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6 Quotes You Must Read on Gender and Sexuality

While many use religion to justify why they are being unfair to a person’s gender and sexuality, Devdutt Pattanaik in his books The Pregnant King and Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You shows how mythologies across the world appreciate what we deem as queer.
Here are 6 quotes on what it means to be a man, a woman, or a queer.
What it feels to be a woman
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Repercussion of Patriarchy
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The meaning of queer in different mythologies
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Should the queer hide or be heard like the thunderous clap of the hijra?
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The functions of the forms
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Traces of feminism in Hindu mythology
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Read Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Pregnant King and Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You and make sense of queerness and the diversity in society.

The magic of Rabindranath Tagore explored

7th May commemorates the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. His eminence as India’s greatest modern poet remains unchallenged to this day. Tagore was a pioneering literary figure, renowned for his ceaseless innovations in poetry, prose, drama, music and painting, which he took up late in life. His works include novels; plays; essays on religious, social and literary topics; some sixty collections of verse; over a hundred short stories; and more than 2500 songs, including the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

Born in 1861, Rabindranath Tagore was a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance. He started writing at an early age and by the turn of the century had become a household name in Bengal as a poet, a songwriter, a playwright, an essayist, a short story writer and a novelist.

In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and his verse collection Gitanjali came to be known internationally. At about the same time he founded Visva-Bharati, a university located in Santiniketan, near Kolkata. Called the ‘Great Sentinel’ of modern India by Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore steered clear of active politics but is famous for returning his knighthood as a gesture of protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.

Here is a compilation of some of his work, to celebrate the man.

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The Magic of Tagore

The Magic of Tagore ||.

A special limited-edition collection of the most beloved works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest writers of the Indian subcontinent, featuring two classic novels of profound depth and beauty, and Tagore’s ground-breaking work of poetry. These classic works have been reissued by Penguin Random House India on the occasion of Tagore’s birth month.

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Nationalism and Home and the World

Nationalism Home and the World || .

Combining two classic texts by Rabindranath Tagore, this special edition features a new Introduction by eminent scholar Sugata Bose. Nationalism is based on Tagore’s lectures, warning the world of the disasters of narrow sectarianism and xenophobia. Home and the World is a classic novel, exploring the ever-relevant themes of nationalism, violent revolution and women’s emancipation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagore: The World Voyager

Tagore: The World Voyager || Sugata Bose (Translator)

For long considered untranslatable, Tagore’s songs express most profoundly his romantic and religious perceptions. Prof. Bose aims to convey the artistic value of Tagore’s songs beyond the limits of his province. The first part, ‘Oceanic Songs’, introduces the lyrics and tunes of the songs to a foreign audience through a narrative of Tagore’s travels during which he communicated with the wider world. Since Tagore wrote only forty of his nearly 2500 songs on his journeys abroad, the second part presents a selection of ‘songs in five genres’. This book endeavours to reach Tagore’s songs to people beyond the borders of India, transcending the barriers of language on the wings of music.

 

 

 

 

 

The Postmaster: Selected Stories

The Postmaster || .

Poet, novelist, painter and musician Rabindranath Tagore created the modern short story in India. Written in the 1890s, during a period of relative isolation, his best stories—included in this selection—recreate vivid images of life and landscapes. They depict the human condition in its many forms: innocence and childhood; love and loss; the city and the village; the natural and the supernatural. Tagore is India’s great Romantic. These stories reflect his profoundly modern, original vision. Translated and introduced by William Radice, this edition includes selected letters, bibliographical notes and a glossary.

 

 

 

 

 

Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems

Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems || .

The poems of Rabindranath Tagore are among the most haunting and tender in Indian and world literature, expressing a profound and passionate human yearning. His ceaselessly inventive works deal with such subjects as the interplay between God and mortals, the eternal and the transient, and the paradox of an endlessly changing universe that is in tune with unchanging harmonies. Poems such as “Earth” and “In the Eyes of a Peacock” present a picture of natural processes unaffected by human concerns, while others, as in “Recovery14,” convey the poet’s bewilderment about his place in the world. And exuberant works such as “New Rain” and “Grandfather’s Holiday” describe Tagore’s sheer joy at the glories of nature or simply in watching a grandchild play.

 

 

 

 

My Life in My Words

My Life in My Words || Uma Das Gupta (Editor)

A unique autobiography that provides an incomparable insight into the mind of a genius. The Renaissance man of modern India, Rabindranath Tagore put his country on the literary map of the world when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. My Life in My Words is, quite literally, Tagore on Tagore. The result is a rare glimpse into the world of Tagore: his family of pioneering entrepreneurs who shaped his worldview; the personal tragedies that influenced some of his most eloquent verse; his ground-breaking work in education and social reform; his constant endeavour to bring about a synthesis of the East and the West and his humanitarian approach to politics; and his rise to the status of an international poet. Meticulously researched and sensitively edited, this unique autobiography provides an incomparable insight into the mind of a genius.

 

 

 

A Grain of Sand: Chokher Bali

A Grain of Sand || .

