The gut feeling is real.

 

‘I think, therefore I am’ is probably the most overused philosophical quote of all time. But the more I think about it, the more confusing it gets. After all, we don’t consciously control all our thoughts. The mind wanders on its own and all kinds of thoughts come uninvited, especially when you’re trying to get some sleep. So do our thoughts really indicate that we exist as actively thinking entities?

 

Recently, I read a book called  ‘Gut‘ by Giulia Enders ( highly recommended read,  though it’s full of silly toilet humour). Apart from a lot of useful information on pooping and digestive system issues, she talks about the influence of the gut on our brains. 

Our body has more microbial cells than human cells, and the microbes in the gut actually control our minds. They fortify the blood-brain barrier, influence  the release of neurotransmitters and modulate our immune response.

Apparently, a lot of mental health problems like anxiety and depression are caused by damage to the gut flora. So, the next time you have suicidal thoughts, remember that your gut bacteria may be dying, and having fermented foods or probiotics may help. The lack of these microbes has also been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism. There is a widely prevalent myth that vaccines cause autism (though this has been proven false.)

However,  the widespread use of processed foods, antibiotics, agricultural chemicals and chlorinated water along with vaccines, may have destroyed the gut flora of the new generation, leading to more cases of autism in developed countries.

Scientists are already studying the effect of probiotics on obesity, undernutrition, intestinal and behavioural problems. You might want to experiment with your own diet to see if it has a significant impact on your moods and thoughts.

 

 

 

Jane Austen’s sassy take on gender stereotypes.

Most women love Jane Austen. Even the most non-bookish of them will be familiar with the movie adaptations of her classics. Unfortunately, some men dismiss her work as trivial ‘chick-lit’, without noticing that everything she wrote was a sharp satire on society. The first time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I was actually disappointed because I’d been told to expect the greatest love story in literature. (There is practically no romantic bullshit in the novel.) Later, I began to enjoy the novel for its dry wit and sarcasm. In her own words,

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Also, I’d advise anyone who claims not to understand women, to start reading her novels. Austen particularly enjoyed poking fun at some of the stereotypes about women (and men).

  • When a woman says ‘no’, she usually means ‘yes’. The funniest scene in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the one where Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth and refuses to accept her rejection. In the end, she tells her father to inform him that she really meant what she said.

“I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatever of that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”

  • Women are delicate flowers who can’t handle stressful situations without fainting or having hysterics.

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”

  • Women are as fickle as the weather.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

  • Men are only attracted to dumb women. The sarcasm is strong in this one-

 “A woman especially, if she should have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

And this –

“In justice to men, though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.”

  • It is highly improper for a woman to pursue a man she’s interested in.

“No young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.”

  • All women are mean towards other women.

“I always take the part of my own sex. I do indeed. I give you notice– You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women.”

  • Men do not read novels; they stick to books on serious subjects.

“But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

I’d choose Tolkien over Pullman any day.

 

 

I read ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman after reading an interview in which he said that his books were a reaction against the religious messages in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. According to him, Tolkien’s books are ‘trivial’ and ‘infantile’, and fail to answer all the big questions. After reading HDM, I feel that Tolkien answered the big questions much better than Pullman did. (I haven’t read anything by C. S. Lewis.)

 

Is there a God?

As an atheist, I never found LOTR particularly religious. Eru Iluvatar created Middle Earth with his angels, but he never seems to have a role beyond that. He never interferes with whatever’s happening in the world, much less the actions of individual beings. Nobody worships him and there is no religion for people to fight over. Evil flourishes and good people suffer, like in the real world.

 

In HDM, there is no real God, but an imposter angel directly controls the world through the evil, dictatorial Magisterium ( the Church). I don’t support organized religion, but I think that if Tolkien divided his characters into good and evil, Pullman did exactly the same. I don’t recall coming across any redeeming qualities in any of the characters who worked for the Magisterium.  We always know exactly which side we should be rooting for.

 

What happens when we die?

In LOTR, the elves have immortal souls, so they are reincarnated after they go to Valinor.  Men, on the other hand, have the ‘gift of mortality’, which probably means that they cease to exist when they die. In the movie, Gandalf tells Pippin about a paradise that awaits him after death, but I think he was just trying to give Pippin some courage before the battle (because only Eru knows what happens to mortals when they die). In general, everyone who does the right thing in LOTR is following their own conscience, and not hoping to be rewarded with a place in heaven.

