Author: Julia Alvarez
Genre: Non-fiction historical novel
Tags: Inspiring. Heart-breaking. True.
This is a gripping account of the incredibly brave Mirabel sisters who lived under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The story is told in the different voices of the sisters, moving seamlessly from first to third person as needed. At times we read of experiences typical to young women anywhere, with light-hearted episodes such as teenage crushes. As they grow up, we read of the non-typical terror of living under a dictatorship, and the personal difficulties they face as women and citizens. The slow rebellion that always boils beneath the surface creates an atmosphere of terrible suspense. Their country’s circumstances made these women into brave, inspiring national heroes.
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 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.
The Wikileaks logo is a world melting/leaking into another world. It is also an hourglass. Great symbolism on both fronts, as the world is changing fast, melting into something else, and Wikileaks might hopefully be part of that change. The tables have been turned. Since it is a veritable time bomb too, the hourglass. Strange thing is neither of the two globes show the Americas (for a change). Usually it's our part of the world that is chosen to face away from the viewer.
We don't know how long it will be before the thing explodes, something happens (God forbid) to Julian Assange, or governments get control of it (God and the Devil forbid that!). As of now it survives, or maybe even thrives. It's almost the biggest thing since Gutenberg or the Internet. There is nothing as exciting, enabling and empowering than 'secret' information suddenly being available. Are we a voyeuristic species? Probably yes, looking at the amount of 'forbidden' matter floating around the Internet, from porn to state secrets to conspiracy theories. But if Governments claim to be 'for the people', then what do they have to hide? Secrecy is the mother of suspicion.
George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
17–19 December 2010
National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India
The last weekend was an interesting and informative one with the 14th conference of Vision Plus being held for the first time in a developing country, and whats more, right on home ground! Yes, it was organised by IIDj (Institute for Information Design Japan) and the NID (National Institute of Design) played host making it a great experience for all. There were numerous speakers from all over the globe and India, and the topics were diverse, ranging from mobile technology, to signage, to interfaces, to medicine packaging, to rural communication. There were eye-opening discussions, and I came away re-thinking the entire role of graphic design, and the growing importance of information design. Too many things around us, in fact the very important things around us are badly or inappropriately designed. It is an irony that we live in world where the Nike logo and packaging will be perfectly designed, but your bank form will be a test of patience and eyesight. Millions are spent on communication that will sell, but too little is invested in communication that will aid.
Overall, some of the things I came away with are:
1) Text is as important as design (yay!). This was something I personally had felt since a long time, since I joined NID. The words that are forming part of your communication, be it online, in a leaflet, or on a strip of Crocin are important. Because people WILL read. They won't get the information they need just from admiring your pretty fonts. Re-writing the text, and re-structuring the text is as important, and in fact the first stage in providing a solution. Good design is not enough when the text itself is confusing or unclear. Of course good design really, really helps in communication, once the text is coherent.
This was reaffirmed time and again in Vision Plus, especially by certain presenters such as Karel van der Waarde and Alex Tyers. Karel can der Waarde showed us how medicine packaging is mostly unreadable, and inaccessible even in Europe (surprise surprise!). Often pamphlets or some kind of literature is handed out with medicines in Europe, and these are hard to read. Even the text itself is confusing. Medicines have numerous complexities and layers such as one can't consume a certain drug if one has one of the ten conditions mentioned. This is often where text appears to repeat itself or get redundant.
2) Intuition is not enough. Too often designers tend to think that they know best, but as designers we have to go out there and understand users time and again. When we think something will work, we are just taking a personal stand point, and are missing out on hundreds of voices and opinions which may provide some enlightening insights. Design is not about personal choice and preference.
3) Research—design balance. A great question put forward by Karel van der Waarde (I think) in the end was how much should we as designers research, where do we draw the line, how do we walk that fine line of research and design? As Professor Ranjan (of NID) summed up, there is evidence-based design and design-based evidence, and they both are on two sides of a river, which needs to be bridged.
4) Design is focussed on what looks good rather that what works. Many people expressed this point, among them Jay Rutherford and Alex Tyers. Jay Rutherford rightly said that a standardly educated graphic designer tends to worry about how it will look rather than how it will work. This is the crux of the problem and the reason we encounter so much lousy design around us today. Most people (including many designers in India) think that if it looks beautiful its enough, even if the user can't read the 9pt type. This fascination with tiny typography actually rules out a huge reader base of forty-plus people, and those with weak eyesight. This can be accepted in a fashion magazine but not on heart medication, or insurance policies.
5) Design as a term is changing meaning daily. Today design may be enabling users to create their own solutions through workshops or other means. It could be helping people create their own tools to improve their life. Design is no longer 'giving' a 'solution'. Problems are being solved in new ways everyday.
