Category: Books

On Spiritual Frauds

I was unsurprised to read about spiritual frauds who were recently in the news in India. Sooner or later, most of the glitzy spiritual organisations that ply a flourishing trade in regular and custom-made packages of pop philosophy, meditation, and yoga will go the same way, as they should – for they add no real value to the average seekers who approach them. I say this from experience having been a spiritual seeker who spent seven years in my twenties trying to find the meaning of life in spirituality by reading through tomes of philosophy and mysticism, listening to talks by self-proclaimed spiritual teachers at their institutions, and writing features on a few of them.

At the end of those seven years, I realised that the most spiritual person around me was the CEO of the company where I worked at the time, whose vision in creating a product company when the IT industry was facing one of its worst recessions not only helped hundreds of employees to survive the industry’s crisis but also elevated them from common software service professionals into creators of niche software products. That CEO is one of the greatest karma yogis for through his company he has done more good for society that all the popular spiritual teachers who flaunt themselves on social media put together. I say this having taken an objective look at more than fifteen different spiritual organisations with respect to their ideologies, practices and also discussions with people involved including the head of the institution in a few cases.

The levels of delusion of the followers who believe in these godmen and godwomen as well as the megalomania involved has to be seen to be believed. An up and coming godman who expounded a rather interesting core concept (similar to The Celestine Prophecy) shared his vision statement which was to establish a fully self-sufficient city with schools, colleges, hospitals, parks, shopping complexes, in short everything that anyone would need, naturally with him as the overlord at the centre of this mini-universe. Most successful self-styled godmen and godwomen already have similar complexes in place, centres which peddle spirituality in flashy little sachets and are projected as havens of peace. One of the chief disciples of an established godman who targets yuppies to join his cult mentioned how people from nearby villages (parasites, he called them) would sneak into the ashram kitchens, posing as followers. It was ironic considering that he and his teacher were far dangerous parasites that leeched off hardworking members of society. Pseudo spirituality is one of the greatest banes of present times.

I choose to use the word ‘Spiritual teacher’ here and not Guru. For Guru is a sacred term that indicates a teacher who deserves the greatest respect and reverence. Not every teacher is or can be a Guru. There are instructors who barter knowledge and skills, there are teachers who coach and guide, and there are Gurus who inspire and enlighten, and awaken the student to the state where they can self-actualize themselves. In ancient India, Gurus were teachers who imparted education and professional skills to the students. They led normal lives with their families, taking batches of students under their wing during the course of education. The immense respect and veneration associated with Gurus are for such teachers, the real teachers. It was these Gurus of yore who were regarded as second to the parents and honoured before God.

The conmen peddling spirituality in the present day abuse this concept by projecting themselves as messiahs. They lead flashy lifestyles by squeezing resources and psychic energy from the hapless souls whom they ensnare by advertising, pyramid schemes of recruitment and mesmerising music that brainwashes them of all independent thought. After having seen the amount of fraud that goes on in such spiritual shops, the biggest surprise was the number of people who continue to fall for the propaganda of these charlatans, seeking some kind of solace in an abrasive world. Seekers would be better off spending their time and resources by seeking on their own, but then everyone walks a unique path and perhaps some have to get conned before they can learn their lessons.

Here is a short related excerpt from The Reengineers. Most of the action of the book is set in the campus of a spiritual institution called The Seeker’s School. Everything about this school is fictitious and yet it is rooted in the reality of the many unscrupulous frauds whom I encountered during my days as a spiritual seeker.

Excerpt from The Reengineers

The women who had been meditating started to leave the hall one by one after prostrating before the photograph. One of them walked up to us, smiling widely.
‘Be happy my friends, in the name of the most hallowed master.’ She handed him a set of glossy papers. ‘Is this your first visit to the school, my brother?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘What about you, dear sister?’ She asked Nivedita, handing her another set of papers. I crept into the shadows of the palms, as did Anu and Sabi.
‘Huh, no.’
‘Did you know about the post-graduate seeker programme? Prefect Govind is uplifting a new batch tomorrow. Would you like to join? Wait, wait, don’t say no, it is the greatest gift that you can give yourself, this gift of the seeker quest. As we go through our mundane lives, how many of us ever pause to stop and observe and wonder where it is all leading to? Now the seeker programme—’
‘But don’t we need to complete the junior seeker programme before attending the senior class?’ Nivedita asked.
‘Not necessary, sister. You now have the blessed opportunity to pay first and register in advance for the junior seeker, primary seeker, middle seeker, higher secondary seeker, senior secondary seeker and graduate seeker programmes and catch up with them later, one by one after you finish this. We offer a special discount package if you start your journey with the postgraduate seeker programme. This is for a short time only, so you had better register fast. Ah, the bliss, the pure joy of it! You will be doubly blessed to do it in the presence of the most hallowed master, with Prefect Govind personally teaching it.’
‘No doubt that will be doubly blissful,’ Siddharth said dryly.
‘Oh yes, each teacher brings their own special flavour to a class, so it is advisable to repeat any programme any number of times. After all, the fees you pay help
send so many poor children to school.’ The woman smiled sweetly. ‘How many programmes should I sign you up for? The total cost for the postgraduate programme is just about the cost of the latest iPhone. You can pay by cash, cheque, any Master or VISA card or I can arrange a loan with our tie-in corporate bank, which you can then pay back in easy monthly installments. It is the best investment that you can ever make in your lifetime, for your own peace of mind and happiness. Isn’t happiness the most important thing in life? Isn’t it, brother?’
Siddharth made a gesture indicating that he was not interested.