In HDM, all the people who die are trapped in a ruined, overcrowded city for eternity, in spite of having obeyed religious authorities in hopes of going to heaven. Terribly depressing, isn’t it? Of course, the protagonists, Lyra and Will, come to set them free, so that the dead souls disintegrate into atoms and become one with the universe. (That was the saving grace of the final book .)

 

“Tolkien is not interested in the way grown-up, adult human beings interact with each other.”

There are a lot of adults interacting in LOTR, so I think he means the lack of sexual content. Such things were probably not described in mainstream fiction in Tolkien’s time. If anyone wants to read about Aragorn and Arwen ( or for that matter, Frodo and Sam) having sex, I’m sure they’ll find good fanfiction on the internet.

I think Pullman and the Church give too much importance to an obsolete method of producing kids. The Bible made it the origin of all sin, while in HDM, the world is saved by a make out session between two 12- year-olds.

 

Tolkien had more progressive ideas about gender equality.

The main female character in LOTR is Eowyn ( Arwen was only a footnote in the books), who shows that women have as much spirit and courage as men. She defies everyone ( including Aragorn) to go into battle and ends up saving her uncle from a Nazgul. She stands up to him even after he threatens to torture her and boasts than no living man could kill him.

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

And Aragorn did not have to save her from an orc in the book.

In LOTR, females don’t have to act like males to be considered strong. The elves don’t even have well-defined gender roles. Galadriel, one of the most powerful beings on Middle Earth, is the essence of feminity, and she’s wise, gifted with foresight and strong enough to resist the temptation of Sauron’s ring.

The main protagonist of HDM is Lyra ( derived from ‘liar’), whose chief talent lies in telling lies. You see, she’s Pullman’s version of Eve. She is independent and resourceful in the first book, but as soon as Will appears in the sequel, Lyra takes a back-seat and starts following his orders like pet dog. Apparently, he’s the only one capable of making intelligent, logical decisions. The LOTR heroines may be too flawless to be human, but why does Lyra have all the stereotypically feminine flaws like dishonesty and impulsiveness?

Mrs. Coulter is powerful only because she uses her sexuality to ensnare and manipulate men. Serafina Pekkala and the other witches may seem powerful but they spend centuries pining over their dead human lovers, and finally die of grief. The only decent female character is the physicist, Mary Malone.

 

Considering that Pullman was actually trying to write a series to counter the sexist ideas in the Bible, I think he failed to do what Tolkien did more than 50 years ago.

As much as I enjoyed reading ‘Northern Lights’, with it’s daemons and Dust and armoured bears, I will probably not be rereading it again and again, the way I read LOTR.

A letter to Jon Snow.

Dear Jon,

I was rather pleased to read of your untimely demise in ‘A Dance with Dragons’. Now, rumours suggest that you’ll be resurrected from the dead. The whole fandom seems to be overjoyed at this news. So I’d like to explore the reasons behind your universal popularity.

You are the mediaeval version of Holden Caulfield. When I read the first chapter from your point of view, I thought I’d end up rooting for you. Like Tyrion, I have a soft spot for the underdog. But then you turned out to be increasingly whiny and annoying like the popular protagonist of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. (Personally, I always felt like bitchslapping Holden to shut him up.)

You’re utterly lacking in interests or ambition. You are like a breath of fresh air in  a series full of people who want things desperately. Daenerys wants the Iron Throne, Arya wants revenge, Sansa wants love, Petyr wants power, and so on.  You, on the other hand,  are happy to drift about following orders and giving in to the circumstances. It wasn’t your idea to get into a relationship with Ygritte or become the Commander of the Night’s Watch. Things just seem to happen to you by accident.

You don’t have a personality that overshadows those around you. You are not a fiery idealist like Daenerys, witty like Tyrion, mysterious like Petyr or quietly confident like Tywin. You’re like a shell into which readers can  project their own traits and feelings. Sansa has a similarly bland personality, but thankfully, she’s usually surrounded by interesting characters.

You have a pretty face. There may be people who think that you look like a gormless twit or a fish out of water, but they’re probably just jealous. After all, you’re prettier than all of them (and their daughters).

There are interesting rumours about you. The only thing I find interesting about you is the rumour concerning your parentage. I suppose GRRM couldn’t let you die without finding out who your parents were.