Chokher Bali is Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore’s classic exposition of an extramarital affair that takes place within the confines of a joint family. A compelling portrayal of the complexity of relationships and of human character, this landmark novel is just as powerful and thought-provoking today as it was a hundred years ago, when it was written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gora

Gora || .

When Gora had no name, caste, and religion, the circumstances gave him the name – goramohan, caste – Brahmin, and religion – Hindu. While he turned out to be a true advocate of Hinduism, the religion rejected him calling him an outcaste and an untouchable. In this classic masterpiece, Tagore represents the tragedy of Gora in the form of problems faced by all Indian religions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He: (Shey)

He (Shey) || .

Tagore wrote Shey to satisfy his nine year old granddaughter’s demands for stories. Even as Tagore began to create his fantasy, he planned a story that had no end, and to keep the tales spinning he employed the help of ‘Shey’, a “man constituted entirely of words” and rather talented at concocting tall tales. So we enter the world of Shey’s extraordinary adventures, encountering a bizarre cast of characters, grotesque creatures and caricatures of contemporary figures and events as well as mythological heroes and deities – all brought to life through a sparkling play of words and illustrations in Tagore’s unique style.

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell Song

Farewell Song || .

Rabindranath Tagore reinvented the Bengali novel with Farewell Song, blurring the lines between prose and poetry and creating an effervescent blend of romance and satire. Through Amit and Labanya and a brilliantly etched social milieu, the novel addresses contemporary debates about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing, the nature of love and conjugality, and the influence of Western culture on Bengali society. Set against the idyllic backdrop of Shillong and the mannered world of elite Calcutta society, this sparkling novel expresses the complex vision and the mastery of style that characterized Tagore’s later works.

 

 

 

 

Gitanjali

Gitanjali || William Radice (Translator)

Gitanjali (Penguin Hardback Classics) is a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore. This is the English translation of the original Bengali poems. Gitanjali became immensely popular across the globe and was eventually translated into several languages. The book is known for its unmatched style of presentation, fresh poetic structure and spiritual musings.

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Share this with someone who is fond of – or needs an introduction to – Rabindranath Tagore’s work!

 

‘Please, don’t. I am scared’ – The painful world of IVF clinics

Detailing the difficulty of undergoing infertility treatments, What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina is a nuanced, heart-breaking and heart-warming work on the indignities of medical procedures, the precariousness of motherhood, and what this means to women. In this excerpt, Rohini Rajagopal talks about one of her Intrauterine insemination sessions.

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I heard of ‘artificial insemination’ for the first time in a Malayalam movie when I was eight or nine years old. It was Malayalam cinema’s cult classic Dasharatham (1989), which was so ahead of its time that even now I am not sure if its time has come. A leading mainstream actor, Mohanlal, plays a rich, spoilt man-child who decides to act on a whim and have a child through surrogacy. He finds a desperate woman who needs money for her ailing footballer husband’s medical treatment and agrees to rent her womb. They draw up a contract, turn up for the procedure, and fifteen days later she is pregnant! No failed attempts, cancelled cycles or any other complications. With this movie lodged in my brain for reference, I thought fertility treatments were an easy-peasy lemon-squeezy affair. To be fair to the movie, it is not about infertility. It’s about a healthy, fertile couple who use artificial insemination for conception. It may well have happened that quickly and effortlessly in real life too. But the movie glosses over the unseemliness and hardships of the treatment. For those who have seen the movie, I hate to burst your bubble. Welcome to the world of ART.

Front cover What's A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina
What’s A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina||Rohini S. Rajagopal

I began our first IUI in July 2011 with the earnestness of a debutant, expecting early and prompt success… The procedure itself was relatively simple with only a few key steps. The first step was pills to stimulate my ovaries to release multiple eggs. The second was follicular study. Follicles are tiny fluid-filled balloons in the ovaries that function as the home of the egg. They may expand from the size of a sesame seed (2 millimetres) to the size of a large kidney bean (18 mm to 25 mm) during the course of the menstrual cycle, eventually bursting to push the egg out. The follicles are measured at regular intervals during a cycle to ascertain if they have matured and are ready to release the egg. This is done through a transvaginal ultrasound (TVS).

I was not a big fan of TVS. It involved insertion of a long, slim plastic probe into my vagina and twisting it around to get a close look at the uterus. Magnified images of the uterus appeared on a computer screen. I was appalled the first time when the doctor covered the transducer with a condom and dipped it in lubricating gel, indicating that it had to enter an orifice in my body. I thought that scans, by definition, were non-invasive. It caused some discomfort, but it was not very painful. Eventually, I learnt to relax my muscles and spread my legs far apart to make things easier. I wished I didn’t have to get a TVS, but if I had to then I could tolerate it.

The cycle got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. The first ultrasound showed only one big-enough follicular blob (at 13 mm). The other four or five follicles were too small, indicating they might not reach maturity. This meant I might have only one egg despite taking drugs to stimulate the release of many.

…It was a busy day at the hospital for Dr Leela, who was swamped with several emergency C-sections. I sat alone in the deserted waiting hall of the IVF clinic, biding my time. Other patients had left after their ultrasounds in the morning. No one else was lined up for a procedure.

