Saturday, December 31, 2016

Patriotism through parody - my review of Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel

I consider Shashi Tharoor to be one of India's finest contemporary minds. His genius shines through in his every enterprise - be it oratory, writing or political commentary. I recently discovered another arrow in his intellectual quiver, comedy. The Great Indian Novel is a work of comedic genius - a grafting of the Woodhousian tradition of wry, hyperbolic humor over loud and noisy 20th century India. For fodder, Tharoor takes two of India's grandest stories, the Mahabharata and the Indian Freedom Struggle and fuses them into an irreverent comedic masterpiece. The idea to merge these two drastically different stories is a spark of pure magic. In retrospect, these tales possess remarkable synergy that makes this fusion very natural and spontaneous.

In the grandest sense, both these stories ponder the 'Idea of India'. The Mahabharata asks the question whether Bharat is the land of the usurping Kauravas or the Dharmic Pandavas. The Freedom Struggle asks whether India can aspire to be more than a grubby gem on Imperial Britain's greedy crown. And yet, neither of these tales is black-and-white. They are filled with morally compromised characters and possibly adharmic actions that stain every victory with a whiff of scandal. Far too often 21st century India is tempted to ignore these complexities and impose a binary cleanliness to these multifaceted stories. Tharoor picks out these gray undertones like a blood hound and lays them out to dry.

Tharoor's characters are surprisingly well-etched for a work of comedy. Prominent characters from the Mahabharata are paired with ones from the freedom struggle. Bhisma is Mahaguru Gangaji, the enema-loving sage on the hunt for absolute Truth. Dhritrastra is the favored Fabian Socialist disciple of the Mahaguru. Pandu is the Mahaguru's spurned disciple who flirts with fascists out of love for his country. Priya Duryodhani is Dhritrastra's daughter whose political philosophy takes from the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove, sometimes discarding the glove altogether. Karna is the aristocratic, scotch-loving lawyer who convinces the Mullahs of his religious pedigree and carves out the Islamic state of Karnistan out of India. The five Pandavas reflect different aspects of the Indian story. Yudhistir is India's obsession with the notion of Dharma. Bhim is India's kludgy, but immensely powerful army. Arjun is the blessed, but perennially conflicted Indian media. Nakul is India's bureaucracy for whom life begins and ends on quintupled forms. Sahadev is the consummate Indian diplomat, capable of examining every aspect of a problem without ever coming close to solving it. Tharoor manages to make fun of all these characters while simultaneously bringing out their best traits. This book deserves to be read and re-read for the complexity Tharoor imbues into these characters.

As much as I enjoyed the book for its humor, I was forced to ask myself whether this book will get published without controversy in 2016 India? I doubt it. Superficially this book mocks too many of India's vaunted religious and political figures. Tharoor's subtextual or contextual praise for these characters will not be appreciated by many. There is a high chance of the saffron brigade using this book to hammer another dent on the Constitution's 'inconvenient' freedom of speech guarantees. And in the current political climate, I wonder whether the pillars of Indian democracy will do the right thing and protect this work. There is too much political mileage to be obtained from letting a prominent opposition MP get roasted by 'righteous' offended masses. Perhaps it's a good thing that this book is less well known than it deserves to be.

To get back to the book, Tharoor sprinkles it with ruminating passages that ask moral and philosophical questions, primarily through the book's orator V.Vji. I found the last few pages to be its most introspective moments. Yudhistir is about to die on top of a mountain and gets repeatedly tested by his cosmic father, Dharma. Yudhistir successfully clears each test but is left empty-handed at the end. He then wonders on the whole point of these dharmic tests. What is the point of Dharma if it's sole purpose is testing for its existence in every deed? Tharoor leaves this question unanswered to some degree. I think it's the right question to be raised. India and Indians love raising the specter of Dharma in everything. Dharma is almost a kitchen-sink for our every action and inaction; remember the doctrine of strategic restraint? I consider questioning the usefulness of dharma to be a most dharmic rite.