As far as the other rumours go, I’m quite certain that you’re not Azor Ahai, because Daenerys has already fulfilled most of the prophecy. I’d like to see Daenerys turn up in Westeros to laugh at Melisandre’s presumption in claiming that title for you and Stannis.

By the way, the ‘Battle of Hardhome’ was the most painfully boring fight sequence I’ve seen on TV. I hope your new, improved version will be a little less dull, my dear.

Looking forward to your return from the dead,

Cattily yours,

A girl who was bored to tears by your chapters.

Perfume: The story of an evil genius.

“People could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they couldn’t escape scent… He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”

‘Perfume’, by Patrick Suskind, is a novel about a boy who’s gifted with an extraordinary sense of smell, but lacks a scent of his own, unlike other people.The boy, Jean Baptiste Grenouille, is so obsessed with the idea of creating the world’s best perfume, that he begins to murder young women to extract their fragrance.

In the movie, the descriptions of scents and stenches are replaced by rich visual imagery. Here’s what I found interesting in both the versions.

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Nature vs. nurture-  From the moment of his birth, Grenouille is picked up and quickly discarded by all kinds of people, who find him repulsive because of his lack of scent. He grows up without receiving any kind of affection or forming any attachment.
So the real question is this- did the boy become a serial killer because of the way people treated him, or were they justified in treating him that way, because he was born a psychopath?
I think the blame lies with both nature and nurture (or the lack of it, in this case). It’s as G.K. Chesterton said-

“There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”

Demonstration: The best way to win an argument- When Grenouille seeks work as an apprentice with a master perfumer, the man laughs at him and says-

“…talent means nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything.”

Grenouille simply proceeds to create a wonderful perfume right then and there, proving him wrong. Why waste time on words, when you can prove your point through actions?

Sympathy for the devil- In the book, Grenouille is a pure psychopath who thinks of people as mere vessels carrying scents. He despises people but wants to have power over them.

“Grenouille was fascinated by the process. If ever anything in his life had kindled his enthusiasm- granted, not a visible enthusiasm but a hidden one, an excitement burning with a cold flame-then it was this procedure for using fire, water, steam, and a cunning apparatus to snatch the scented soul from matter. That scented soul, that ethereal oil, was in fact the best thing about matter, the only reason for his interest in it. The rest of the stupid stuff-the blossoms, leaves, rind, fruit, color, beauty, vitality, and all those other useless qualities-were of no concern to him. They were mere husk and ballast, to be disposed of.”

You still can’t help feeling sorry for someone who’s so lonely, hated by everyone because of something he can’t control.In the movie, he’s a much more sympathetic character ( played by the sensitive- looking Ben Whishaw) and appears to have some tender feelings and regret associated with the first girl who died by his hand.

The scent of a woman- Most women in the book (and movie) are shown as victims or objects of desire. But I don’t consider it sexist at all. After all, Grenouille sees all humans essentially as objects, and chooses his victims purely based on their scent. Besides, there’s the character of  Madame Arnulfi, a shrewd and competent woman who runs her own perfume business.

The two acts of passion- I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the last few scenes are quite astonishing. (It must have been incredibly awkward for the actors.) There are two completely different scenarios in which crowds of people are driven by a passion. I’m not sure if the difference was because of the nature of the people involved, or the extent of their passion.

“He would be able to create a scent that was not merely human, but super human, an angel’s scent, so indescribably good and vital that who ever smelt it would be enchanted and with his whole heart would have to love him.”

perfume-the-story-of-a-murderer

 

Clockwork oranges are better than rotten ones.

Welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, well. To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit?

Dear chellovecks and cheenas, if you haven’t read ‘The Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess or watched the Kubrick movie, just do it already. They’re both worth it.

The novel is about a fifteen year old boy named Alex and his gang of teens who spend their time taking drugs and indulging in “a bit of the old ultraviolence”-

It has a very interesting theme-

Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?

One day, the gang goes too far and a woman they’ve brutalized ends up dying. Alex is arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

If he had been in India, he’d have got off with a maximum punishment of 3 years in a juvenile home. The logic behind the law is obvious; youngsters who are even a month less than 18 years of age are immature dolts who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. They gain wisdom and morality only on the day they turn 18.

As Burgess writes-

Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy but little talent for the constructive.

