Books & Reading, Writing

The Road to Leadership with Hercule Poirot

As Agatha Christie’s world-famous detective turns 100 this year, it’s worth taking a leaf from his book for some real world applications too. This article appears in The WKND Magazine, June 2020.

The quarantine life has affected people differently. Some have taken to baking, others to exercising and some are exploring latent talents. I don’t fall into any of those categories but I have binged my way through potentially all of Netflix’s crime shows and was left with what I call, whodunit withdrawal symptoms. There is always something about crime shows and not knowing the unknown that is intriguing and stimulating to the mind.

While contemporary shows really refine the genre and elevate it to a new level, I still love going back to the ones I grew up with. I know I am dating myself here but, shows like Street Hawk, Perry Mason, Columbo and Agatha Christie’s Poirot series with their red herrings and high-stakes intrigues were the original ‘binge-worthy’ shows way before the notion of bingeing became part of popular culture.

It worked well for me that life in lockdown also coincides with the 100th anniversary of Poirot, which has given me a chance to binge my way through David Suchet’s perfectly helmed episodes.

I started reading the Poirot novels when I was around 10, and as I grew up, I began to understand his character better. But re-watching the episodes against the backdrop of a global pandemic has been something of a revelation. For weeks, I have been discussing with colleagues and friends the importance of leadership and leadership styles; and while there is potentially every possible style currently displayed on the world’s stage, Poirot too (it occurred to me) shows us some characteristics that are perhaps more important today than they have ever been.

Poirot prioritised relationships and deep listening. He embodied the saying ‘To see clearly, listen more’ and so, in many of his cases, it is simple words, an off-hand remark, or a turn of phrase that actually leads him to answers. It is his understanding of human nature, tones and gestures, expressions and body language that helps him connect with people.

Poirot, as I recently observed, was also a spiritual man. In The Triangle at Rhodes, it was his observance of spiritual practices and deep-seated notions of right and wrong that led him to find and prosecute the murderer. As long as the guilty person was not identified and punished, he believed a shadow would hang over the lives of everyone else. Poirot believed closure was vital and that murder was never justified.

In Lord Edgeware Dies, Poirot read upside down during the case to understand the killer’s mindset and, through the series, comes across as someone who constantly upscales his skills. Here was a man who knew himself well and understood that expertise was not optional. Studies suggest that the best leaders know their domains well and while Poirot was by no means perfect, he was humble enough to learn and practise what he did not know.

As we all come to terms with current events, it is perhaps an opportune time to look inward at our own leadership characteristics. It is also the perfect time to reflect on who we choose to lead us. True leaders put people first, prioritise relationships and have the ability to inspire, to take others along on their journey, and be credible. They are able to make people sit up and listen, then follow – not by shouting the odds, but through the power of logical persuasion and a clear sense of purpose.

How wonderful it is that, in fiction, we are able to find a poignant and timely message for the real world. The climate of our times demands leaders who are not just intelligent, but wise; leaders who formulate strategies that target the greater good; leaders who are fair. Poirot, without trying to, can remind us that the more we choose such leaders, the better off we will be.

Books & Reading

The 40 Rules of Love

I  always love to read about a book within a book and so ‘The 40 rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak with its parallel narratives  started off so promisingly. The contemporary story is about an unhappily married Jewish homemaker named Ella living in Northampton, USA.  The second narrative of this novel, ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ is actually about the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, who is a mystic Sufi and Jalaluddin Rumi, the now famous Sufi scholar.

The fact that the novel catapults the reader from past into the present and vice versa, from the world of Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Turkey to the world of Ella Rubenstein in 21st America, is deeply symbolic. The fluidity gives the novel a surreal timeless quality, where even the characters from the 13th century seem relatable today. This is where Shafak is brilliant, for this is an underlying message that Rumi and Tabriz’s message of love is not and cannot be limited to encapsulations of time and space.

