Dudeism, Movies, My sense of Humour, Sadness, Serious Writing, Thoughts

Life Lessons from Uppi 2

In 1999, the Kannada movie director and actor Upendra released what is probably the most intriguing Kannada movie ever made. The movie was literally named after him (Upendra) – because why the fuck not? After all, the movie was largely about a self-obsessed man (named ‘Naanu’ – which literally means ‘I’) entangled in the human condition, with the 3 female actors portraying the ideas of fame, happiness and responsibilities. I can talk for hours on end about all the insights I have gained from that movie. In fact, every time I watch it, I gain a new profound insight into the human condition. But this post is not about that movie.

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In 2015, 16 years after the first one, Upendra finally released the sequel to Upendra. It was titled ‘Uppi 2’ – possibly a play on the popular breakfast item ‘Uppittu’ (Upma), or not. The general premise of this movie was that the same character – now going by the name of ‘Neenu’ (meaning ‘you’) – is now living life completely in the present moment. The movie compares and contrasts this with other characters who live in the past or in the future.

The general principle of ‘living in the now’ is not at all new. There have been many many books written about that idea. It has also been represented well through characters in the movies (think of ‘The Big Lebowski’:  “Is this a… what day is this?”). So it is not something totally earth shattering what Upendra explored in his sequel. But what stands out in Uppi 2 are the scenes that show the different specific manifestations of the main character’s ability to live completely in the present. There are many to list here so I will stick to the one that made a big impression on me and has stayed with me ever since.

In this scene, ‘Neenu’ and his friend visit his home where he finds his entire family apparently massacred – with corpses in pools of blood all over the place. It is a rather gruesome scene which is made even more strange by Neenu’s continued calm and smiling nature even as he examines the massacre in his own home. Rather alarmed by his lack of response or shock, his friend asks him if he does not feel shocked, sad or angry looking at the tragedy in front of him. To this, Neenu responds by explaining (and I am paraphrasing here):

After a tragedy like this, most people take years or even decades to accept what has happened and to come to terms with it. After that, they are able to lead a normal life without the pain or sadness. I just accepted all this immediately and have already come to terms with it. So where is the need to feel sad or angry anymore?

Of course, it later turns out that his entire family was acting all of it to expose Neenu’s apparent apathy towards his own family members.

But the message was very revealing to me. Of course, we don’t need to go through a tragedy of the magnitude that his character did in order to make us realize the utility of the idea. Instead, we can just look at the daily frustrations and struggles we face that are beyond our control: a delayed flight, a trivial argument with the spouse, bad traffic, your sports team losing a game, you name it. We typically see many such incidents every single day of our lives stretching as far back as we can remember. We probably got frustrated, angry or sad at that time and likely stayed that way for a while depending on how severe the incident was. But over time, we almost always move on. That incident loses its significance and impact on our mood and its impressions go away.

So if we can confidently state that most of these daily frustrations eventually lose their hold over our state of mind, then we have to ask ourselves why get angry or frustrated in the first place? It is a legitimate question, and one I have formulated in a slightly more specific manner:

Say I have a frustrating experience today, what would my general thoughts be 5 years down the line:

  • Will I still get frustrated, angry or sad thinking about it?
  • Will I feel like exacting some kind of revenge or retaliation towards anyone or anything?
  • Will I even give a shit about it?
  • Come to think of it, will I even remember the damn thing?

If the answer to these above questions is a NO, then I simply have to ask myself why would I get frustrated, sad or angry in the first place? There is just no point in doing so if I know that it will eventually pass. So, much like how Vincent Vega responded after shooting Marvin in the face, Uppi 2 taught me how to immediately come to terms with and let go of the daily frustrations in life.

Of course, it takes a little practice to incorporate this into our daily life, but it is actually pretty easy. And once we are able to remind ourselves to ask this question every time something goes wrong, it becomes that much easier to come to terms with all the daily frustrations.

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America, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. 