…Finally, at around one, Dr Leela came and apologized for the delay. I was taken to the operating room, asked to remove my leggings and empty my bladder. I lay down on the bed and pulled a sheet over my naked legs. A tray of surgical instrument kits was placed on a stand next to the bed. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping there would be no speculum.

Dr Leela began briskly tearing the kits open one by one and getting ready for action. When she pulled out the speculum, I lost my nerve. The thin mask of composure I was wearing until then crumbled. I sprang up and held back her hand desperately.

‘Please, don’t. I am scared.’

As soon as I said it, I regretted it. What was I thinking? It was a meaningless request. And Dr Leela had no patience for such trembling and dithering. She was not known to offer empty, placatory words, ‘It’s okay. Just relax. It will not hurt you.’ My protest was an annoying interruption and she reacted sternly.

‘Take your hand off. I don’t need it here.’
The room became tense.

…The ninety seconds it must have taken to fix the speculum and inject the semen were excruciating, and not just because of the physical hostility of the act. Not just because it felt raw or sore or I was bleeding. But because it was a breach of my already fragile self. It tore through the membranes of my defences, leaving me exposed and helpless.

In a few minutes, it was over and the doctor left. The stainless-steel tools were taken out by the nurses. The housekeeping staff cleaned the floor. The room became empty again. The pounding in my heart ceased. I rested in the metallic stillness of the operating room for thirty minutes, drove home, ate my lunch and went to sleep.

That IUI was an eye-and-mind-opener of the path ahead. An IVF clinic is a cold place to walk into. It doesn’t matter which IVF clinic you go to. There might be a difference in degree, but the air is still chilly and biting. You must shed your inhibitions, modesty and fears quickly because the most crucial part of fertility treatment involves lying on your back, knees bent, legs wide open, while probes, catheters and lemon squeezers are thrust inside your vagina by professionals whose day job this is. What you need is the stance of a warrior, not the long-suffering bearing of a patient.

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Years later, I am just a few weeks away from going into labour. Ranjith’s mother and I are alone at home. We are having a woman-to-woman conversation about the trials and tribulations of bringing a human into this world. We discuss pregnancy scans and the improvements in technology since her time. She speaks about her own repulsion and discomfort during an internal examination, which was necessary in her days when ultrasounds were not as prevalent.

She asks casually, only half-asking, but mostly reconfirming, ‘You’ve never had an internal examination, alle?’

I gasp and mumble something to the effect of, ‘Yes, I have.’ But the truth is, there was no short answer to that question.

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What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina opens up a discussion that we are hardly willing to have, sensitising us to the physical and emotional toll that medical procedures and social scrutiny take on women.

 

 

‘The skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard’ – Furquan Moharkan

Furquan Moharkan, author of The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds, told us about how he got started on this story, what drew him to the Yes Bank labyrinth, and the experience of writing a story where power dynamics are very much at play.

 

Take us through your story – how did you start reporting on Yes Bank, and what exactly did you uncover there? 

Front Cover The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds
The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds||Furquan Moharkan

FM: You know, the Yes Bank was always an intriguing thing for me. There was too much of glamour for the organisation for the industry it was. Financial services are usually denoted by trust and dependability. When Yes Bank’s much bigger rivals were playing low profile, it was punching way above its weight. Though, that doesn’t mean glamour and financial services can’t go hand in hand. Also, at times of risk averseness by Indian banks, Yes Bank’s loan book was growing at an astronomical rate – almost seven times the overall industry numbers. But nothing was coming out in the market, as Rana Kapoor has managed to keep a tight lid over his alleged misdeeds. But once he was out in 2019, the skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard – and they tumbled at rate which was probably faster than the loan growth under Rana.

Had it not been for that post-Yes Bank results market crash in April 2019, probably I would not have got the leads for uncovering the rot. But after that crash, many in the street lost their holdings in Yes Bank, and financial set-up was visibly upset with the bank, and things started to come to fore.

 

Was your experience of writing a book very different from your journalistic writing?

FM: It was quite different. In journalistic writing, due to the dearth of space and word limit constraints, you can’t build a narrative properly. If I have to drive an analogy, I would say, journalism is painting in a sketch book (develops your fundamentals), and writing a book is painting on canvas (helps you express yourself).

 

Could you tell us, briefly, what happened at Yes Bank?

 FM: The Bank under its founder and former CEO had lent recklessly in lieu of higher margins and with risk assessment sent for a toss. These loans were granted to stressed entities – the firms whose repayment capability was questionable. Once these companies started defaulting, the bank was evergreening their loans – granting new loans to repay older loans. But that wasn’t sustainable and bank had to write them off. For that they needed capital, which wasn’t coming their way. On the other hand depositors started withdrawing en masse. Both combined and it led to severe crunch of funds at the bank.

 

How do people like Rana Kapoor manage to get away (at least to a certain extent for a certain period of time) with orchestrated failures of this kind?

People like Rana Kapoor are blessed people. They are smart and intelligent, but they misuse their gift. They combine their analytical abilities with artistry to manipulate things completely. Such people are usually on an image management overdrive, which explains why Yes Bank, under him, was punching above its weight. What aid them are also connections at right places. So, in their good days, irrespective of political party, the powerful people like to side with them – for the reason they would themselves better know about. So, basically it’s a cocktail of things, that this ‘big brother club’ uses.