Bear with my contrived analogy but if Shafaks’ works (the 3 that I have read) were compared to a box of Turkish Delights the delicious and beautifully crafted ‘Three Daughters of Eve’ would remain my favorite while ‘The 40 Rules…’ will have to come in third place after ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’. Unlike the historical storyline, Ella’s narrative is limited to one point of view—hers—and it’s a fairly dull place to be in repeatedly.  Ella’s story proved to be too predictable and her transformation almost expected, because Shafak rarely allows you to see her life from any other vantage point. When you compare it to the multiple voices you hear in in the Konya pages, you begin to see that as a disadvantage.

That being said, the novel is a mastery of words – whether thinly veiled symbols, masterful wordplay, clunky dialogue or fat clichés… the pages are a Bibliophiles delight and Shafak’s attempt to illustrate how and why Rumi continues to exert such a powerful hold over many readers even today is skillful and beautiful.

Now that I am done reading the novel, it’s just a matter of time before I pick up the complete works of the great Rumi and perhaps some more of Shafak herself who is undoubtedly my favorite author this summer.

Eight books down…I think I might just have enough time for one more.

Books & Reading

Ghachar Ghochar

I have just finished reading @VivekShanbhag0’s #GhacharGhochar in one sitting even though I wasn’t intending to. I was astounded by how it progressed and at first my only grouse was that some closure would have been good for the story. I hate open endings and the uncertainty of not knowing if I am in or out, I dislike hazy scenes but somehow this works well in #GhacharGhochar.

In a handful of deftly drawn strokes, Shanbhag constructs an amazing commentary on class, gender and urban life without ever getting too close to any of these topics. Also the pages discussing ants (regardless of any metaphorical intentions) are just perfect, and will ring true to anyone who has ever lived in India.

Brevity is the best part of Shanbhag’s storytelling and it left me with a familiar feeling of awe mixed with wonder, like I experienced after reading Mansfield’s ‘The Ox’ and ‘The Fly’ for the first time. The way they re both able to say poignant things in such a seemingly simple way is testament to their literary genius.

The splendour of this work doesn’t lie as much in the plot as it does in the narrative and the way in which the characters reveal themselves. The novella is a great look at contemporary life in Indian homes as people learn to walk the tightrope of tradition and modernity.

While this is Shanbhag’s first foray into English writing, I am quite certain it will not be his last.

Books & Reading

Three Daughters of Eve

Sometimes a book comes along that speaks boldly to our times. As it chips away at the brick and mortar, the ideas contained in it overwhelms and perhaps unsettles, forcing readers to sit back and confront truths that plague modern society. ‘Three Daughters of Eve’, Elif Shafak’s novel, is that kind of book. My 5th read since the summer began and undoubtedly, my favorite.

It is scary how polarized humanity is in our time; where every faction boasts of the certainty of its own ideas and beliefs and religion continues to be at the center of all the raging debates be it cow vigilantism or equal rights. The novel, constructed in elegant and poignant prose makes complicated theological and political questions readable and relevant. It does not matter where you are or what the political climate of your nation, the ideas transcend boundaries of several kinds and they do so, unapologetically. The things the book has to say and the way it says them are extraordinary.

‘Three Daughters of Eve’ is an intense, discursive and absorbing novel about three middle-eastern women, each studying at Oxford, with dramatically contrasting views on faith and personal identity. A spiritually ambiguous female lead character guides us through parallel stories set in Istanbul and Oxford till at least the two come together seamlessly through her soul-searching and persistent questioning.

I will not give away the plot as I am hoping that some of you will pick this book off a shelf or download it onto your devices to read it when you can, but the central character ‘Peri’, is so well fleshed out and wonderfully presented, I could not help bonding with her from the first time our paths crossed. Peri defies the stereotype that Muslim characters are sometimes relegated to and her own quest for answers to questions around her conflicting ideas of faith and identity is the arterial idea of the novel.

 “God was a maze without map, a circle without a center; the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that never seemed to fit together. If only she could solve this mystery, she could bring meaning to senselessness, reason to madness, order to chaos, and perhaps, too, she could learn to be happy.” 