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper.

And as Abraham Lincoln said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

This now leads us to deeper questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW? Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

America, Serious Writing, Thoughts, Travel

When the Cops Were Called on a Black Man at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV….

There is a lot of outrage at Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department for the arrest of 2 black men at a Starbucks for literally doing nothing. This post is not about that. This post is about the time I saw the cops being called on a black man in a Starbucks in Charleston, West Virginia. Please read the entire post before forming your opinions. Also, please note that this is being written as I recollect the incident from my memory, and should be treated that way.

**********************************

I was in Charleston, West Virginia on work for two months between December (’17) and January (’18). Knowing my disdain for staying alone in hotels, I naturally sought the slightly more likable atmosphere of a coffee shop to stay alone in. Charleston is a beautiful town, but it is not a big city and there weren’t too many options for a coffee shop. I just wanted to sit in a nice, comfortable spot with an internet connection, not be bothered but still have people around me, and be allowed to spend hours together without being questioned.

The Starbucks on East Kanawha Blvd ticked all those boxes in addition to having a great riverside location, and I happily chose that spot. Over the course of 2 months, I went to that store several times – maybe up to a dozen or so. I generally liked the ambiance, and the baristas were friendly and courteous. (I remember once when I forgot to ask for almond milk, they happily remade the drink for me at no extra cost). The crowd generally consisted of either people who came there to study/work/read by themselves or a small group of 2-4 for a brief meetup. I generally spent at least 2-3 hours there on each of my visit, spending my time mostly reading or writing while listening to my headphones.

It was a Sunday (if I remember correctly) afternoon in the second or third week of January. I was at the Starbucks and working on my computer at one of the smaller tables. A black man was also inside the Starbucks and he had a drink with him at his table. The man had a backpack of sorts with him and the condition of his clothes made it appear that he was perhaps homeless. It looked like he had purchased a drink and so was well within his rights to stay at the store – just like everyone else there. And no one seemed to think otherwise.

As time passed, a group of 4 women (in their 30’s or 40’s) came to the store and sat at a round table that was adjacent to where the black man was sitting. They were there for a good hour or so, and they spent their time talking to each other.

Now, prior to the women coming to the store, the man had begun to pace the entire place – inside and sometimes outside. He did not seem to have any specific purpose in his walking around, and did not appear to indicate any kind of threat or harm to the other customers. After the women came in and sat at the table, I remember the man continuing to pace the store. And I distinctly remember him beginning to just stand and hover around the table where the women were sitting. The women, per my recollection, did not seem to pay attention to him and continued their conversation unaffected by his close proximity.

I remember the man continuing to pace the store and/or hover around the table where the women were sitting. I remember him also walking and/or standing close to other customers. (He never came very close to me as I remember sitting far away from his table). This continued to happen for an hour or more.

My overall recollection of the situation then was that of a black man, who was very likely homeless, pacing around the store without any specific purpose and sometimes hovering around a person or group of people without initiating any kind of contact. I do remember him talking to himself on a few occasions without being loud about it.

My personal thoughts at that moment when I saw him was that, firstly, he had every right to be there just like the rest of us. And no one thought otherwise – including and especially the baristas. Secondly, as much as his aimless and continuous strolling through the store was a harmless act in itself, I did wonder how the 4 women at the table felt when they noticed someone just hovering around them and possibly listening in on their conversation.

