The internet has pampered us sufficiently into believing that content is as free as the air we breathe (even if the latter is polluted as hell). There was a time in the pre-internet days when one had to pay to read. We still pay to read magazines, books, and the newspaper. The newspapers manage to keep it cheap because the advertisers are paying them. We pay just a few rupees because a corporation has paid a few crores to place their advertisement there.
Some sites with good quality content don't wish to sell out completely to advertisers, and they charge for articles. The New York Times does that, as does The New Yorker. While initially it seems putting-off to a reader, in time it makes sense. No one can write for a living for free. And news, or content, like any other commodity or form of entertainment, comes with a price. If you like what you see, you got to pay to have it. And when there is so much not-so-great content out there, the guys who write quality stuff either have to show you ads to survive, or charge you some money.
Speaking ads in your face, the Indian press media take it new heights daily. On any given day there are 3 to 4 full page ads in the Times of India. Earlier, we spotted ads in-between the news, and they stood out, because they were few. Nowadays, we spot news items between the ads. So you may have starving Bangadeshis rubbing shoulders with Katrina selling diamonds. Should there be some kind of rule on the amount a paper can advertise? More importantly, is the corporate world deciding what news gets showcased? Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against ads, but I think there can be a better balance. Advertising needs to realize its role in visual culture, and how it affects social values. Our news is stringently edited, while our advertising is not. News and advertising offer us two different kinds of information, and the line between them is blurring. How much news is still objective, is a matter of great debate. How much advertising does not tell us a lie, is a matter of no debate, its very little. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
talks about a related issue, regarding product placement in the film industry. A creatively made, but entertaining and somewhat radical documentary, it's definitely worth a watch. If there can be a city without ads
, there is no reason a newspaper can have a few less too.
Haven't read any of Aravind Adiga's other books but The White Tiger is a gripping tale of a loyalty, treachery, hatred, love, anger, servants, masters, poverty and wealth. In short, all the extremes of life are covered in it, and in that the author has painted a brilliantly accurate picture of modern India, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humour thrown in. Told in the first-person, through the eyes of a chauffeur living in Delhi, it's one book that is really hard to put down. After a long time the real tale of 'two Indias' has got the attention it deserves.
Through one person's story, we get to travel to village India, experience their troubles, then to the typical rich person's world in urban India, the businessman's world and their nexus with politicians, we see the point of the view of the Indian who has just returned from abroad and who believes he can change the country, we deal with his rising frustration. Meanwhile we see the faithful servants, an integral part of the Indian family and Indian way of life. They happily serve their disgusting masters, while deep inside some plot far more evil doings. We see the servant's world, both tragic and fascinating, enriched with servant's gossip, which is, as everyone knows, the best and the juiciest gossip there is. More specifically we get a first-hand account of the driver's world, which revolves around the Honda City, polishing and cleaning the Honda City, the hot memsahib in her miniskirts, the sweet and unsuspecting sahib, the dominating relatives, the other pesky drivers, and the servants hierarchy. We see that older generation of India, who control their children well into adulthood. We see the backwardness that rules much of India, both the super-rich and super-poor. The over-arching theme reflects the reality that India is an anarchy, and lends authenticity to the book. A poor, illiterate village man, through sheer intelligence and cunning, rises to become a millionaire. A rich man's son, full of hope, positivity and with a good heart, still ends up with nothing. Humour, sarcasm and brilliant dialogues make this one fast-paced and insightful read.
Once in a while a person wakes up from their situation, and realises what they want in life. If there is nothing holding them back, not even their conscience, then they may achieve the most impossible of things. The human spirit can rise to be anything and fall to be nothing, both in the same moment.
Just finished proofreading somebody's Diploma (thesis) document. I don't have any right to divulge the topic and the details of it, but part of it was about the development of language, script and how we read letters and words. There is still no really conclusive theory on how language developed. Was it to express emotion, need, signal danger, or for the purpose of trade? Who knows. We don't really know how or why humans started making intelligent sounds and then giving signs to the sounds they made. This was a huge evolutionary leap. Animals too have complex language and communication systems, but human language has developed to an abstract system of signs.
