Why a Library is always special

I open Neil Gaiman’s book “Art Matters” and find myself transported to a childhood memory of a community library. Libraries have always been special to me, and as I talk with my friends, I realize they adore them too. Why do we love libraries so?

I think it’s because libraries are a holy place where they teach us to revere books. In the book store, books get graded on profit and loss. In the library, the old, hardbound classics take pride of place. There’s a silence, a very comfortable silence as you and the book are in communion. And in that silence, you are transported into magical worlds.

The high priest (aka the librarian) worships books and will take the utmost care to ensure that everyone behaves appropriately in the haloed place. And should she see you are a devoted patron, she may share other treasures from in the hidden, dusty book-shelves! Good libraries have layers that you can breach only through devotion!

Libraries teach you patience. Today, if a book is not available in your local shop, you can order it online. In a library, you queue up and wait for its return. Waiting for the arrival of a book is a joy – I am sure all you library lovers would agree!

I miss some of the curated little shops that sold handpicked collections. It was a treat to listen to the curator talk about how he discovered a book and why it’s unique. Books benefit from formal introductions too – and the curator was doing just that and helping you get acquainted with a potential best friend.

I think there’s a place for the library, little curated shops, and the modern bookshop to coexist. Together, they can make our lives so much richer. Would you agree?

Life’s cycles

It’s a Hindu death anniversary today – so shortly after a very popular festival. We sit to honour our grandmother – and other ancestors – with some fire worship. There’s quite some involved rituals involved – offering various prayers, a homa (fire yagna) and a ritualistic banquet to round things off. A set of priests bring in a further sense of solemnity to the occasion as they officiate using age-old customs.

Dad is looking a little tear-eyed, am sure he’s remembering his mom from a few decades ago. Perhaps memories of when he was a kid come flooding back – the joy and the sense of having someone to go to for protection no matter what. You cannot be too old to relive that.. Maybe he remembers the tenacious lady, who undeterred by a lack of education and the early death of her husband – brought up her many wards with care and discipline so they would shine in the world. Maybe, he’s just recapping the joy on her face when she experienced her first flight and wondering fondly what she would think of the life today – a life filled with more luxury than she would have ever imagined in her life time.

Now remember, people from dad’s generation weren’t encouraged to cry, that was for the women folk. They were encouraged to puff out their chest and be good but stern men. They were learnt to respect the priests, the gods and rule the home with an iron but honest hand. They had to grow into a stereotype to be admired by the society.

How things have changed today – we embrace niceties, becoming emotional is no longer sissy stuff. We can talk to our parents openly – and they can talk to us too. Isn’t that progress? It certainly is, provided we don’t use this new found freedom as a wall to hide our insecurities and weaknesses – and become a bit of a phony. If we do that, its hypocrisy – and the world sheds a tear for the irrecoverable loss of a timeless culture.

Which brings us back to the day at hand. Reflecting through the ceremony, the ancients certainly seem to have given it a lot of thought. For two days – they advocate a diet thats satvik – nothing that disturbs the mind – so we can focus on the thoughts for the ever-loved one who is no longer here physically. The ceremony honours ancestors of three generations – allowing us to comprehend that we are but the product of time – and we will continue to be so. Several offerings of elements – sticks in the fire, water, earth (some rice, food) – fill us with gratitude to Mother Nature, the sages of old and our very illustrious fore-fathers and mothers. We are invited to serve the priests to a lunch – which opens out the servitude in us – and they shower us with their blessings. Finally a lunch of nature’s bounty beckons – on fully recyclable banana leaves at that(!) – and the day progresses headily.

Yes, I think the ancients had it right. And the set of officiating people, a wonderfully expressive and poetic language, an appropriate diet and a sense of gratitude – go a long way in making us understand ourselves, Mother Nature and the gifts that we have received from our ancestors and sages. If nothing, it makes us understand that being born is a thing of wonder – and you need so many pieces to be just right for this miracle to occur – and encourages you to pass on this message to the coming generations..

In a sense therefore, the ceremony is as much for ourselves as it is for our ancestors….

Tradition, Nature and Technology – a delightful potpouri

Its one of those days – where nature, tradition and modernity come pleasantly together; and we involuntary let out a sign of contentment. These moments are few and should be cherished – not because they happen infrequently -, but because we have so little time to notice such wonder these days.

For starters, its the “Deepavali” weekend, the weekend that the whole of India rejoices in – with everyone wearing new clothes, every home brightly lit with flickering earthen lamps, neighbours actively exchanging sweets and a smile playing on everyone’s face. And add an India-Australia cricket match and you certainly have a full hand. Thats tradition.

Nature seems to agree all is well and showers her bounty – a steady stream of rain – upon the earth. A few kids trying to light some fireworks run hither-thither in search of jugaads to make the fireworks work while the old woman across the street looks up to the sky as she remembers a long-forgotten, care-free childhood – and smiles a toothless smile. Nature is in her element and all’s right with the world.

