The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer

I stood in a queue to get a signed copy of “The Art of Stillness”. This was not a fiction or a crime thriller. Pico Iyer, the author, was an ordinary looking gentleman. But the topic, the art of staying still and watch life flow by, he dealt in his book is extraordinary. In this fast paced world of information revolution, where a person is always in touch with external world through mobile phone, e-mail and internet, an individual is moving away from his own self.

To discover and be in touch with his own self, Pico Iyer quit his job with Time Magazine in New York and stayed in Kyoto, Japan for two years. By his own admission, author did not own a car or a TV and accessed e-mail once daily. So he was not driven like most others like him. He was taking charge of his own life. The author did not describe what he did in Japan. It appeared such a slowing down gave him a new perspective on life and made him happy.

In six essays in his book, author describes how more and more people are paying attention to staying still. Modern internet companies like Google encourages yoga and meditation for new ideas and advices e-mail, mobile phone and internet free weekends. An US marine talks about beneficial effect of meditation on job alertness.

Celebrity singer and music director Leonard Cohen spends day and night sitting still in a Zen Buddhist monastry up on San Gabriel mountain in California. Cohen had access to all pleasures that life can offer. Yet, when asked for reason, he responded “what would I be rather doing? Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs and buy more expensive wine?” Cohen, by his own admission, had found “real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

“The Art of Stillness” is a powerful book. It empowers its readers. Without being preachy, the author points towards immense resource that is within us, yet a capacity that remains untapped. The idea of stillness is not novel. In all religious disciplines, there is advice to spend time in front of resident deity in the morning and evening. Chanting mantra is nothing but staying in the present and keeping a distance from daily activities, good or bad, for a while. Sceptics will say, problems do not go away if one stays away. It is true, but the person becomes bigger than the problem, if a distance can be created between the observed and the observed.


Exam Pressure : We Need a Change of Mindset

Final examinations are approaching. Homes are turning into a battleground between parents and their kids who are about to write examination. My home is no exception.  My daughter who in ninth standard, refuses to study as per her mother’s guideline. No amount of persuasion could bring daughter and mother on the same plane. Mother would not give up her right, despite entreaty to give more space to daughter. Daughter, all of fourteen, will not cede her ground. She would say, ” more mother pushes me, more I shall not study.” To add insult to injury, she adds, “I shall end my life, and blame you for my fate.” 

We did not take her up on her challenge. Question obviously arises, are we becoming a sissy parents, who cannot control their fourteen year old? Or are we becoming a monster parent, who drive their kids to suicide? The answer is not that simple.

It is true Indian parents are still trapped into a mindset that takes pride if kids become a doctor or  an engineer. May be it will raise our social status. May be our kids will earn a lot of money. May be his / her degree will fetch a good life partner and hopefully a lot of dowry.

It is also possible that our own unfulfilled desires of not been able to reach the high pedestals of academic excellence, we push our kids to achieve them on our behalf.  

From a parents perspective, one also has to understand the socio-economic reality of India. Unless a kid studies, and studies really hard, how would he/she get into a good college with a good course? Consider this,

  • In this day and age, students are scoring as high as 99.7% in CBSE examinations. In top colleges, even after third round, merit list does not come below 90%. Admission to engineering and medical schools is equally cut throat.
  • For appoximately 28000 seats in engineering colleges, IIT and NIT included, nearly 10 lac students write exams. Odds are 30 : 1 for a student.  IIT students have to write an additional advanced JEE.  Nearly, two lac students compete for 10,000 IIT seats, of which one lac are from general category.
  • Similarly, nearly 10 lac students write NEET exam for admission into medical colleges, which have 56000 seats.
  • There are many private engineering and medical colleges. Their fee is at least 5 to 10 times that of fee charged by a government college. Besides, quality of education in all private colleges is not as great. Many private colleges also demand a capitation fee or donation.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to understand that parents need a change of mindset. Other than breaking our heads against terrible odds, of getting admission into a medical and engineering school, we should explore other options. Believe me there are many potentially lucrative academic opportunities exist in India.

Take for example a course in Hotel Management. When I had suggested this for my daughter, there was a collective sigh of ridicule in family. Many relatives suggested that I wanted my daughter to be a waitress. Hotel Management is much more than waiting tables. One can be chef, one can be administrator, one can be house keeper, one can be at front desk, one can be a bartender, among others. A big hotel is a like big city on its own. It has so many possibilities. If this does not satisfy a person, he/she can even start his/her own joint.

Indian government has plan to create many smart cities. So hospitality industry is bound to grow. There is a shortage of good affordable hotels, there is shortage of good eateries that highlight great culinary varieties of India at an affordable price.

Most of us want a salaried job. With increasing population, with increasing job reservation for different categories, salaried jobs are going to be few and far between. In this scenario, opening one’s own operation is a good idea. Any day, own operation is much more fulfilling than working for someone else. We need a different mindset and be ready to accept new challenges.