The letter A is just a notion of the sound it represents. The 'A' could well be a square or circle instead of A. At some point in our long and convoluted history somebody decided we needed signs to communicate. And that was the beginning of script. Many scripts developed out of a need to keep accounts for trade purposes. Stringing these signs together in various groups led to the formation of words and sentences. We never really read every letter in a word, we just read the word as a group. Reading is as much about pictures as it is about words, because at the end of the day, words are pictures. When someone asks the spelling of the word, one may actually see the word in their head, and know that if it 'looks' wrong, the spelling is wrong. I know, for instance, the i must come after the e, by the image in my head. If e is before i, my brain recognizes it is visually wrong. It doesn't spell wrongly, it looks wrong. It is easier to know spelling when you visualize it.
The images of letters that we know today have developed over thousands of years. We have accepted them as much as we have accepted the noses on our faces. Language (especially one's mother tongue) seems to be hard-wired in us. There is very little effort required in thinking or talking in one's mother tongue. We all learnt language at such a tender age, we usually cannot recollect anything to do with the process. It probably wasn't very hard, or we would have vivid memories of it. Learning a second language however, usually proves harder. Most people remember struggling, or at least making more efforts with Hindi, Marathi, English, French or any other language that they learned a little later. Between the ages of approximately 2 to 6, the 'language window' in little human brains is wide open, more than it will ever be in life again. Between these years, children can effortlessly pick up 3 or 4 languages being spoken around them.
No one (or very few) will question why A looks the way it does. Why can it not look like X, or a circle? World over, the speakers of a language have a general, unspoken agreement over the form of letters. Adding or removing a letter from a language is like adding or removing a limb. Generations may pass before people realise the loss of a letter, or even a matra. And by then it may be too late to bring it back. Most people may ask, what's the big deal in the loss of a letter, the language is simply evolving. That may be the case, but the loss is still very real. A letter may not have a tangible value, but it carries a wealth of information, symbology, history, culture and identity with it. Adding a letter is also serious business. First, the need for a new letter needs to be strongly felt by most people. How will people know what a new letter means, unless it is told to them repeatedly? Somehow, words are easily dropped from and added to any working language, but letters, not so easily. The loss of languages
is a very real threat to culture and diversity world over.
We are illiterate when we look at ancient scripts. The Indus Valley script still has the world flummoxed after thousands of years. Changes in scripts have occurred over millennia, often for very down-to-earth reasons. For instance, Gujarati lost the line on top of the letters that Devnagari has simply because the Gujaratis are predominantly a business and trading community, and the loss of the line enabled them to write faster for maintaining accounts and lists. Similarly, a thousand years from now our alphabet may be completely different.
We form the language we speak, but it also forms us.
I don't know what it is, but spelling and grammar mistakes seem to be on the rise. It could be the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Google that's pampering (read spoiling) everyone's language benchmark. It could be just sheer laziness, or too many distractions around us. It could be the falling standards of education. It could be the rise of digital devices. We still don't know the real long-term implications of all this technology around us. If mobile phone waves are killing sparrows, they might be messing with our spelling skills too.
Speaking of mobiles, we can definitely dump some of the blame on the mobile phone and smsing. I love mobile phones and technology. Bt myb thts y we all rite like dis now, evn n collg. Ders no time. I hv frgten de real splings of tings. I also rite in rely shrt sntnces nw. Dis proves we can read ny wrd easly.
But we can't use language like that in printed/published work (not yet at least). Language standards, in India can be surprisingly low in places where they should be high. Pick up the Times of India. On any given day, you can usually find one spelling plus one grammar mistake, and you won't even have to read the entire paper to discover them. Errors are especially rampant in the supplementary paper such as Ahmedabad Times. Surprised? Don't be. Recently, someone pointed out a spelling error in a Penguin book.
English is definitely not the easiest language to master, with more exceptions than rules. The er and the ar are often confused. "I went to collage." (You couldn't have gone to a work of art). Some errors of course result in pretty hilarious situations. Recently we witnessed the 'Osama/Obama is dead' situation. A slip of one letter can mean something drastically different. Imagine the "Diving Mother that helps one in time of need." (Divine became a water sport).