 

Are stories like these – malfeasance on the part of powerful people at the top – difficult to tell? Is it more difficult to say, get other people to talk or to access the depths of these disasters because of the clout of the people responsible?

Absolutely. They can go to any extend to keep their image clean – irrespective of how fragile its foundations are. They use money power, legal might, connections and what not, to stop the things that make them uncomfortable. Yes, they would be very good to you, but only till the moment you don’t make them uncomfortable.

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The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds is an exciting read, sure to keep you at the edge of your seats.

Stay home, stay well and well-read

With April comes the spring! Unfortunately, with the current state of the world, it’s advised you spend more time indoors – for your own safety and that of others.

Make the most of this time spent at home, dear reader. Here is a list of new releases from Penguin Random House India coming your way. We’re sure you’ll find something to keep yourself busy, informed and entertained!

 

All Drama, No Queen

Front cover of All Drama No Queen
All Drama, No Queen || Andaleeb Wajid

Farida’s parents passed away in an accident when she was twelve. And for years, she’s had to fend off Reshma Phuppu, a distant relative plotting to gain control of her parents’ house in Bangalore. When all the drama gets too much, she runs away to stay with her best friend, Priya. Farida deeply feels the absence of a family, and only has memories of her distant cousin, Irshad. She’s had a crush on him since she was a twelve-year-old, but they lost contact when her parents died. Nearly two decades later, Priya’s boyfriend, Ajay, serendipitously finds Irshad….

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That Night

Front cover of That Night
That Night || Nidhi Upadhyay

Natasha, Riya, Anjali and Katherine were best friends in college – each different from the other yet inseparable – until that night that began with a bottle of whisky and a game of Ouija but ended with the death of Sania, their unlikeable hostel mate. The friends vowed never to discuss that fateful night.

But now, someone has begun to mess with them, threatening to reveal the truth that only Sania knew. Is it a hacker playing on their guilt or has Sania’s ghost really returned to avenge her death?

That Night is a dark, twisted tale of friendship and betrayal that draws you in and confounds you at every turn.

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The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News

Front cover of The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News
The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News || Meghna Pant

Thirty-four-year-old Ladoo, a simple middle-class divorcée from Rishikesh, wants only one thing from life–a baby. She eats gondh halwa, drinks badam milk, and takes folic acid, to stop her ticking biological clock and become the world’s most fertile woman.

Along the way, Ladoo must figure out whether motherhood means marriage, whether being a single mother means loneliness, whether ‘my body, my rules’ applies to women, and whether doing something scandalous is outrageous or courageous.

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The Power Of Purity

Front cover of The Power Of Purity
The Power of Purity || Mohanji

Power of Purity is a compilation of Mohanji’s spontaneous answers to questions posed during various satsangs (spiritual discourses) and interactions across the world. With razor-sharp clarity and wit, Mohanji provides the reader with deep, subtle, yet easy-to-understand insights into the varied aspects of human existence, uniting the seemingly contrasting goals of spiritual mastery and worldly success. Many can use this book as a guide to finding solutions to life’s myriad problems by randomly turning to one of its pages.

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Nagme, Kisse, Baatein, Yaadein

Front cover of Nagme, Kisse, Baatein, Yaadein
Nagme, Kisse, Baatein, Yaadein || Rakesh Anand Bakshi

An intimate peek into the life of the soldier-turned-lyricist Anand Bakshi, from his formative years in undivided Punjab to eventually moving to Bombay and landing his first film Bhala Aadmi in 1958. Along the way, he lost his mother, his place of birth, and his home and wealth, but his zeal to stand up and walk after every stumble and his desire to become a film artist never abated. He eventually rose to become one of the most revered and sought-after lyricists in Hindi cinema, writing nearly 3300 songs in about 630 films over the next five decades. Written by his son, this is an inspiring story of faith, dreams, success and, above all, human values.

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Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny

 

Front cover of Karma
Karma || Sadhguru

Through this book, not only does Sadhguru explain what Karma is and how we can use its concepts to enhance our lives, he also tells us about the Sutras, a step-by-step guide to navigating our way in this challenging world. In the process, we get a deeper, richer understanding of life and the power to craft our destinies.

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Redesign the World

Front cover of Redesign the World
Redesign the World || Sam Pitroda

Redesigning The World is not about looking at it from the point of view of liberal or conservative; left or right; capitalism or socialism; public or private; democracy, dictatorship or monarchy; open or closed systems; rich or poor; urban or rural; east or west; white, brown, black or yellow. This proposed redesign of the world has the planet and its people at the centre; it is built on the foundations of sustainability, inclusion, equality, equity and justice so that everyone on earth can enjoy peace and prosperity. It is not an idealist or utopian vision, but one with humanity at its core.