To summarize, I learned more about my country from this work of comedy than from all my school history textbooks combined. I urge every Indian to grab a copy at the earliest.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My review of Papillon

Papillon -- the semi-autobiographical account of Henri Charriere's escape from a French penal colony -- was a rage when it first released in 1969. It had a little something for everyone; a swashbuckling hero's escape from a corrupt regime's clutches, set in exotic tropical locales. True to his name, Papillon rises above his inner demons like a delicate butterfly, seeking redemption. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Fitness goals

Since it's been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, I thought I might share my current fitness goals with all of you. I am a strong believer in expressing your goals to as many people as you can -- your friends can be a great source of motivation and they will be a lot more accommodating of your efforts to achieve them.

As some of you might know, last year I struggled with severe cubital tunnel syndrome on both hands for close to 5 months, during which I had to completely stop all resistance training and cardio. Apart from the occasional stint on the elliptic trainer, I had a mostly sedentary life. I tried to keep my diet in check, but my weight slowly rose from ~170lb in November '15 to 181 lb in May '16. 

With my cubital issues resolved, I restarted weight training and cardio in mid-May. The key was to start slow. My strength had decreased by roughly 50% on all major lifts and my endurance had dropped by roughly 40%. I began with three days of full-body training and 2 hours of medium-intensity cardio a week. After a few weeks, I changed to a Push-Pull-Legs-Rest cycle, with 3-4 hours of medium/high intensity cardio a week. Even though my initial goal was to simply get active again; about two weeks back, I decided to start a gradual cut. I estimate my initial body fat % to be around 15-16%, I plan to drop to 10% by end of August '16, while trying to retain my strength as much as I can. A highlight is that my strength rose rapidly within the first few weeks and I'm currently at 0.8x of my peak on most movements. My endurance is still pretty poor, but I am making forward progress, which is the important thing.

The primary determinant of a cut's success is your diet. You can always out-eat any workout. My TDEE is around 2785 Cal, so I started my cut at 2450 Cal a day, with a macro split of roughly 50% carbs, 30% protein and 20% fat. I was able to actually gain strength on this diet, but my weight loss was too slow, less than a pound a week -- very disappointing indeed. It is my hypothesis that I was retaining too much water, possibly due to dehydration (it's a very hot summer in Madison) or excessive carbs. Since last week, I have reduced my budget to 2250 Cal, with the reduction primarily coming from carbs. I'm seeing good progress with my body composition, though the weight scale is still a bit stubborn. I plan to stick to this budget for two more weeks and then cut another 100 Cal if need be.

I'm a relatively big guy and for my fitness goals, I try to eat 0.8-1g of protein per lb of bodyweight, which means trying to cram 145-180g of protein each day. This is becoming a huge challenge with my vegetarian lifestyle. Apart from eggs, all other vegetarian protein sources are calorie-rich, which blows apart my calorie budget. Hence, my reliance on eggs and natural whey powder has gone up drastically during this cut. I'm starting to believe that a vegetarian diet is not ideal for a cut, though it works fine for a clean bulk.

Outside of losing body fat, my cardio goal is to run 12 miles a week consistently by August '16, with a lot of focus on stretching and recovery. I am recovering from a mild case of shin splints, but my new running shoes from New Balance are working wonders with my running form. I hope to run a lot more this summer, coz the heart is the most important muscle of them all!

That's a quick summary of my current fitness goals, I will keep you updated on my progress.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Is a plant, an animal?

One of the objections against Veganism that my last post evoked was that 'plants have feelings too and that Vegans are shying away from the ethical implications of killing plants'. I think that's a very valid question and deserves to be examined. I took a few days to ponder on this question and at the end of it, I stand by my last post's conclusion - "It is unethical to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to a living being. However, to survive one must do what one must."

The implications of the second part of my statement should be clear - if you have no other option to survive,  apart from eating meat, you should eat meat. Not doing so would lead to wilful starvation which is a form of violence against oneself.

Now let's evaluate if eating plants is subject to the same ethical compulsions as eating animals.