born of that patient self-abandonment he had pursued and achieved with the help of this warm world so willing to deny him without anger." Severely ill, he dies a happy death: "And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds."
But Camus’s death was neither natural nor conscious but accidental, something to which none of his heroes were subjected to. Maybe we should find comfort in his words “What did it matter if he existed for two or for twenty years? Happiness was the fact that he had existed.” 

On happiness itself he had this to say in the book, “You make the mistake of thinking you have to choose, that you have to do what you want, that there are conditions for happiness. What matters- all that matters, really- is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever present consciousness. The rest, women, art, success is nothing but excuses, a canvas, waiting for our embroideries.” 

This book is less talked about than his others, maybe because it was published much after ‘The Outsider’. It was published in 1971 ten years after Camus death. The other outstanding novel of his is ‘The Plague’ for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature in the year 1957 at the age forty four, one of the youngest recipients. For the first time in ‘The Plague’ one gets an insight into Camus’s views on God –

I'm fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I've long ceased finding that original”

“Every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.”

“Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?"

From the above abstracts from The Plague, we get the impression that he had never really arrived at a conclusion regarding the existence of God. His concern is more with the plight of the individual and what he should do alleviate his sufferings and live an authentic life. The two sentences – “He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence” and “there are sick people and they need curing” are a testimony to his belief. In the book these words are spoken by a doctor who is in the midst of a plague epidemic. It is the story of medical workers finding solidarity in their labour. Camus tries to portray that we ultimately have no control over life and this irrationality is inevitable. His accidental death is a testimony to his beliefs.

He believed that God is an idea, an abstract concept constructed by us, made to sit in judgement over what is morally right and wrong. He continues to believe that making God sit in judgement over us makes him as mortal as we are and thus ultimately killing him in our heart. It is in this context that we try to understand Nietzsche when he says “God is dead”. The absurdity arises when we raise the question as to what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This cannot be possible without reward and punishment, in which case there has to be an authority to sit in judgement over our actions. This is a catch-22 situation and so, is all the more absurd. This is a situation that we find ourselves in, may be like Sisyphus. But the redeeming part of Camus’s philosophy is that one has to rebel against this absurdity and not succumb. He says “Man in order to exist must decide to act”. Doesn’t this ring a bell for all of us who are bred on the Hindu view of life, of Karma yoga? Ultimately it is doing one’s duty without expecting the fruits of action, is a way to redemption. This is brought out so poignantly in that sentence- “there are sick people and they need curing” uttered by the doctor whose only concern was discharging his duties as a doctor, and what does one expect in the middle of a plague epidemic except that he can cure as many people as possible and therein lies his redemption.

I have resisted the temptation to refer to his other novels as I have briefly tried to cover them in my earlier post of February 2012 ‘A Tribute to Albert Camus’. But today on the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I cannot but refrain from remembering the tragic circumstances of his death at a very young age. May be if he had lived longer we would have had the pleasure of more of his works. Though some find his works depressing, which of course is the case with all existentialist thought, for me reading him for the first time, his book ‘The Fall’ did prove to be one of the turning points in my life, my awakening as I call it. But it is ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and the subsequent ‘The Rebel’ that bring out the core of Camus’s philosophy. All great literature has been centred around recognising the conditions of human existence and finding solutions

Though Camus was clubbed along with Sartre and called an existentialist, he never wanted to be labelled either as an existentialist or an absurdist. In fact Camus says that the only book of ideas which he published ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ was directed against the existentialist philosophers.

One cannot also really call him an absurdist for in the ultimate analysis when one considers ‘The Rebel’ we understand that he was trying to find a solution to problems of human existence. His thoughts on this “If we assume nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point” are very revealing.

So much has been written about him and his works that one is always in danger of repeating what has been said. But it was the irony involved in the way he died, that the first thought which came to my mind was ‘A Happy Death’. The celebration of the centennial of his birth cannot but make us remember the loss that the literary world suffered.

The very fact that despite having a ticket to travel by train, he opted for a lift in a car and travel by road, would make us, who are believers in God and destiny, that this was destined to happen, something preordained. But for Camus it would have been a random event in a world that was devoid of any inherent meaning.