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A Functioning Anarchy

Front cover of A Functioning Anarchy
A Functioning Anarchy || Ramachandra Guha

 

In a long and versatile career spanning thirty-five years, Ramachandra Guha has produced a vast body of work. In each of these, Guha has broken new ground: his pioneering environmental histories of India and his still relevant work (with Madhav Gadgil) on ecology and equity; his social histories of Indian cricket; his monumental history of the Indian republic; his biographies of Verrier Elwin and Gandhi; his anthologies of ecological, social and political thought in India; and his collection of biographical and political essays.

A Functioning Anarchy is a collection of essays by world-renowned historians, lawyers, scientists and journalists sparked by Guha’s work.

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India’s Power Elite

Front cover of India's Power Elite
India’s Power Elite || Sanjaya Baru

How the post-Covid world will be reshaped by class conflicts and caste prejudices remains to be seen. India’s Power Elite, though, is about pre-Covid India. It is an examination of the nature of power and elitism in the economic and political context of India. The morphology of the Indian power elite presents a complex structure, which is what Baru aims to deconstruct—whether it is the civil services, landed gentry or the remnants of the feudal elite. Aimed at the socially engaged reader, this book will also interest students and those who wield power.

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India and Asian Geopolitics

Front cover of India and Asian Geopolitics
India and Asian Geopolitics || Shivshankar Menon

Documenting the changes in India’s foreign policy: from Independence to the Modi era, Shivshankar Menon addresses the many questions, which perplex India as the nation seeks to find its way in the increasingly complex world of Asian geopolitics. From its leading role in the ‘nonaligned’ movement during the Cold War to its current status as a perceived counterweight to China, India often has been an after-thought for global leaders-until they realize how much they needed it.

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Whereabouts

Front cover of Whereabouts
Whereabouts || Jhumpa Lahiri

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her.

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The Art of Resilience

Front cover of The Art of Resilience
The Art of Resilience || Gauranga Das

In this first volume of Yoga Stories, Gauranga Das takes you on an inner journey to explore your inner self, beyond the hills of expectation, through the valleys of disapprovals and beneath the layers of self-deception. Thus, bringing you closer to the home of your heart, enabling you to open the door and introduce yourself, to finally meet, the real you.

 

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Makers of Modern Dalit History

Front cover of Makers of Modern Dalit History
Makers of Modern Dalit History || Sudarshan Ramabadran, Guru Prakash Paswan

Featuring several inspiring accounts of individuals who tirelessly battled divisive forces all their lives, this book seeks to enhance present-day India’s imagination and shape its perception of the Dalit community. Makers of Modern Dalit History will be a significant addition to the Dalit discourse. This definitive volume on some of the foremost Dalit thinkers, both past and present, promises to initiate a much-needed conversation around Dalit identity, history and politics.

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Now That We’re Here

Front cover of Now That We're Here
Now That We’re Here || Akshat Tyagi, Akshay Tyagi

The hyperconnected world that once seemed futuristic is now here. And now that we’re here, it’s time for us to educate ourselves for sweeping and endless possibilities. One way to do that is to blur the lines between technology, democracy, design, economics and data, and reconfigure our approach to learning altogether. This book is a giant leap in that direction. By harnessing the wisdom of thought leaders and intellectuals throughout history, by blending business and humanity, industry and society, and by covering cross-disciplinary themes, authors Akshay Tyagi and Akshat Tyagi give us a groundbreaking, genre-defying and utterly mind-bending collection of essays that will help us prepare for the here and now.

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Did our universe… always exist??

It all started with a big cosmic blast. Or did it? Refresh your facts with this excerpt from Shruthi Rao’s How We Know What We Know  and immerse yourself in a world of fun facts about the world, its origins and all the awe-inspiring details of how everything works.

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What is the Big Bang? The sound you hear when you burst a big balloon?

Umm, no. The Big Bang Theory is an attempt to explain what happened at the beginning of our universe.

Wait. Our universe had a beginning? Didn’t it always exist?

That’s what scientists thought too, till a few decades ago. But research and studies suggest that there was indeed a beginning. A point. Before that point, there was nothing. And after that point, the universe came into existence.

Scientists think that the universe came out of a singularity—an infinitely small, infinitely dense, infinitely hot point. What exactly is this, though? If the universe was born from this singularity, where did the singularity come from? Why did it appear?

We don’t know that. Yet.
But how do we know that this is what happened?
The story began about a 100 years ago, with Georges Lemaître of Belgium. Though he was an officer of the church, he was fascinated by physics and he studied Albert Einstein’s theories of space and time and gravitation. He concluded that if Einstein’s theories were right, it meant that the galaxies in the universe are moving away from each other. Lemaître said this proved that the universe is not just static and unmoving, as everybody previously thought. It was expanding.

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How We Know What We Know||Shruthi Rao

It was a theory, and though Lemaître had come up with it on the basis of an established theory, scientists needed other proof before they could accept it. But Lemaître didn’t have any data to support this idea.

Meanwhile, American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt came up with a way to calculate how far away stars are from Earth. Using her work, astronomer Edwin Hubble looked through his telescope and calculated the distances of various stars from Earth. He concluded that things in the universe were moving away from Earth. Not just that, things that were farther away from Earth were moving away faster than things close to Earth. This could only mean one thing. The universe is indeed expanding. Georges Lemaître was right.

Okay. The universe is expanding. But how does that prove there was a Big Bang?