Having spent time in both Istanbul and Oxford I welcomed the chance to immerse myself in their sturdy presence in the story. They are as much central characters in this novel as the people are and Shafak writes about them in beautifully vivid prose all the time her love for the complexities of her homeland strikingly evident.

By the time I got to the end, the novel had pushed me to consider so many ideas – life, love, friendship, faith, God, humanity, forgiveness and revenge but instead of closure and answers, it left me with more questions than I had when I began reading.

How well do we know ourselves?

How perfect do we think we are?

How would I respond in a moral crisis like the one Peri is faced with?

How exact is our self image?

How hard is it to say sorry?

I’m certainly going to raid Shafak’s back catalogue after this fantastic introduction to her beautiful writing. If you happen to read the novel I would love to her your views.

Ever since I turned the last page, I have been experiencing that familiar sensation you get after reading a fantastic book. That intuitive feeling that something within you has moved, been affected, changed perhaps? How wonderful is the power of 366 pages of parchment paper and some spectrum ink.

Books & Reading, Family <3

The voice in which she read to me…

Tomorrow is ‘Mother’s Day’ in some parts of the world and so, at 7:00 am I’ll get on the phone, dial the only number I know by heart and wait for her familiar voice to greet me. I can gauge mum’s mood instantly, it is instinctual. Some day’s she’s excited to tell me the latest family gossip, on others, her tone is reflective and poignant. I can tell what my mother is thinking, before she has gotten through two lines of conversation.

My mother does so many voices!

Mum has a morning voice, a voice to call out my dog’s name, a voice for my dad, a shy voice, a ‘dinner’s ready and I am waiting’ voice that can get my brother and I out and about in under 30 seconds, an ‘I said so’ voice she rarely uses, a voice reserved for family and a voice that says she means business. My mother is voice-over artist waiting to be discovered.

But of all the voices my mother does, one of my favorites will always be the voice in which she read to me.

By the time I was four or five I was dreaming of pirates and forest sagas. By middle school, I was listening intently to her voice, guiding me as I climbed the ladder at a local books store to retrieve my weekend stash of Perry Mason novels. Sometimes she read me fiction, most times she read from her Bible. Planting permanent truths in my mind and in my heart.

I’m grateful for this childhood experience for many reasons. Having mum read to me meant that I could greet a large number of the stories and ideas that I encountered throughout my schooling as old friends. I had a frame of reference for things which would otherwise have been incomprehensible. It means that today, I get an additional layer of nostalgia when I see an Earl Stanley Gardner paperback sitting on the corner of a library shelf.

Because of mum, I have chunks of The Psalms and Paulo Coelho in quotable memory. The voice in which she read to me still reminds me of the power of words and the manner in which they can impact people’s lives.

Today, I thank my mother not just for giving me life, but giving me the ability to live several lives, and for introducing me to a shining multitude of worlds to experience them in. It is because of you, Ma, that I look at life a little closer, go deeper, travel further, and ask what if I try….? You’ll never know the full extent of what that means for me, or perhaps you do already?

Happy Mother’s Day Ma. ‘Love you heartful’

Books & Reading

”All readers are aspiring writers in a way…”

I have just finished my second reading of ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami. I first read it a year and a half ago after I had acquired it on Aamzon while searching for Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manuscripts Found in Accara’.  The choice seemed random, yet something told me to purchase it instead. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was an immersive experience. Nothing can prepare you for the way a Murakami plot (or lack of) can grab you and pull you in.

My first reading of Norwegian Wood was not as great as my second. At first I think I perceived it to be just pointless surrealism. As a result, I was always uncomfortable afterwards because I continue to profess Murakami as one of my favorite contemporary authors, yet, I greatly disliked one of his most celebrated works. However, the second time around was better. This time I could see more beauty in Murakami’s prose. There were moments when I read sections that gave me that same uneasy feeling that I had encountered before but I was able to find more to love in the novel than previously.

I’ve rambled on in prior posts about why I love reading Murakami’a works and I am certainly not in a mood to attempt a post-reading analysis on this one. What I did come away with (despite a sense of utter helplessness for Toru ) is a sense of awe for Murakami.

