Once upon a time

Thanks to gifts from various sources (including the National Health Service, where we’d gone for a checkup), Berry has a few books now. Most of them have lots of pictures (the only book we’ve bought for her is simply a collection of animal pictures). Some have text as well. And it is that that is rather underwhelming.

I don’t know the target age group for most of these books, but the stories seem damn lame to Pinky and me. In my opinion, a good children’s book (or show) should not only be interesting for the child, but also for the parents – it is not often that the child uses the book or show alone. And from that perspective, a lot of these books Berry has got don’t pass the muster.

The books I had when I was a kid may not have been particularly optimised for a child. The illustrations weren’t great. The paper quality was underwhelming as well (one thing Berry can’t do with her books is to tear them! A useful quality for sure for children’s books). But the stories were fantastic. And things that I still remember.

Most of these stories came from the Panchatantra, which is a collection that “evolved” over time. This memetic evolution means that the stories that have come till today are “fit”, and fantastic. It’s similar with Aesop’s Fables – their age means that stories have evolved sufficiently to become damn interesting. And of course, this applies to the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well (and NOT to Christian myth, which didn’t get time to evolve and is thus rather boring).

Speaking of myth, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology.  It’s a good book, and I’ll make Berry read it before she is five. But the stories themselves were all rather underwhelming and devoid of complexity. Considering it’s an ancient myth, which had sufficient time to evolve being written down, the simplicity of plots is rather surprising. Or maybe it’s the way Gaiman told the story.

I’m reminded of this “one Shloka Ramayana” that I’d been made to mug up as a kid (I still remember it “by heart”. Maybe Gaiman’s book is the Norse equivalent of this?

Poorvam Rama Thapovanadhi Gamanam
Hatva Mrigam Kanchanam
Vaidehi Haranam, Jataayu Maranam
Sugreeva Sambhashanam

Bali Nigrahanam, Samudra Tharanam
Lankapuri Dahanam,
Paschath Ravana Kumbhakarna Madanam
Ethat Ithi Ramayanam

In any case, considering the lack of plots in “modern” children’s books, we’re seriously exploring the idea of bringing back truckloads of Amar Chitra Katha when we visit India later this year.

Hindu myth plots

This morning, on the occasion of Naraka Chaturdashi, I was telling my daughter the story of how Krishna killed Narakasura in an aerial battle. The story, for those who are interested, has been articulated extremely well by V Vinay here:

So while I was narrating the story, I realised how similar the plotlines of so many Hindu myth stories are. The plot goes like this:

  1. There’s this guy who does a lot of tapas (meditation, not Spanish small eats) and prayers, and manages to impress some gods
  2. The said gods, impressed with our guy, grant him some boon that he asks for
  3. Usually this boon offers some kind of immortality. Rather, it guarantees that certain methods of death won’t work on our anti-hero
  4. Now that he’s received the boon, he becomes arrogant, and soon starts misusing this boon
  5. The world comes to despair, and one set of gods take a delegation to another set of gods, asking for help
  6. The other set of gods (usually a subset of those that had granted our anti-hero the boon in the first place) realise their blunder, but a boon once granted can’t be taken away
  7. They figure that the only way to defeat the superpower they’ve already granted is to create a superior power, which will be granted to one of the gods themselves (just so that it won’t get misused. So our gods had trust issues it seems)
  8. And so this god takes this superior power, and then confronts the anti-hero with the superpower, and since the superior power defeats the superpower (like how paper covers rock, or rock breaks scissors), annihilates the hero. The hero usually dies in this process (the concept of “resignation” isn’t there in Hindu myth).
  9. In order to commemorate the occasion of the annihilation of evil, which was created by gods in the first place (by the grant of the boon), a festival is celebrated.

And so we have Naraka Chaturdashi on the day Narakasura was killed. Onam on the day Bali was sent to the netherlands (no, not Holland Netherlands). Dasara on the day Durgi outwitted Mahishasura, and so forth.

I’m usually a big fan of Hindu myth, and am proud of our heritage for having created such a rich set of stories. After having identified this pattern, though, I’m not so sure. The only creativity comes in the different powers that the anti-hero is granted, and the superior powers that are created to defeat this.

I wonder why we ended up creating so many stories that are so similar, or rather why so many similar stories (memes) survived while the other memes fell by the wayside in our cultural evolution.

 

Half an Indian Girl

So my first attempt in twelve years to read pulp fiction ended midway, as I gave up reading Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl after around 130 pages (~40% into the book).

My main problem with the book is that it uses too many words for what it has to convey. There are shades of good writing sprinkled through the part of the book that I read, but at least once every ten pages you start wondering where the story is going, and wondering if so many more pages are worth reading.

Based on the plot that I gathered through my reading of the book, it seems written with a Bollywood script in mind. And while it might make for good screenplay, the quality of writing means that the amount of effort and patience required in ingesting and finishing the book is way too high.

In a way, the book reminded me of a short story by Mulk Raj Anand (ok outragers can start outraging now) called Old Bapu that I’d read a few years back as part of some course at IIT Madras. That story begins with the observation that in the split-second before death, one’s entire life flashes in one’s mind.