If the universe is expanding, it must have expanded from some point. Think of the expanding universe as a movie. The galaxies are moving outwards, away from each other. Now run that movie backwards. You can imagine it as the galaxies rushing towards each other. So then, all the galaxies must meet at some point. At this point, all the matter of the universe must have been contained in a very small space, that is, the singularity.

The moment at which this singularity started expanding is the Big Bang.

But where was the proof?

Decades later, in 1965, two scientists, Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, were trying to measure radio signals in the empty space between galaxies. They used a giant horn-shaped antenna, called the Holmdel Horn Antenna, in their observatory at Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA. But as they tried to take measurements, an annoying noise kept interfering, like static on a radio.

Where was this noise coming from?

They pointed the antenna towards New York City. No, it wasn’t city noise.

They took measurements of the noise all through the year. No, it didn’t change with the seasons.

Could the noise be from a nuclear test that had taken place a while ago? It couldn’t be. If it was, the noise should have decreased year by year.

Then what was it?

Perhaps it was just the pigeons roosting in the antenna? They chased away the pigeons, and scooped up and cleaned the droppings. But the noise still remained.

Then they learnt about the scientist Robert Dicke, a professor at Princeton University. Dicke had been thinking about the Big Bang. His opinion was that if the Big Bang was true, there should be some kind of matter remaining from the explosion. And most probably, he said, this would be a kind of low-level background radiation throughout the universe.

Dicke wanted to try and find it. But it turned out that it was exactly what Penzias and Wilson had already found! The hum they had encountered was this very radiation resulting from the Big Bang!

Penzias and Wilson got the Nobel Prize for this discovery, because it proved that the Big Bang Theory was true.

Researchers all over the world are still taking better measurements of this noise, and are finding more things to think about.

~

Exciting trivia awaits you in How We Know What We Know.

 

COVID-19 : The past and the future

Anirban Mahapatra’s COVID-19 is a meticulous dive into the pandemic that changed the 21st century world. In this excerpt, he delves into what the future could look like, and what kind of a situation we’re likely to have on our hands in the near future:

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Envisioning what the future holds in store is like imagining what dry land is like while in a storm in the middle of the ocean. Even in the best of times, predicting the future is a risky enterprise. A devastating pandemic of this scale and severity imposes additional challenges because we have no reference point in the modern era for something like this. Off-the-cuff comments may be forgotten but writing tends to stick around and haunt the writer. If you’re too certain with your pronouncements, you’re almost certain to be wrong. If you’re too vague, no one will read what you have to say.

We are only coming to terms with the direct fallout of the pandemic, but what will be the ramifications for long-term health and planning? What will be the implications for travel, for immigration and for commerce? Will countries continue to look inward once the pandemic is over?

Certain aspects of human life and society have changed due to the immediate effects of the pandemic. It is possible, therefore, to make short-term predictions. What will happen five, ten, or fifteen years down the road because of the ongoing, cataclysmic event and our responses to it are more difficult to say.

Will there be more public interest in interest in infectious diseases and medicine? Will it become a field that attracts more of the brightest minds as engineering, information technology, finance and business management have in preceding decades? Will physicians take up more active roles in framing public policy? Will economists stress-test catastrophic economic events of this nature?

Human societies are designed to maximize connections. Over the course of a day, most of us have dozens of close interactions with other people. The design of cities, buildings, jobs, transportation and commerce keeps the human need for connection in mind more than the rare threat of a disease that spreads by human-to- human interaction.

Front cover COVID-19 Separating Fact from Fiction
COVID-19||Anirban Mahapatra

What can we say looking at the past? Based on a study of the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918, the historian Nancy Bristow writes, ‘If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.’4 Yet, it is impossible to use history as guide, because the world has changed immensely in a century. In 1918, viruses had not been characterized. Colonial powers ruled the world and were in the middle of World War I. Commercial airline travel was non-existent. There was no Internet to allow the lay public to read research articles immediately and view daily statistics on illness and death.

… We can assume that the pandemic will irrevocably change some business practices. There will be more people working from home permanently and less business travel to meet clients and for conferences. Technological solutions that were embraced perhaps with a bit of trepidation during the pandemic will become wider habits.

Distancing is challenging in factories, warehouses, prisons, airplanes, dormitories and ships where space is maximized. Due to a premium being put on space in cities and the density of population, buildings have grown vertically. Property values have risen globally since the Great Recession. Gentrification had led to a return to economically disadvantaged areas. It is possible that there will be a reshaping of how urban spaces are used, with more people now moving outward instead of flocking to New York, Mumbai or London. But the experience of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tokyo in the first year of the pandemic has demonstrated that even within densely populated cities, measures can be taken to keep infections low. There may be a reshaping of urban societies, but it is still too early to tell. People tend to go where there are economic opportunities.

More broadly, will humans finally address the pressing problems of the day which the pandemic brought into stark relief?

Problems of inequality, poor access to healthcare and economic opportunities, and lack of equal rights are prevalent globally.

The pandemic allows humans to face difficult challenges that we have been ignoring, instead of denying or downplaying them. It gives us a chance to reframe priorities and reimagine society.