The man is a master wordsmith, weaving words into thoughts that can reach your sub-conscious mind without any effort at all. Despite the loose ends that mark Murakami’s works, the stories shine like stars because those cut strings add to the fantasy of it all. Using exceptional descriptions and dialogue, Murakami conveys the deepest, darkest—often hidden—sides of human nature. Many of his characters experience a type of universal, human despair that forces them to question reality. His stories are profound and bizarre at the same time leaving readers with a feeling that is, well – indescribable.

But here’s the thing, when Haruki sat down to write ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end. Perhaps, when I sit down to write my story…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succor to know that I’m not the only person who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it.

Someone told me this morning that at our core, every passionate reader is an aspiring writer too. That’s certainly true of me and my hope is that in the process of writing and re-writing, I’ll discover a story along the way as well.

Books & Reading, Uncategorized

Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

I’ve only managed to read a measly eight books this year. Just eight. That’s three less than the 11 books I read in 2014. One of the reasons for the slump in my reading statistics is the time I devoted to each of these books. Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ has taken me the longest – a little over seven weeks to get through 728 pages. The large capital letters of his name have been by my bedside as a constant reminder that I have long neglected the bourgeoisie memoir.

The truth is; the novel didn’t suck me in the way I thought it would. The maestro’s 700 page story of a man’s obsessive love for a younger woman wasn’t exactly riveting. The first half of the story is a classic tale of reckless passion colliding with bourgeois standards. The latter is far more interesting and as the political upheaval begins to rock Istanbul, the book and the protagonist both undergo radicalization and change, as the neurotic kleptomaniac makes his way through the stations of his doomed love affair.

The love saga of Kemal and Fusan gradually becomes grandiose and unrealistic and makes the narrative a slightly difficult read. I literally forced myself to finish the book but only because I was reading Pamuk and I refused to give up on him.

For me the hero of the book is not the compulsive lover caught between his fiancé and his mistress. The true star of the book is Istanbul and Pamuk masterfully captures the essence and intricacies of the beautiful city as he chronicles the oddly timed love-affair. The novel masterfully captures a panoramic view of life in Istanbul and the identity crisis experienced by its upper classes who find themselves caught between all things traditionally Turkish and on the other hand the westernized way of life they were just getting used to. Istanbul is almost like a character in itself – it mirrors the characters’ own conflict as a city torn and ravaged by political upheaval. The vistas Pamuk paints are like monochrome reminders of conflicted people in complicated situations.

Reading the lavish descritpions of the city, I found myself closing my eyes to re- imagine the biting cold of January 2011 as I stepped out of the Atatürk Airport into the chilled winter air. Minutes later my minivan speeding through the serpentine roads and finally onto the magnificent Bosphorus bridge as the bejeweled skyline came into view alongside. Pamuk’s descriptions of the romantic city are exquisite and a delightful sensory journey not to be read but rather – experienced. I hope to go back to Istanbul some day and I’ve promised myself to read his novel with the same title when I’m there.

Coming back to the novel, it can be read and interpreted in multiple ways. It’s a love story, a political chronicle and a social commentary all rolled into one. At the end of it all, though Kemal does somewhat resemble the emotionally fraught Miss Havisham s the objects Kemal collects and adds to his ‘museum’ seem to pile up in his attempt to compulsively ‘freeze time’ – something that is not all that strange for the average person. There is something to be said for memorabilia, we value little things because they represent a connection with something important in our past. Many of us keep all kinds of memorabilia around and while I don’t believe those things intrinsically represent a threat to your present, they are part and parcel of who you are and what you have experienced.

A few months ago I blogged about my own ‘Cardboard box’ full of keepsakes and mementos that are vital scraps of my life. So much of who I am and what made me this way is confined therein. Kemal found love a little too late – he was an ordinary man placed in some extraordinary circumstances and his museum became his sanctuary. You and I may not obsess over memorabilia the way Kemal does in the novel but we sure do know what it represents and how much we value those memories when the real thing is long gone. Perhaps a book about objects of desire, so to speak, will make more sense to a reader who has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of being in love. Read it, you’ll understand why.