I sit on the balcony, the rain pattering on the windows and a kindle in my hand reading John Grisham’s latest thriller. The Mobile brings in personal greetings from once-best friends – now lost in the mists of memory – and nostalgia competes for attention with the best seller in my possession. The messages win round one – soon tragedies of old reappear as fond comedies (remember when that teacher caught you cheating on your paper!), and foibles of youth now transform into achievements of your youth. Technology just brought the world – and the past – a lot closer to me.

On this wonderful occasion as we wish everyone a great festive season, here’s a hope that Tradition, Nature and Technology all continue to play such symphonies in tandem, delighting us with the ensuing harmony. Or to be more precise, to give us the “presence of mind” to be able to notice more of these enchanting dances and “leave the cares of the world” alone for a while – at least until the end of the festive season. Amen to that!

Musings – book or ebook?

A rainy evening finds me browsing in the local bookshop. Walking through sections, reading the back covers, randomly scanning the pages – just another day amidst the books. You never know who you’d be introduced to – a swashbuckling adventurer, a philosopher or a business man – and as long as they have a good story to tell, they are all equally welcome.

Of late though I also have had another bookshop even more ready with its wares – the kindle bookstore. With amazon entering India, the prices are reasonable (and several come free!)and the delivery instant – so much so that I already have a well filled out kindle library. And some of my good friends are still hesitating to try these electronic texts – “what about the texture, the feel and the experience of a real book – surely the ebook can’t deliver that?” they ask with tentatively.

Me, I am ambivalent – I sometimes vouch for the ebook and sometimes for the physical book. I prefer certain devices for certain book formats. Blogs (and of course micro blogs) make for great reading on my phone as do the occasional poem or kindle single. The iPad is good for a short story or illustrated books or for that matter video books. The kindle I prefer for novels – its light weight, long lasting battery and eink technology make for the perfect reading experience of the longer formats.

I love the physical books too – some look so appealing on their shelves as to make even the consideration of an electronic alternative a compromise, almost a sacrilege! Classics in particular (autobiography of a yogi; Godel,Escher, Bach etc. for instance) seem to be best savored in book form. I prefer reading asterix and tintin comics too for that matter on paper (though that may change if they come up with a super iPad version). Interestingly, different formats seem to appeal for different types of books – the hard cover (with large, detailed typeface and high quality print, and exquisite paper) seems tailor made for the classics we want for our libraries, paperbacks seem best for one time reads.

To sumup therefore – texture and feel do have their part to play – but not all the time. Books (like good movies and most times even more) have a way of leading you into the plot to the point that the format, print quality and other parameters fade into the background. All you need are non-distractors(typos, missing/torn pages/very bad print etc) and of course some aids to enhance the experience (hot chocolate anyone?) – and soon the plot is all that holds your attention…

Which brings us full circle – it certainly does not seem to be an either/or type question. I guess we’d go for the ebook formats when we need stuff instanter(!) and for the physical books when a book “demands” it at the bookstore. Kind of like we embrace either tradition or novelty in our lives depending on the occasion, I guess we will continue to buy, savor and share both of these formats.

Which brings me to the one sore point I nurse relating to the ebook format. Digital rights makes it very hard (actually almost impossible) to share the ebook with my friends – something I love doing with my books in general. Which is a shame really because books are meant to be digested, enjoyed and shared with others – that’s when we do justice to a good author’s insights. And what makes it harder to accept is that the electronic format is truly designed to share easily – and the fact that a material object is easier to share than a bunch of atoms just is so hard to rationalize.

So if you’ll excuse me, got to go now and enjoy Antifragile( yes I know Taleb prefers the physical form better but then only the ebook format is available right now in my country and what’s more it makes for perfect reading on my kindle device!).

Christmas time

So we are alive and well! The Mayans’ it turns out were predicting quite something else ( loss of india’s cricketing dominance even on turning pitches home maybe?) and not the end of the world.

We get therefore to celebrate Christmas 2012 – and celebrations and sparkling conversations are holding center stageĀ  around the world.

In this time of good will and peace (and good food), its kind of easy to think of our world as a delicious gift with a blue ribbon around it – and perhaps that’s the right way to do so.

For this festival seems to be inclusive and truly ancient – and has orgins tracing back to the sun god Mitra (by way of hailingĀ  the return of the Sun post a dark winter) per my googling adventures. The misteltoe, christmas tree and other rituals too could possibly be traced back to the early roots of civilization (just do a search for “christmas day orgin” in google.com). So this christmas maybe we can say thanks to Jesus ( one of the most compassionate messiahs to land on earth) and also raise a toast to nature for giving us of her bountiful and heralding the rise of the sun after the long winter (also celebrated -albeit after a short winter – in southern India as pongal, the harvest festival).

Time to say Merry christmas now – and to wonder and celebrate the thoughtfulness and ingenuity of our elders in providing such festivals for us to partake in.