Excerpt from The Reengineers

On Friends in Far Places and Unscrupulous Book Reviewers

I keep my writing and day job in separate compartments but sometimes the boundaries blur as they did a few weeks ago when I was in an official Skype discussion with a colleague who had recently joined the company. As the call came to an end, he suddenly asked me if I was the author of The Reengineers.
‘It was a wonderful book, thank you for writing it!’
He went on to say how much he had enjoyed reading the novel.

It was a positive, affirming moment after my struggles trying to promote the book since it was published.

I am perhaps the only writer whose publisher (one of the top five, no less) completely overlooked my first novel for any kind of publicity. I ran a few Goodreads giveaways and hired a book marketing service with mixed results. A few of the reviewers to whom I sent copies came out with balanced reviews: some were very positive and others reasonably critical. Some reviewers understood the essence of the novel, some wrote lucidly about what they liked and what they did not, and two or three were of pathetically low quality – one review was more about the bookmark that Amazon sent with the book rather than the novel itself and another shoddy review was embellished with details that were nowhere in the book. Yet others accepted the book but never showed up with their reviews. Likewise, some of the book bloggers whom I had approached agreed to review the book in return for a copy and then disappeared silently into the depths of cyberspace, never to resurface.

Now and then, readers write to me mentioning how the story has given them hope to take on depression, often asking me not to reveal their details. But this unexpected encounter with a reader who had read the book at the level of a story and found pleasure in it, made me very happy and extremely grateful.

Click Here to Buy The Reengineers

Art is much, but Love is more: The Brownings

I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.

Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I

I admire Elizabeth Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty but also sought to speak for the suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.

I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married there. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.

Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)

I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.

The Great Universal Paradox

Out of the many wicked and wonderful books of Fay Weldon, I like the collection A Hard Time to be a Father best. It has a number of little gems including one of the wisest short stories that was ever written.

Happy Birthday, Fay Weldon. (Sep 22)

“I called this story ‘Falling in Love in Helsinki’, not ‘out of love’ because although it’s true I fell out of love with Andreas, out of love with love (which is a real blight), somehow I fell into love with life. Or with God, call it what you will, there in that chapel. Anyway, sufficiently enamoured of just the sheer dignity of creation to realise I shouldn’t offend it the way I had been doing. I think everything’s going to be all right now . . . As for GUP, the Great Universal Paradox, that’s real enough. What I marvel at now is how happy so many of us manage to be, so much of the time, in spite of it.”
Falling in Love in Helsinki: A Hard Time to be a Father by Fay Weldon.

A Belated Post for Independence Day

“I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.”

For a country which had a united, glorious and flourishing civilization for several millennia before it was enslaved for eight hundred years, seventy years of independence is not so much an anniversary of nationhood as a time to reflect on how far we have recovered from the many wounds inflicted on the nation by the invaders who not only enslaved its people and looted its treasures but also disfigured its historical places and distorted its history. Seventy years after independence, it is wonderful to see my country shining, prospering, and marching towards the place it once held at the helm of the world’s economy, culture, and education.

Glimpses of India in the Bard’s work portray the country as a prosperous land of gold and precious stones and pearls and sunshine, of proud people who worship the sun and beautiful veiled women, impressions that echo in the work of other writers and travellers to India through millennia…aberrations like Burnett’s racist slur in literature started only about a century ago, and now the pseudo-liberals continue their work, trying to portray the country in a poor light in both literature and the mass media.