In conclusion, Pamuk’s novel is (if nothing else) a saga to the value of our memories and the place they hold in our lives. Having said that, there is one last thought I cannot shake  – the funny thing about memories is that they only last as long as you remember them, don’t you think?

Books & Reading, Teaching, Writing

Everything is Just a Phase

January 12, 2015

I have just assigned my class a challenge and have presented them with a writing prompt. I’ve told them that I am going to take this challenge with them and so here I am scribbling away on a sheet of ruled paper, toying with my words.

Final chapters, closing doors, clocks ticking away towards a deadline, it seems like so much of our lives is dictated by an overwhelming sense of finality. Everything ends…people leave…friendships fade…and your closest companion could eventually just end up as a coffee cup memory for a day of lazy afternoon reveries.

My biggest grouse against life is that there is no seal of permanence on the things we hold dearest or the relationships that matter most. We invest so much in making memories with people, in the places we go and while doing the things that lead us to a better understanding of who we are. But the thing is, most often they end up as just memories. Sure, they affect us, they change us but then they fade and disappear. Eventually.

Like the yellowing pages of your prized paperback from your teenage years… like mementos buried in tin boxes…like that currency bill you accidently find in the pockets of your old and faded jeans, these memories are sometimes rediscovered. Your joy is palpable…you either squeal in delight at the discovery or smile discreetly as the memory warms up your insides like a hot beverage on a December day. You bask in the afterglow…it envelops you…your mind wanders…and then wonders…where did those years go? I wish I could go back there someday…I wonder where he is…I wonder if she still thinks of me…

I know there is a school of thought that says we’ve got to suck it up and deal with it… deal with life…make the most of the time we’ve got and the people we meet…and then move on. But I wish it was that easy. I guess that’s the reason I love watching TV series and so seldom choose the latest blockbuster instead…there’s continuity there and the story doesn’t just come to a halt after two amd a half hours…it goes on.

I gaze up, the students are still engrossed in their writing, and are stringing words together to make complex sentences…their concentration is visible on their brows. I hear the pleasant swoosh of pen on paper…fingers hacking at keyboards…the music from my laptop plays softly…it’s meant to create mood and induce creativity. It’s such a lovely moment really….will make for a lovely memory too. Then suddenly the school bell rings…the vibrating notes bring us all back to the ragged edges of reality. Time is up…the class is over.

I hear shuffling feet…the thump of laptops being shut…the rustling of papers being hurriedly handed in. The beauty of the preceding moments has vanished like a toffee wrapper in an updraft. The moment has passed.

Everything is just a phase.

Books & Reading

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Memories of My Melancholy Whores

To get the obvious out-of-the-way, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing is stunningly gorgeous. That goes without saying. After having read ‘100 Years of Solitude’ and ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ I knew I was in for a treat when my Facebook Book Club decided to select ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores.’ Unlike his other books though there isn’t much grandeur here. It’s a simple story that could be read in one sitting over some re-fills at Starbucks and that is exactly how I read most of this novella.

I’m not going to divulge the plot details here for the obvious reasons but here’s what I felt about this story. The hero, narrator, and putative author once belonged to the cultivated bourgeoisie but nearly a century later he lives in his decaying parental home as a stark reflection of his former self. He used to make a living as a journalist and teacher of Spanish and Latin; now he gets by on his pension and the weekly column he writes for a newspaper. The parallels between his past and his present are striking and leave one to consider on what how these many changes could have affected the man.

The rest of the book is the chronicle of the old man’s passion for a young girl, a passion that leads him, predictably, to recall the many other women in his life and, less predictably, to turn his paper column into a series of love letters that “all people could make their own” and here’s where the story gets in interesting (albeit briefly) but such stuff, in the hands of a great writer, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes for splendid literature. The fourth and fifth sections of the novella are littered with deep and philosophical musings that save the story from being a simple confession of his colorful youth and transform it into a canon of wisdom for readers to mull over.