As humans we tend to focus on immediate problems. Our ancestors were good at hiding from tigers and other dangerous animals, finding caves to sleep in when it was raining, and building a fire when it was cold. Longer-term planning for problems does not come easily. This is applicable to both people individually and to us as a species.

… We keep asking ourselves, ‘When will the pandemic end?’ But we can’t mark the end as the date when it is over only for those of us who are privileged. We know that the biological pandemic will end one day. What we must also ensure is that there is an end to the social one.

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COVID-19 is an excellent and insightful read. Anyone can read this book, and everyone should read this book.

 

The dirty trail of money

While much has been read and said about Vijay Mallya and his constant hide-and-seek with government authorities, details remain either inaccessible or too obfuscated. Escaped is a deep dive into the deeds and misdemeanours of the magnate, and what lies beneath the scaffolding of a billionaire-gone-wrong. Here is an excerpt:

 

The more famous pad of the Mallyas is the palatial country house in Tewin village, Hertfordshire, 20 miles north of London. The quintessential English village dates back to the Anglo-Saxon times, boasts of a picturesque countryside rich in flora and fauna and has a population of barely 2000.

Mallya’s property Ladywalk was previously owned and occupied by Anthony Hamilton, father of F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, and hence has always been the cynosure of all eyes in the sleepy village.

Though not much is visible from the main entrance, a public footpath runs around the property, providing an unrestricted view of the enormous spread that includes the main house Ladywalk and a lodge called Bramble Lodge with plenty of land for Mallya’s five dogs — Bichon lapdogs Elsa and Daisy, golden retrievers Luna and Bella and a St Bernard called Spirit — to play chase.

Security at Ladywalk is a priority and several CCTV cameras are in operation 24×7 at various entry and exit points along the periphery of the extensive property. Guards, dressed in black and armed with iPads and binoculars, are ever vigilant, and more so for snoopy scribes.

The large modern house sits on 30 acres of land and boasts of swimming pools, tennis courts and several outhouses. The two-year renovation of the property saw a continuous flow of architects, landscape artists, builders and gardeners. But what the locals most look forward to is the plethora of supercars that take to the narrow roads leading to Queen Hoo Lane. A sure sign that the party king is at home!

Front cover Escaped
Escaped||Danish Khan, Ruhi Khan

The story begins on 11 June 2014. This property was already on the market through estate agents Savills and Knight Frank with at least one prospective buyer lined up. Mallya paid Hamilton a visit, instantly fell in love with the property and immediately made an offer. An offer that Anthony Hamilton could not refuse. So desperate was Mallya to make this his new home that a written agreement between the two was signed that day, thus sealing the fate of this property.

Interestingly, this agreement specified the ‘Buyer’ as: ‘Dr Vijay Mallya and/or, Miss Leena Vijay Mallya, Miss Tanya Vijay Mallya, Mr Siddhartha Vijay Mallya OR to his/their order’. Mallya’s Cornwall Terrace address in London was listed as the residential address. The deal was signed for a whopping £13 million and strangely no deposit was taken by Hamilton on that day.

On 11 June 2014, Anthony Hamilton signed as the ‘seller’, witnessed by Force India’s Deputy Head Robert Fernley, and Mallya signed the agreement under his own name as a ‘buyer’, witnessed by his chartered accountant Dr Lakshmi Kanthan.

The only signature on the preliminary agreement under the ‘buyer’ was that of Mallya.

None of his children had accompanied him to view the property and there is no evidence to suggest that they were aware that they were put as buyers then or had authorized Mallya to purchase the property on their behalf.

This property has all the hallmarks of being owned and occupied by Mallya. A fleet of supercars making their way down the drive, hordes of people descending to party all night long and a constant delivery of goods and services.

Yet when we dig deeper into the ownership, Vijay Mallya is a phantom lurking everywhere yet really nowhere.

Ladywalk is propped up on a complex structure of ownership that defines the existence of many such marquee properties in the UK.

Mallya has never disputed claims that he bought his new family home with the intention of securing it for his son and two daughters.

Though he has often nonchalantly challenged reporters to prove that the Ladywalk property was bought by him through ill-gotten money.

If one can lawfully hide the real ownership and flow of funds, why wouldn’t billionaires exercise the option and bask in the security this provides them?

~

Danish Khan and Ruhi Khan’s book is going to keep you at the very edge of your seats.

The macro and micro of a pandemic economy

COVID-19 has impacted individual lives and collective communities, making it more urgent than ever to rethink the way our economy runs and the aspects it chooses to focus on. The macroeconomic aspects set the stage for microeconomics, since the latter can be geared according to the former. But macroeconomics can be counter-intuitive and needs to be understood before the other aspects of the economy can be discussed. This is also true in the context of a lockdown. In his book Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis, Arun Kumar bases his analysis of macroeconomics on the understanding of what happens to variables like incomes, investments, savings, exports, imports and the growth rate of the economy.