Apart from my own impressions of Albert Camus it was necessary for me to refer to the actual quotes from his novels as well as other commentators on the subject. This was necessary so that a truer and a more authentic picture of a man who is considered as one of the great philosopher/writers of the twentieth century is presented. I thought that this would be my fitting tribute to a man who said “Man in order to exist, must decide to act”.






Monday, November 4, 2013

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
 — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

This perhaps is the most profound soliloquy of all Shakespeare’s works. 
Back in school, Macbeth (the complete play) was part of our English literature curriculum. I was nicknamed Macbeth by my classmates, not that I had murdered someone or was villainous by nature but because I had the entire book by heart. I still remember most of the passages and would recite them even while working in the bank. Please do not conclude that I did not do any work. It was a way of getting the staff to work and sometimes it did have the desired effect. In fact I remember that the most effective one was –
 If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

Most of them could not follow what I had said but they were left in awe at my ‘profound knowledge’. I did get the desired respect and the work was completed. I never let them in to a secret- that I seriously did not know what else to do to get them to work, after efforts at cajoling and threats had failed. Shakespeare I guess should get the credit for this. Of course I refrained from quoting this in my credit proposals for I knew that the response would be-

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
I remember back in school, the English literature class was taken by the Principal, a Patrician Brother (as they were called) himself. Apart from teaching us he used to enact the characters in the play with such conviction that we used to look forward to this period. Now looking back I can attribute my retentive capabilities as far as Macbeth is concerned, to him even to this day.
That of course was a light hearted banter. But coming back to the main purpose of this post is that soliloquy which I quoted in the beginning. After the passage of so many years this is no longer an attempt to pass an exam but an attempt to understand the underlying philosophy. We have our own views on what life is, from the experiences we have been through. But the thought process has not changed despite the advancements in science. The idea of God, redemption, punishment and ultimately the meaninglessness of life still predominates. We have hope and despair and we talk of good and evil and of a moral fabric that governs our lives. 
Macbeth is a good man, a brave warrior and a loyal subject, who gets corrupted by external forces in a quest for power and position. It is after the deed is done that he is slowly eaten away by the guilt of his actions and realizes his own folly and is killed in the end. It is through this passage that Shakespeare brings out Macbeth’s ultimate realization and in a way his redemption.
It was way back in the sixteenth century that Shakespeare wrote all this but we can see an echo of it in the thoughts of the subsequent modern day philosophers, especially Sartre and Camus and other existentialists and in the writings of Dostoevsky especially in his Crime and Punishment.
It is in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ that Camus examines the meaninglessness of life and the absurd condition of man. He likens our condition to Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to roll a rock up the hill for eternity. As soon as he reaches the top, it rolls down again and the entire process is repeated. We live every day in the hope of a better tomorrow. But every tomorrow gives rise to another tomorrow and slowly this brings us closer to death. This is what the first four lines of the soliloquy signify. In his book Camus says that the really tragic moment is when Sisyphus starts his trek down the hill when he realizes that he has undergo the exercise again and again. There is no hope. But when he recognises the futility of his condition and the certainty of his fate he is freed. Similarly in the play ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare brings out the true redemption of Macbeth in this play where he acknowledges that all he had achieved was for nothing, as he was slowly moving towards his death. He equates our life to that of an actor who as long as he is on stage performs and then vanishes as soon as his act is finished.
In another of the famous soliloquy from ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare examines the existential question ‘Why live? For death could be a worse condition’
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; 
The dread is that one does not return from the dead. Here Hamlet is contemplating suicide but ultimately decides against it in this passage-
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Suicide is not an option. In, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Camus says that the only philosophical question is prolongation of life or to end it. When man is faced with the meaninglessness of life and the absurd nature of his condition, he faces the question of suicide. Camus says that this should not be an option for one does not know death. He says that once the truth is acknowledged for that is the only way you can overcome it you should ‘revolt’. This in fact is the subject of his next book ‘The Rebel’

Though the underlying philosophy of two great literary figures separated by four centuries find an echo in each others thoughts, their way of getting the message across differs, Shakespeare the dramatist and Camus the philosopher novelist.