Garcia is able to masterfully take the theme of an old man’s longing for the idealized youth and turn it into a powerful fable on human frailty. There are definite high points. The protagonist’s reflections on aging were sharp and funny. The epic nature of the love is grand and romantic and if you choose to put aside the creepy elements and focus on the romantic sentiment, this story can provide deep insight into one of mankind’s greatest fears – the fear of growing old.

I feel guilty to like a book just because of the name of its author and to be honest the first few sections of the book are provocative and disturbing and I really couldn’t believe I was reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. There were times I was even reminded of my traumatic ’50 Shades…’ experiences. However, I soon realized that if you are able to get beyond the incorrectness and depravity of what’s being suggested on the surface, you will find a masterfully written story about life, loving, living, and aging. Morally challenged or not the characters are perfect because of their many imperfections. That’s how we all are, aren’t we? That’s what makes us interesting. And human.

We live in a society where we’re inundated with stories about either traditional, fairy tale romances or casual flings. Marquez uses those same motifs but turns those notions on their heads, and that’s precisely the reason people adore him and his writing style. His words still defy the norm and reflect (quite honestly and brutally) the wide gamut of our human experiences.

If you forget everything that Memories of My Melancholy Whores has to offer I guarantee you won’t forget this. Beneath it all, the book will leave you with the idea that it is never too late to fall in love – the epic, grand and wholesome kind of love that we all long for and that’s a good reminder to be left with. Don’t you think?

Books & Reading

Ithaca – Poetry Inspiration 101

I was talking to some friends at my local Starbucks the other day and brought up an allusion to one of my favorite poems – a poem they were unfamiliar with: Ithaca, by Constantine Cavafy.

I used to have a printout of this poem stuck inside my cupboard at home in India, probably since I was about eighteen years old. Every time I looked into my cupboard I saw it and while I didn’t always stop to read the whole thing, sometimes my eye would just catch a line as I walked by and I’d be reminded of why the poem meant so much to me. Other times I’d miss the paper entirely, focusing on one of the other bits of paper or the Aishwarya Rai or Bon Jovi cut-outs I’d stuck up with cello-tape to give my door some personality.

When I moved to Dubai, I remember one of my best friends saying, as we talked about homesickness that she’d read the poem for the first time. I think she was surprised she hadn’t read it before and it soon became a poem she began to count as a personal favorite too. Either way, the poem is special to me for so many reasons.

In my line of work, payoffs are hard-won, sometimes unseen ( in the sense that they happen but we might never even know so) and often delayed. There are so many moments of self-doubt, of questioning, of wondering ‘is it all worth it?’ At other times we luxuriate in the fulfillment that comes from impacting young lives. As I said to my friend, the best we can hope for is that years after we die, somebody might remember us and acknowledge that they were positively affected by our work and our words.

At any rate, Ithaca is one of those poems that’s worked its way into the canon of my significant and literary references, so I wanted to share it with all of you. Below is the text of the translation of Ithaca as well as a voice over by Sean Connery that is sure to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention! Give it some time to sink in, savor every word, read between the lines and let it resonate with the deepest parts of your being like it has for thousands of people since it was first written over a 100 years ago.

I’d love to hear back on what you make of it!

ITHACA
By Constantine Cavafy

When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
an angry Poseidon — do not fear.
You will never find such on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, and your spirit
and body are touched by a fine emotion.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
a savage Poseidon you will not encounter,
if you do not carry them within your spirit,
if your spirit does not place them before you.
Wish for the road to be long.
Many the summer mornings to be when
with what pleasure, what joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time.
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase the fine goods,
nacre and coral, amber and ebony,
and exquisite perfumes of all sorts,
the most delicate fragrances you can find.
To many Egyptian cities you must go,
to learn and learn from the cultivated.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better for it to last many years,
and when old to rest in the island,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would not have set out on the road.
Nothing more does she have to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.