The slips between s and c are countless. Receive and abscess can deceive us all. And you might want to discus something or throw the discuss. Viscous can be vicious to spell. You are pretty likely to find some mistakes in this post, if you read carefully enough.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a long title for a not-very-long book. Set in the time of World War II, on the island of Guernsey, a tiny little island off the coast of England, it tells the story of the islanders, and a visitor.
Due to the war, there was a great shortage of food and basic amenities. The islanders make the best of this situation, by scrimping, sharing and being really creative with the way they use their resources. The situation is worsened by the starving German soldiers who grab whatever food, drink, soap, blankets, etc they can get their hands on. At the height of war-time, this miniscule island is almost forgotten by mainland England, and with no supplies reaching them, things are really hard. Even though the situation looks bleak, the mood is not pessimistic. The islanders are good, strong, simple folk, who help each other, rally around, and keep the group's spirit flying high. One of the ways they do this is by starting a literary society, which meets often (and secretly) to read and talk about their favourite books. They are enthused enough to start writing too.
The best part is, the entire book is in the form of letters, much like another wonderful book, Love Letters, by AR Gurney. Through letters traveling between the various characters, one gets personal insights into the nature of people's lives, loves and human nature. The letters gradually unravel the story, bringing forth the characters of people, and the incidents that occur. Though a work of fiction, the authenticity makes it seem like non-ficiton.
Most heartening are the little things that give people joy in hard times, and how human contact is so essential to us all. One realises the value of the 'softer' things in life, such as literature in this case, and why we need it as human beings. We take it for granted till it is denied to us. The book is reminiscent of a wonderful quote by Albert Camus, "In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
This review contains spoilers
Once in a blue moon you get to see a movie that is so real, moving and brave, you can't forget it for a long time. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is about the suppression of artistic, literary and intellectual expression in East Germany. Any piece of writing, theatre, movie, or art is strongly controlled by the Government of the day, known as the Stazi. Any piece of work not in keeping with their propaganda, is censured and controlled to the point of complete destruction. The Stazi often resort to bugging people's homes with devices, and spying on their every word and act. The only thing that remains private are thoughts, and even they get exposed through double-crossers.
An officer of the Stazi is given the job to closely watch a couple. The man is a playwright, and the woman an actress who stars in most of his works. They know what suppression has done to their close friend, a film maker, who did not abide by the rules. Stifled by the lack of any opportunity to work freely, he is completely destroyed. The Stazi dictates how any creative person tells their story, paints their paintings, makes their films, or enacts their performances. This couple still seek to find a way out for their creative voice. The officer who is listening into their every conversation in a dingy attic, begins to be strangely moved by things he hears. From being completely pro-Stazi, he goes over to the other side, in a slow progression. As a continuously falling drop of water ultimately shatters a rock, this officer's rigid beliefs are slowly broken down, one by one, as he listens to their way of life. His whole identity, his very being undergoes a transformation, proving that even in the hardest of people, there is still a human heart.
The story has more plots and complexities, and is a deep tale of love, politics and double-crossing. The Stazi officers often search the couple's apartment when they are away. At one point, this officer secretly pockets a book he sees lying about. Later, at home, he opens and reads the book, a simple act that has been discouraged and almost banned by the Stazi. The beauty of the moment, when he discovers that simplest and happiest of joys, of just pure reading, is indescribable. The words on the page give him happiness, after years of being brainwashed that books are bad. There are many more such moments in the film.
The playwright meanwhile gets a chance to write a story about the harsh realities of East Germany, and be published in a West German magazine, remaining anonymous all the time. He is provided with a special typewriter to do this task, in utmost secrecy. The typewriter becomes the most dangerous object in the house, for if it is found, it has dire consequences for the couple. It is almost like a deadly piece of evidence, the murder weapon, or the corpse, which the Stazi struggle to find, and no one wants to reveal. Everything revolves around it, at one point. It is a life and death situation, quite lliterally. The writer's tool becomes the most incriminating piece of evidence, for the crime of honest writing.