There are many such job oriented courses being offered by different universities. Those who are not academically oriented, should opt for such courses and try to stand on their own feet. At the same time,  it is important to be aware that no carreer, be it a salaried job or self employment, can take off without dedication and discipline.  Students need not study always, but they must cultivate a discipline in life and know what they want. 

Jashoda, A Novel by Kiran Nagarkar

I read two novels by Kiran Nagarkar- God’s Little Soldier and Cuckold. I loved both of them. So this time while I was at Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, I picked up Jashoda by Kiran Nagarkar. I wanted the novel to be signed by the author. But for two days I was there, author was not scheduled to speak in any session. I am not sure, if he attended the festival after I left.

Based in rural Rajasthan, story of Jashoda revolves around three main characters. A village woman named Jashoda. Her self-centered, scheming, corrupt husband Sangram Singh. And, Pawan, Jashoda’s obedient and academically brilliant son.

Jashoda struggles to manage her home in Kantagiri, which is perennially drought affected, and ends up on streets of Mumbai. Her struggle to keep her family and her self in one piece, one can relate to. Ultimately Jashoda evolves as a business woman, who starts an eatery in her native place. Story of Jashoda’s evolution is realistic.

Sangram Singh, as Jashoda’s husband, is a selfish man. A casteist, a hypocrite and a greedy criminal. Sangram Singh schemes and acquires property of his employer, an ex-royal, and eventually got rid of him. Sangram Singh is well painted as a male chauvinist.

Story of Pawan is somewhat unrealistic. No doubt there are many brilliant students who are struggling to get a break. But to land Pawan in the USA, with an academic position and an American wife is a bit too much.

Over all a good casual reading.  The book has a beautiful yellow cover. It reminds me of bright sun baked landscape of Rajasthan and western India.



Padmavat, A Regressive Film?

After a lot of protest, threat mongering, some violence and vandalism, Padmavati was finally released in UP, Haryana and rest of India. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh film was not released. States where movie was released saw footfall of viewers. So much so, in the first week of release, film is believed to have grossed 149 crore rupees.

Despite popular appreciation, the film still faced attack. This time from a member of film fraternity. Ms. Swara Bhaskar, known for her left leaning feminist outlook, wrote a very scathing letter to Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Ms. Bhaskar described the film to be regressive, a film that glorifies jauhar and Ms. Bhaskar felt she was reduced to a vagina. In the furious debate that followed, many supporters of Ms. Bhaskar’s point of view also argued that glorification of jauhar indicates a patriarchal mindset. A woman is being denied her right to life after being raped by a man. By glorifying jauhar, we are potraying women to be weak who were not courageous enough to be captured and tortured.

While Ms. Bhaskar is entitled to her opinion. Was Ms. Bhaskar angry at escapades and infatuation of Alauddin Khilji with women or was she angry with Bhansali that he had shown jauhar? It is important to understand that Mr. Bhansali is telling a story. If the story writer claims a lead character embraced fire to protect her honor, Mr. Bhansali cannot change the story line.

I think, there is some confusion between jauhar, sati and rape. It must be clarified that jauhar used to happen in medeval India. Rajput women would jump into fire to avoid being captured by invading army. When a decision to commit jauhar is made, most likely no male member of woman’s family is alive. Woman risked being captured and used as sex slave in the harem of conqueror. As per historical documents several jauhars had happened at Chittor and Ranthambhor royal families in 14th and 16th centuries. There might have been  a few other jauhars in other parts of India.

It will be unfair to brand ladies committing themselves to Jauhar as cowards. It would take a lot of courage for anyone to walk or jump into blazing fire. Compared to Jauhar, it may be much easier to submit to your conquerors. Many others had chosen to do the same. 

In contrast to jauhar, sati used to be a practice where a woman would join her husband in funeral pyre. In many cases, relatives of the woman used to persuade her to commit sati to grab her family property and wealth. Raja Ram Mohar Roy had fought agains thte practice of sati. The practice was made into a criminal offence during British rule. In modern India it is a crime to practice sati.

While sati can be said to be coercive, jauhar used to be a self made decision. Question remains was it a right decision? Should a woman not chose to live rather than embracing fire? I think, every individual should have right to end his or life at a point when it is felt death is better than living a life of dishonor. A similar debate also happened to free Ms Aruna Shanbhag from her body, that was in a state of coma for nearly three decades. Indian laws do not permit mercy killing, but a few mature democracies in the world allow mercy killing. In ancient India people at a certain stage in life will renounce society and live a life of ascetic and wait for death. Even today members of Jain community embrace death voluntarily. At the end of the day it is my life, I should have some say how I live and if I do not want to live. It may be difficult to understand psychology of people in medieval India using standards of 21st century.



  1. At The End of Your Magnum Opus… I Felt Reduced to a … – The Wire

  2. Jauhar – Wikipedia