And so you have this book, set at the protagonist’s wedding, where she looks back at her life and relationships so far, and that I think is a fine premise. The protagonist’s character is also fairly well chosen and most of the events in the part of the story I read seem fairly realistic.

And then, as they say in Bollywoodese, there are some kahaani mein twists and for someone who had largely appreciated the book for what it was thus far, it can be a bit throwing off. And then when you see that after these twists you have a further 160 pages to go, you end up losing all motivation.

So I shut the book, and turned to my wife who had finished reading through it (albeit after some struggles) a week back. She narrated the rest of the story in her own way, a hundred and sixty pages compressed into two minutes of speech. And having heard this narration, I’m glad I didn’t waste time reading those pages.

A long time back I’d blogged about whether the length of a book is a bug or a feature, and suggested that in fiction one would look at extra words as a benefit, since it’s likely to keep you entertained. I revise that observation now, to say that extra words in a book of fiction (or any book) are fine if and only if they add to the story.

This book, in my opinion, has too many of those extra words, which makes it damn easy to get bored as you read it, and very soon you can’t stop wanting the book to end soon!

The Bollywoody plot aside, I could think of this book being written in 100 pages, which would have made it far far better! I don’t know when I’ll attempt reading pulp fiction next!

Also read my analysis on why Half Girlfriend, Chetan Bhagat’s earlier book, failed at living up to its potential.

“Be obediency like Sravana Kumar” and morals of stories

A few days back, the wife and I came across this absolutely hilarious video on Facebook where this guy was imitating his teacher from school, and narrating the story of Shravan Kumar from the Ramayana.

So he relates the story like how the teacher supposedly told him in school, and finally ends it with “the moral of the story is: be obediency like Sravana Kumar”.

It’s an awesome imitation, and you can find it on Facebook (problem with closed platforms like Facebook is that I can’t embed that video in this post, thus diminishing this post. Fie on Facebook for this). You can have a good laugh. (Edit: I’ve found the link to the video, but somehow it won’t embed here).

The point, however, is that “be obediently like Sravana Kumar” is hardly the moral of that story. There are so many other greater morals that the story teaches you, for all that Shravan Kumar’s obedience brought him was an untimely death. For example – “don’t make noise like a wild animal while collecting water from a river”, or more importantly (the wife came up with this one), “after you’ve killed someone, just run, and don’t get sraapu“.

So this has led us to invent this new game, which is called “what is the moral of the story?”. It’s a two-player non-competitive game. The first person tells a story, and the other person is supposed to come up with a moral of the story. It being the first time this time, we stuck to basic childhood stories.

  1. The Fox and the crane
    I came up with “Carry your own plate/jug with you when someone invites you for dinner”. The wife said “don’t invite anyone for lunch/dinner”.
  2. The Cats and the Monkey

    “don’t let a monkey be a judge”
    “don’t strive for exactness. Be happy if two things are approximately equal”
  3. The Crow and the Fox
    This was my favourite one. Inspired by Sergio Leone, I came up with “when you have to eat, eat. Don’t talk”

    It will be a fun game to play after the kid comes out, learns to talk and is old enough for us to tell stories to her. It’ll be fun to see the kind of morals she’ll come up with in school!

Finite and infinite stories

Stories in books or movies are “finite” in that there is a defined end-point. Real life, on the other hand, has to go on.

Recently I started reading a book called “Finite and Infinite Games”. I’m barely through the Kindle sample, so can’t comment much on the book, but I want to talk about a related concept – finite and infinite stories.

An important feature of the story is that it is “finite”, and has a fixed ending. For example, if you take Lord Of The Rings, the story is primarily concerned with whether Frodo can destroy the ring by taking it to wherever it came from before Sauron can get his hands on it. Once either the ring is destroyed or Sauron gets his hands on it, the story is essentially over, and doesn’t concern about any subsequent events.

Thus, as you plough through either the books or the movies, you condition yourself to the story “ending” at one of these two finalities. And in this particular story, considering that both of these are epochal events, all characters have a horizon no longer than the time required for one of these two events to happen. In other words, most books and movies are “finite stories”, and efforts in those stories are optimised for such finiteness.

Real life, however, is different, in that it is “continuous”. Whatever happens, in most cases, life simply goes on, and hence you need to optimise for the long term. Let’s say, for example, that you are going through a tough time at work and want your current assignment to end. And while you are at it, you look upon your life as a story, where the success or failure of your current assignment is an epochal event. Consequently, you will use a strategy that optimises your performance until this epochal event.

And then this event happens. Let’s say the assignment is a success. Then, life has to move on and another assignment gets thrown at you. Except that you’ve thrown all you had at the previous assignment, and now have no energy left to deal with this one.

In that sense, real life is like an “infinite story” (though death adds a degree of finiteness to this). However epochal certain events seem, unless they are life-threatening, one ought to think for the long term and plan for beyond the event. For unlike in the books or the movies, the story never ends.