The woman has her own struggle and anguish, as she is used and abused by the powers that be, and remains helpless through it all. She is at the mercy of a man in power. She sells her soul to buy the couple the little creative freedom that they enjoy. How far would one go for one's art? Far becomes too far at times. Tragically, the double life she leads destroys her from within, as it has done to others. Only the playwright gets the chance for meaningful contribution to his work, but he pays heavily for it in other ways.
Lives are lost for creative expression, something which is taken for granted many a time. Yet, in an culture of animosity and supression, a hard-headed officer begins to trust again.
Half of a Yellow Sun is gripping and award-winning book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is about the civil war in Nigeria and the struggle to create a new country, Biafra, back in the sixties. It is told through the eyes of Ugwu, a loveable, young houseboy, who comes to work in the house of a revolutionary African professor, Odenigbo. Ugwu is from the village, and everything is strange and fasinating to him. His master is a kind man, who treats him as an equal. Later, the love of Odenigbo's life, Olanna, daughter of a rich Government servant, moves in with them. The book explores human relationships deeply, the relationships and dynamics between man and woman, servant and master, woman and child, man and mistress, people and their government, people and the rich, people and their oppressors, rulers and the ruled, blacks and whites. Local identity overrules the national identity, and also overules common sense and humanity, especially at times of war. War is the great leveller, making refugees out of an entire nation.
Ugwu, Odenigbo and Olanna struggle with the life that has been thrust upon them. Things get worse before they get better, and they undergo trying circumstances, with remarkable strength. This is especially true for Olanna, who grew up in luxury, never wanting anything, but adjusts to life without the basic necessities. They forgive each other, even when grievously wronged, and their very unique bond is the only thing that gets them through extremely hard times. As you read, you feel their pain, and find yourself praying that they get through this alive.
The author makes the reader experience the war raging outside, by narrating the war within each of them, and between them. In pain, people do strange things and hurt one another, and these are no exception. They come very close to losing all hope and sanity, but they are pulled back when they are at the brink, by a return to normalcy. Though a novel, it is based on real events, and very real emotions. A great author understands that you can't make people experience an actual event, you can only make them experience the emotions that make the event so real. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one such author.
Through their dialogues, the book raises larger questions which plague countries that underwent colonial rule. The Nigerian struggle to be their own people, to stop bowing to all Western thought, the enforcing of a national identity, the love of one's country are all issues that any thinking Indian grapples with on a daily basis, even unconsciously. Worse than the economic and political oppression that a colonial power creates, is the loss of identity, the loss of the sense of self, and the hatred of one's fellow citizens, that are the real left-overs of colonial rule. These take generations to remedy. Odenigbo's hope and burning idealism to see a truly independent Nigeria, free of the colonial shadow, almost kills him internally, while the war kills everything externally.
A Smile In The Mind at the NID Library
Visible Signs at the NID Library
There are books on design, and then there are books on design. Some books on design simply showcase design work. They are compilations of the glitziest and best in the field, be it industrial design, typography, or illustration. Editors have worked to collect and collate the best work. Most designers tend to gravitate towards these books, especially in their design education. They seem to be the benchmark to aspire to. But in reality, these books teach little. They do affect style a lot, which may not always be desirable. This invariably creates a whole bunch of us who sub-consciously or consciously creating work that looks like the showcased work. Because like it or not, the human mind is like a sponge. Our eyes feed on things that get transmitted and processed in our hard drives (brains), and affect the kind of images and designs we later create. Meditating on the Logo Lounge book while doing a logo design job is not a great idea. Somewhere, even if we fight it, we get affected by the forms we have seen, and they tend to creep into our work. The downside is, it doesn't help original thought. Most of these showcase kind of books are nice to browse through at times. But they don't provide many insights, and they don't really teach anything of real value, about design.
The kind of books that make a huge impact are of a different pedigree altogether. They don't just show work, they challenge the way we work, and create new ways for us to think. One is, A Smile In The Mind by Beryl McAlhone, a must-read for any graphic designer. This is an excellent book to help one understand how to create images (images=any kind of visual communication). It explains the different kinds of images, visual puns, visual metaphors and so on. By studying the book one can analyse and understand images around us better. It helps to create images, and develop different kinds of thinking to create images. The book explains creativity, humour and visual wit, and their roles in design.