6) You can't parachute into another culture to 'give' design solutions and parachute out. Jay Rutherford pointed out that too often Western designers think they can land in developing countries, tell people what to do, and leave. This, according to him, is a bad way of doing things. And I agree. Its not that Western designers cannot help developing countries, but they need to first spend months if not years in understanding the context, as it is so different and varied. An audience member rightly summed it up as 'we have to understand that we don't understand everything about other cultures'.
Mr. Rutherford explained how information design in India is such a complex thing. Take the domain of road signage. Presently they are haphazard, and inconsistent. There is no system in short. We actually need city signage in three languages — Hindi, English and the local language. Now again, which order should they be in, and how large each should be is a matter of debate. Mr. Rutherford had a very keen observation about our Indian airports which set me thinking. He noticed, while in Bangalore airport, that the English signage was much larger than the Hindi and Kannada signage which immediately followed it. He was wondering why this was, and indeed it is strange that our own local languages have secondary importance. Probably we are one of the very few countries in the world to do that. Is it the colonial hangover? Is it because most people who can afford air travel are also predominantly English readers?
7) Culture and context are everything. Lakshmi Murthy and Tarun Deep Girdher showed us how important understanding a local culture is. And how rural India is a different world, of which we urban designers know naught. In rural India, the simplest of devices can work most effectively. I especially loved Lakshmi Murthy's solution for the pregnant women in rural Rajasthan. These women do not eat a proper diet during pregnancy because of many myths and habits. Women often eat last, and they eat left-overs. They sometimes believe things such as the baby needs space to grow, so don't fill that space with food, and so on. After educating the women on the importance of food, she has a simple tool to remind them to eat a well-rounded meal. She shows them an Indian flag, the tricolour. One can lift each colour strip to see the pictures of food below. For example, under the orange band there are all orange foods, under the white all white foods, and under green the green foods. This reminds women if 'have they eaten all the colours today?' This was information design at its best. A simple solution, easy to create, replicate, relate to and understand.
8) Can there be universal icons? Most probably not, precisely because of the above point. We may take some symbols for granted, such as the tick and the cross, which most of the educated world recognizes as right and wrong, or do and don't. Tarun and Lakshmi showed us how, in rural India however, the cross is seen as two bamboo sticks, or a kind of stand used in rural India. The object represented below the 'cross' maybe perceived by a rural audience as being placed on the stand. What's more, the tick mark maybe seen as a hatha-walla lota, a utensil used to serve water in India. So icons are not as powerful as designers like to think. In fact, they can add to confusion. In a very different context, Alex Tyers reaffirmed this same point. Even in Australia, a more homogeneous society, icons can be perceived differently by different people, and so he has not used them in some of his work where communication is effectively achieved through good typography. Users spend more time trying to figure out your icon, or worse, they interpret it wrongly.
9) Typo, typo, typo. Strangely, a lot of designers are averse to typography, and I have heard a lot of industrial designers comment on how it is over-hyped. Actually, one doesn't notice typography unless it's really bad, and then it's mostly too late. Good typography aids design much more than even I imagined. And this point was reflected in many people's presentations. Alex Tyers showed us a lot of work, which used typography effectively for really good communication. He started the presentation with 'You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.' Barack Obama said this regarding something else, but it applies to design as well. Some important points that Tyers brought up were (and I am quoting his presentation here)
a) To use a design effectively, a person must be able to see how to use the information it contains. In other words, the design should aid the user in finding what she/he wants.
b)Think of design as a series of tasks a person must be able to perform rather than layout, typography and aesthetics. This is specially true for graphic designers, as too often we focus strongly on the latter and forget about what the user will need. I experienced exactly this while doing the Parsee book as well. It helps when you think 'What will the user want to do/read first?'
c) The tasks relate to navigation, attention, and reading comprehension.
d) People can visualise how to use information when
— It is all located in one place
— It is structured around tasks
— It is in the order that people would use it
e) This approach must be backed by
— Writing information to support tasks
— Typsetting that provides distinct voices for different people. This is really useful way to think about type. Often I struggled with the 'what font should I use for this?' syndrome. To imagine your text as having a voice is a great tool. What is it doing, giving an order, asking a question, pointing you some place, or providing an answer?
— Editing out any distraction on areas that have a visualizing function (back to the universal icons point)
10) Is the design liberating? And finally, it was Shilpa Das who asked if the design is liberating for disabled people. This is a very valid point, and it can apply to design in general too. Sometimes design hampers us, and what was meant to aid, becomes a hindrance and a source of frustration. She said we have to 'listen to disabled people's voices'. We have to listen to everyone's voices, especially those of the disabled, women, children and the elderly.
All in all, I learnt a lot from the various presenters, and have only noted things most pertinent to the field I work in. Unfortunately I missed part of day one, and was not able to attend each presentation. Have some videos which I will be posting soon.
Information design is crucial, and has new challenges in a culture as diverse as India.
Many thanks and congratulations to Rupesh Vyas, Andreas Schneider and the entire Vision Plus team.