In India, the lockdown was substantially loosened June onwards; given the state and spread of the virus in the country, this relaxation came at a time when the pandemic was not brought sufficiently under control. The number of tests was also far below the adequate or ideal number. While some countries have completely controlled the pandemic, it is still unlikely that it will be brought under control globally anytime soon. The economies of different countries have also been affected in different ways under their prospective lockdowns. China was initially reported to have ramped up production after the lockdown ended. In the first quarter of 2020, the rate of growth of the Chinese economy slipped from about +6 per cent in the previous quarter to -6.8 per cent. But the brutal lockdown in the Hubei province ensured that the country could overcome the virus faster. This also ensured the lockdown could be relaxed quickly in the country. As a result, in the second quarter, the economy recovered to +3.2 per cent growth.

front cover Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis
Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis||Arun Kumar

According to Arun Kumar, the situation around the world now is actually worse than it was during the depression of the 1930s or during the world wars. A major difference between a situation of war or recession and that of a pandemic is that during wars or recession, while aspects of the economy might be affected adversely in significant ways, production does not stop. This however is not the case during a pandemic. In a lockdown, production cannot take place, so both supply and demand collapse.

Simultaneously, workers get laid off and their incomes fall, and most businesses close down and their profits fall and even turn into losses. The result is that a large number of people lose their incomes and, therefore, demand falls drastically. This is a unique situation and past experiences of dealing with crises have not been useful in predicting what will happen in the future and how one should deal with the present situation. Therefore, according to Kumar, we need a new understanding of and strategy for the macroeconomics of the nation. The macro-variables—output, employment, prices, savings, investments and foreign trade—need to be reformulated and studied in the light of the changed situation.

In such a situation, the economy goes through three stages. From the normal phase, it declines during a lockdown, but even with the easing of lockdown restrictions, it is unlikely that the economy will immediately bounce back to the pre-pandemic phase. Due to continued wage cuts and unemployment, demand is likely to remain low. Many sectors of production will suffer and take long to revive, businesses will fail and the cost of doing business will rise. It is important that India learns from the trajectory of the economies of China and the US. The Indian economy, like the US and Chinese ones, is likely to recover slowly, especially due to its large unorganized sector which has taken a massive hit despite being at the helm of services which can easily be consider essential.

It remains to be seen how recovery and rehabilitation takes place in India, what the role of private businesses will be, and how the government will handle the new few years, which would end up becoming crucial in defining the trajectory of the country in the near future.

 

 

 

 

We are all complicit in the climate crisis

It is deeply unfortunate that it took a pandemic and its damage to make us realise what we should have known from the very beginning – we owe our environment sustainable and responsible use. No man is an island, and certainly not when it comes to the natural world. Deanne Panday, in her book Balance, takes a deep dive into the climate crisis and the depth of human complicity in the destruction of our natural world.

The climate of the world has seen a drastic global change merely over the past few decades. We have arrived at a point in the Anthropocene where the damaging impact of human footprint has become irreversible. The increased emission of carbon dioxide has increased health risks and long-term respiratory damage. One living in a metropolitan city is no stranger to this – checking the AQI levels of our cities and towns fills us with dread, and yet this dread remains insufficient in motivating us to radically change our lifestyle.

The increase of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane has resulted in heat waves, where days are getting hotter. Extreme heat can lead to more droughts and hot, dry conditions can, in turn, spark off wildfires. We have recently seen devastating fires in Australia and California. Heat waves lead to drought, which would translate into food scarcity and eventually famines especially in countries reliant largely on agriculture.

Front cover Balance
Balance||Deanne Panday

The ozone layer has not been an exception in the damage done to the natural environment of the planet. While in the stratosphere it absorbs ultraviolet rays from the sun, the story changes closer to ground. Ground-level ozone is emitted from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor-vehicle exhaust, petrol vapours and chemical solvents. Breathing ozone can result in chest pain, throat irritation, coughing and congestion. More ozone is formed in summer because there is more ultraviolent radiation from the sun then. It has been estimated that ozone mortality will be more pronounced in India and China, eastern United States, most of Europe and southern Africa.

Covid-19 is not the only that will plague our lives. Other climate sensitive diseases like cholera, malaria, the West Nile virus etc are expected to magnify. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the rise in temperatures, along with an increase in population, could put many more people at risk of being infected by it. The reproductive, survival and biting rates of the Aedes aegypti mosquito species, which carries dengue, are strongly influenced by temperature, precipitation and humidity. Mosquitoes are cold-blooded creatures and seek out warmer environments to regulate their body temperatures.

Greenhouse gases also have an impact on the spread of infectious diseases, since they affect rainfall and temperatures. Higher greenhouse gas emissions also impact nutrients in food – A higher carbon dioxide concentration reduces nutrients such as proteins, vitamin A and folate, which are already in short supply for lakhs of people around the world.

Fertilizers are also responsible for several health disorders. Algal and cyanobacterial blooms produce toxins that are harmful to wildlife and humans. Warmer ocean temperatures and precipitation promote their growth, and their main ingredient is nitrogen. The heavy use of nitro-based fertilizers to grow our food causes a range of illnesses in human beings, such as headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, numbness and tingling.

The planet we inhabit now is vastly different from the one that existed even thirty years ago. The deterioration has been incredibly rapid. At this point, where restoration might be an option anymore, it is high time we at least begin the process of mitigation instead of myopically pursuing personal comforts.