Another great book is Visible Signs by David Crow. As consumers of visual art, people have become advanced readers of signs and signals. We decode meaning from images on many different layers. It is important for designers to have an understanding of how meaning is formed, and how it changes perceptions. Our desires, and our sense of our own identities are moulded and manipulated by signs and images around us. Communication has hierarchies that are deeply embedded in our societies. This also holds true for visual communication, different media carry different messages for us regardless of the content of the message. Visual language spans the full range of cultural and economic activity. Visible Signs makes us aware of implicit communication everywhere.
Designing Design by Kenya Hara does showcase his design work, but in a much deeper way. Unlike most books which just show a final outcome, he shows and explains the entire process behind each piece of work. Not only is his design work phenomenal, but his writing is interesting and lucid. He gives many insights into Japanese culture, which is strongly reflected in his work. Change By Design by Tim Brown (a founder of IDEO) talks about the design work IDEO has done through the years. It has few images, but many lessons and insights. It is a great book on design thinking, and shows the power of design in systems.
Designers rarely talk about the business aspect of their profession. Shel Kerby's Talent Is Not Enough is an eye-opening book. It has got everything a designer would need to know about actually running a design business, charging clients, making proposals and so on. Few of these things get taught in design school, so this book is an essential read. John Heskett's A Short Introduction to Design is a good read about what design encompasses. The Vignelli Canon by Massimo Vignelli is a superb summation of the process of designing.
For graphic designers, especially publication designers, the big daddy of them all is The Grid System by Joseph Muller Brockmann. This book was published sometime in the late 1960s, but it is still a Bible for graphic designers today. The principles of good design don't change easily, and this book has been written by one of the masters. This gentleman practically invented the grid system. He then also articulated it and made it easy for mere mortals like us to understand. These same principles are differently applied on the web, iPad, and any device today. This book explains the skeleton of good design. You never see it, but without it everything collapses. The grid is so important because it creates the system. The system creates hierarchy and consistency. These two together gives the reader essential cues. The cues help the reader read.
One kind of book is the icing, while the other is the recipe for the cake. Many books strongly influence style, without really educating. Few books actually make designers. If design is problem-solving, these solid books are educators in their own way.
Joseph Muller Brockmann
A good weekend is one where you get to relax. A great weekend is one where you finish reading two juicy books! I finally finished The Fountainhead (very late in life). It is an epic, with a really strong dose of some pretty headstrong philosophy thrown in. This was the Centennial Edition, and at the end of it were notes, reviews, and edits by the author herself. These were more illuminating than the book itself, and give us a little peek into Ayn Rand's formidable brain. Books like this are pure hard work, sweat, blood and toil as the notes confirm. Not that she was complaining about the work. She was her own most stringent critic and heartless editor.
Rand started work on the characters of the book a few years before actually starting the book. Each character has been sketched out in detail, with descriptions of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Some of these characters are not used in the final book. Then there is her own first review of her first chapter. The notes read 'too many adjectives', and 'don't use words for the sake of it, use them only if really needed' and many more notes to that effect. Each chapter has its own review. More than the books, I would love to get my hands on the journals of Ayn Rand, and they do exist. She also interned at an architect's office for a year prior to writing the book, as part of her in-depth research. A monumental undertaking, this book must have been. It's one thing to have a strong, unique and original philosophy. Its quite another to build a fictional world around it, that is detailed to the nth degree. And it's the ultimate, if you have the sharp reasoning to cut, trash and re-write portions and pages of your work. She designed this book, and crafted every word, thought, and blink, down to the last comma.
One minute I was on the sidewalks of New York in the last century, with Roark challenging all existence, the next minute I was crossing medival Europe and stepping into ancient Iran. In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek is a non-fiction work about his own journey across countries, centuries, and gods. A Polish Jew and a dentist, he had a long-time fascination with Zoroastrianism, and its beginnings and influences. He believes Zoroastrianism has influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam, infact many world religions much more than anything else. Its just that its never been documented. And since Zoroastrianism has been in the twilight zone for 1300 years, its even harder to get evidence of anything. But it does exist, as he takes us through his long journey through Europe and finally to Iran via Turkey and many other places. Some interesting points are that Avestan, the ancient language is surprisingly close to Old Sanskrit. In fact some prayers when translated, are almost exact.