Someone mentioned during a dinner conversation a while ago about how they thought that the concept of patriotism was outdated in present times. But I like the quiet pride that shines in my English, Irish, Kenyan and Canadian friends’ eyes as they talk about their countries. It mirrors my love for my own nation, coming as I do from a family of freedom fighters, with a great Uncle who once fought the British with his poetry. I wished I could tell the person who called patriotism outdated that everyone should have the freedom to love their country and to say so. It is only when we feel secure in the love of our own family that we tend to accept and respect others more easily, and adapt better to a united society. Breathes there the man with soul so dead, etc. as a good Scot once wrote.
Jai Hind!

A short related excerpt from The Reengineers.

Arun’s lecture on the last working day of class ten had revolved around his favourite topic: India.

‘How many of you respect the Indian national flag? The national anthem? How many of you actually stand up when it is sung?’

I raised my hand automatically, so did Sabi. Hearing furtive giggles, I turned around and found to my horror that in a class of forty students, only the two of us had our hands up. Anu was frantically gesturing to me to drop my hand. I did so, puzzled and hurt.
Arun did not look surprised. He continued, ‘Now this question would have evoked a totally different reaction in classrooms in countries such as the UK or Japan. They have an intrinsic sense of national pride that is lacking in India. Not surprising, as it has only been forty-four years since we got our independence.’
I looked down into my book, wishing I could hide within its pages. My love for my country had turned me into a bigger freak than I already was in the classroom.

What did it mean to love one’s country anyway?
Much like the farmers who enthusiastically cheered for Mother India when Jawaharlal Nehru addressed them but were dumbstruck when he asked them who exactly they thought Mother India was, I had no answer. To me, patriotism was the joy I experienced while reading the poems of Subramaniya Bharati, Uncle RK, and Rabindranath Tagore. It was my pride in singing the national anthem and saluting the tricolour unfurled in the school assembly on Monday mornings. It was the lump in my throat when I watched songs like ‘The fertile earth of my country that brings forth gold, diamonds and pearls’ and ‘I am a little soldier of the nation. Say with me, Jai Hind’ on TV. It was the anger and resentment I felt when my mother told me not to get too friendly with Anu as he was not a Brahmin or with Sabi as she was not ‘one of us’ but a north Indian.

Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan

Fiction as Panacea

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage

Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.

Reading Thomas Pynchon

I was delighted to come across this essay by Nick Ripatrazone in which he says that Pynchon is ‘difficult, dated, and frustrating’, with sentences that ‘are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.’ Having been eager to read The Crying of Lot 49 based on McHale’s critique of the book, I had nearly wept with frustration when I had to put it away, right next to Ulysses on a shelf of books that I mean to return to, someday.

‘The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal’, says Ripatrazone, adding that ‘Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.’

Yet another book on that shelf is the verse novel The Distance Between Us. As I look at the shelf, a pattern begins to emerge. Art created for its own sake, that rejoices in itself and somehow remains at a distance from the reader.

On Kindles

Somewhere I read that the word ‘kindle’ was used to refer to a group of kittens that were born together. In this context, the word ‘kindle’ is synonymous with ‘litter’, but the former sounds so much more pleasing and sweeter. Speaking of kindles, nearly ten years after I voted on Nathan Bransford’s blog that I would never switch to an e-reader and that ‘a paper book would have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands’ (or something to that effect), I got myself a Kindle for Christmas. The obvious advantages of an e-reader notwithstanding, I don’t find it very different from a real book. While there is something comforting about holding a physical book, picking it up, turning the pages, placing a bookmark in it and so on, in the end, a Kindle serves equally well. For the fictive dream is the same, whether it arises from the lines on paper or a screen.

On Superfluous Copy-editors

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
Vladimir Nabokov

I enjoyed this article in which the author refers to copy-editors as “irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.”

Two copy editors whom I worked with were all that and more – pathetic characters who tried to justify their work by mangling the prose beyond recognition and who took sadistic pleasure in making uncalled-for actual edits in the text, when all they had to do was simple proofreading for spelling and grammar. Thankfully my editor rejected everything done by the first, while the second still managed to inflict some damage to the prose in the process. Yet another lesson in publishing, to avoid superfluous over-editing by presumptuous copy-editors.

A Treasure Trove of Lectures

I was lucky to attend a poetry master class on TS Eliot by Professor Belinda Jack last year, in which we had to write a poem with a sentence from Eliot’s poetry.

I wrote this:

At the Old Bodleian
This is where I want to be – At the source of the longest river
Here, at this desk, in this library
Surrounded by doors to other worlds, where
Time takes on the colours of all seasons.
At my desk though, time has no colour – It ceases to be.

Soon afterwards, I stumbled upon a series of lectures given by the Professor for Gresham College. Listening to Professor Jack is a wonderful experience, it is almost like sitting in the blissful silence of the Bodleian.