In prison, Alex becomes a guinea pig for scientists who are developing a method called the ‘Ludovico technique’ to cure criminals of their violent tendencies. Alex is given injections that make him feel sick and is made to watch movies of horrifying violence. After the treatment, his brain associates violence with sickness and he cannot fight or injure anyone even in self defence.

Burgess is clearly against this, as a supporter of freedom of choice-

Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.

If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.

But I think the technique is a cool, inventive idea that would be very effective in countering crime.

I mean, I’m all for individual freedom as long as the said individual isn’t wreaking havoc on the streets and putting others in danger. I think that people who choose to rape and murder don’t deserve the right to choose.

It’s much better than the death penalty. Death is after all inevitable and irreversible ( so you can’t bring back an innocent man after he’s been put to death.)

You could say that the governments might use it on political prisoners but it’s practically painless compared to the methods that are actually used and it is fully reversible.

There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Alex was unable to defend himself when attacked by his former victims.

Later, Alex is turned back into his normal, vicious self. The book has a very improbable ending- one fine day, Alex turns over a new leaf and thinks of starting a family. Personally, I don’t buy the ending; I think it’s laughable.

If you think you’ve read too many spoilers-

The Coolest Men in Literature

As I’ve already written a post about my favorite fictional women, here’s one about the men. (Books are probably the main reason behind my impossibly high expectations of men.)

  1. Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

He is by far the sexiest man I’ve ever come across in a book. He laughs at Scarlett’s pretentious “feminine wiles” and encourages her to be spontaneous instead.  I love his insolence, charm and his tendency to point out unpleasant truths at the wrong time. What’s not to like?

“Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”

  1. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee )

He is courage and integrity personified. If I were to have children in the future, Atticus is exactly the kind of parent I’d want to be. He treats his children as equals (even letting them call him ‘Atticus’), respects their space, handles their mischiefs tactfully and leads by example.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

  1. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (You may have heard of him.)

He is the definition of cool in my dictionary. You’ve got to admire his wisdom, omniscience, quiet confidence and power. I also love his wry sense of humour.

 “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

  1. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Who can resist the tall, handsome, distinguished, male version of themselves?! I was really annoyed when everyone in the novel mistook his classic symptoms of introversion for arrogance.

 “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

5. Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin)

He is proof that greatness comes in small packages. He may be a dwarf, but he has both brains and Bronn, not to mention kindness, wit and chivalry.

“Let them see that their words can cut you and you’ll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it and  make it your own. Then they can’t hurt you with it anymore.”

6. Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion by Jane Austen)

Ladies, I dare you to to read Persuasion and not swoon (figuratively) at the most beautiful love letter in literature. Even I was floored by it, and that’s really saying something.

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. ”

7. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

That man was the first crush I ever had, at the age of eleven. Though he was pessimistic and wasted his talents, I loved him for his intelligence and constancy. Naturally, I was left heartbroken by the ending of the novel.

“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this home made such a home by you, has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

8. Amit Chatterji (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth)

He is one of the three suitors that Lata has to choose from, and my personal favourite. I have a thing for clever, sassy writers, and the character is said to be based on Vikram Seth himself. I love the poem he wrote for Lata (‘A Modest Proposal’). Another poem of his is also intense and full of yearning-

The Fever Bird

The fever bird sang out last night.

I could not sleep, try as I might.

My brain was split, my spirit raw.

I looked into the garden, saw

The shadow of the amaltas

Shake slightly on the moonlit grass

Unseen, the bird cried out its grief,

Its lunacy, without relief:

Three notes repeated closer, higher,

Soaring, then sinking down like fire

Only to breathe the night and soar,

As crazed, as desperate, as before.

I shivered in the midnight heat

And smelt the sweat that soaked my sheet.

  1. Howard Roark (The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand)

Like in the case of Darcy, I identify with Roark’s personality, especially his terseness, detachment and individualism.

“I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.”

  1. Sherlock Holmes ( books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock’s famous powers of deduction, but I never considered him sexy till I saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of him on the BBC show. The actor  somehow manages to be coldly indifferent and ridiculously charming at the same time.

 “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Honourable mentions- Gandalf, Edward Rochester, Gilbert Blythe, Mr. Tilney, Mr. Knightley, Teddy Laurence and Konstantin Levin.

NOTE- This list is based on the books I’ve read. If you think there are other fictional men I should read about, please let me know.