The author, and some others believe that it was one band of people from Central Asia that separated into two branches. One settled on the river Indus, and the other on the river Oxus (now the Amu Darya). The custom of shaking hands, apparently can be traced to Zoroastrian culture, as it was not originally Christian, and definitely not Islamic. It is also shown in some Iranian sculptures. Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced ancient Egypt, a fact unknown to most of the world. This is probably because history is written by the winners of the last war. One fact that comes out glaringly in this book is how present day history is dominated by Roman/Greek history, and is strongly one-sided. The Zoroastrian empire at its height, stretched from Egypt to the Indus (Kushan) and from Rome to the Gulf. It was, by all accounts, the greatest civilization of the ancient world. It was the first time in recorded history that the rulers were 'civilsed' in the true sense, being tolerant, open-minded, and just. Many other religions were allowed and encouraged to flourish within the empire too. For instance, Cyrus gave the persecuted Jews a home, and let them flourish. Yet, all this never gets mentioned in history. The world started and ended with the Roman Empire. And films like 300 don't do anything to help this. Now I understood where the two-winged symbol so common in ancient Egypt came from.
The beginning of the book is a bit tedious, but later chapters are engrossing and deeply moving (for a Parsi reader). He explores Iran, and visits sites of the great civilization. There are still Zoroastrians living in Iran, and practicing the faith. He visits the ancient sites of Cyrus and Darius, analyses and links Iranian art and sculpture to other times, cultures and places. Even in ancient days, it is astonishing to know the amount of cross-cultural exchange that happened. Finally, someone enlightened me about the beginnings and significance of the festival of Noruz, still celebrated worldwide. In spite of centuries of Islamic rule, Noruz (Navroze) is celebrated in a very Zoroastrian way in Iran, as it has been since the beginning. Infact, Muslims in Iran are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, though they might not be very well-informed about it.
The author ponders on the beginnings of Zoroastrianism, which was in the Bronze Age. We can imagine what people were like in medieval times, but its hard to imagine life in that era. What was life like then? Did the same things move people? And what was the prophet Zarathushtra himself like? These are questions that will always remain unanswered. However his teachings, thoughts and philosophies are relevant even today. Externally life changes, but internally humans remain the same, and the same issues of ethics, morals, and meaning of life plague us since the beginning of time. The author set out to find this ancient and all-but-lost culture and religion. He was looking for signs, symbols, places and events, but in the end, he is led to Zarathustra's core teachings. That is the thread that lives on inside people, that is the thread that connects us to people of the Bronze Age, and connects us to Zarathustra himself.
Watched Freedom Writers a couple of days back. An inspiring movie about the power of teachers, and how one person who really makes an effort can create such a difference in their immediate circle. There is no substitute for passion, drive, initiative and going beyond the call of duty. It's hard even for the rigid system to resist that. And of course, a teacher is so much more than a teacher. A good teacher is also taught by the students. It is a movie about the cathartic effect writing has, and how it lets people come to terms with the hardships in their lives, and move beyond them. Hilary Swank (perfect casting) is the idealistic, strong-willed, and enthusiastic school teacher, who won't let anything (not even her marriage) stop her in her way of actually 'educating' minds. She makes the classroom much more than a classroom. Like any great teacher she takes learning beyond the book. Her greatest gift is that she doesn't take no for an answer. And few teachers have the ability to hold up a mirror for their students' minds. For what is education but to know yourself before we can know more from books?
Freedom Writers is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell, a white teacher in Long Beach, USA. The movie reminds us of one the world's worst mistakes — World War II — and its good to be reminded of that. Just so that it is never repeated. Freedom Writers is definitely worth a watch. There are always people for whom wealth (and other such trappings) are secondary, and they have the fire to blaze a path even in the darkest forest. There is nothing as unstoppable as an idea whose time has come, or a person with a real mission.
To lead the people, walk behind them. Lao Tzu