From a purely objective perspective, if someone was hovering around me while I was at a coffee shop (with or without friends), I would feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with the race or economic status of the person who is potentially invading my space. And if it was something that had continued for an extended period of time, I would have brought that to the attention of the store manager. Specifically, I would have told them that the said person was making me uncomfortable and maybe that they were even creeping me out. Again, this has nothing to do with race. I would have made this comment if it was a black man who was homeless, or a white guy who was dressed in a suit and a tie. (Just a reminder – I am neither black nor white nor Hispanic). It is a simple matter of invasion of space in a public location where there is a general expectation of respecting one’s privacy.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind when I saw the cops show up! I remember there were 2 of them who came in and went to speak to the store manager/barista. They spoke for a few minutes, and by their general body language, it was obvious that it concerned the black man. The man himself was seated at his table minding his own business at this point. After a brief discussion with the store manager, the cops then walked to the man and spoke to him for a few minutes. I could not hear what they were saying specifically, but I definitely remember them being polite and courteous to the man. They must have spoken to him for about 5-10 minutes, then left the man to his table and went back to speak to the store manager. After a brief conversation there, the cops left the store.

The man continued to stay at the store and from that point on, he stopped pacing the store or hovering around the other customers. (I do remember the 4 women having left the store by the time the cops showed up). All the other customers justifiably showed no visible reaction to whatever had happened – considering it (whatever it was) was resolved without any drama whatsoever. He continued to stay at the store well after I left the place.

So yes, a black man was at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV and the cops were called on him. But that is the kind of sentence you would write if all you wanted to do was manufacture outrage. (Well the title of this post got you reading so far didn’t it?!?) If anything, I would say this is a perfect example of how things SHOULD be managed. Let me explain:

First of all, I believe that Starbucks has a policy of letting people stay however long they want to as long as they have purchased a drink. I know this because I have stayed there for hours on end multiple times. In this regard, the black man was not asked to leave at any point of time as he was well within his rights to be there for as long as the store was opened (based on the drink I saw at his table).

Second, I do believe that any customer who is causing any kind of discomfort to other customer(s) should be informed that they cannot do so. And if they continue to do so, then they should be considered eligible for removal from the premises. This is a common sense policy that I believe most establishments have. If this includes the calling of cops, it is still justified. But I do believe that the right thing to do would be to first ask the said person to cease their actions, and have him/her removed only if they do not oblige. In this instance, (and I am speculating here), the black man was indeed told – politely and courteously – that he had to cease his ‘hovering around’ of other people. He obliged and nobody questioned him afterwards.

So yes, I will firmly state that the Starbucks employees and the cops performed their duties in a very appropriate manner without any racial prejudice towards the black man. One can always argue whether the baristas would have called the cops if it was a white guy in a suit who was doing all the ‘pacing and hovering’, or if they would have spoken to the man themselves. But that is a purely hypothetical argument that may or may not provide any constructive insights. I also do not know if the 4 women who, in my opinion, perhaps felt affected by the man’s actions, ever complained to the store manager prior to leaving. But regardless of that, from a purely objective perspective, I would personally feel very uncomfortable having any person of any race just hovering around me and invading my space and privacy.

In this day and age of easy outrage, it is very important to document the instances when people do the appropriate thing and show basic courtesy and respect when needed. This is one such instance and due credit should be given to all those were involved in this situation.

Arbit, Contractors, Engineer, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts

Life Lessons from a Mini-Excavator

For the last couple of months, I have been spending my time in West Virginia supervising a construction job. A big part of my responsibility here is to optimize and coordinate work between different contractors so that the overall project progresses efficiently. So I am continuously involved in assessing the resources available, the tasks to be accomplished, the sequence of those tasks, and how many (and which) people can be working at any given time – all to ensure that the overall schedule moves forward without any undue delays.

On one such day sometime last month, we had to accomplish a certain amount of excavation work and a certain amount of non-excavation work. But space constraints dictated that the large excavator that was scheduled to be used for the excavation work could not start the work until the contractor doing the non-excavation work got done with his task and got his men out of the way. The large excavator and the earth mover were on standby, waiting for the space to be cleared out for them to start working. This was clearly a waste of time and resources and I was looking for something – anything – that could help the situation.

I considered the mini-excavator sitting idly at a corner of the site. The amount of work that needed to be done was quite significant, which is why I wondered if the mini excavator would be able to contribute in any meaningful way. The size of the excavating bucket on the mini was minuscule compared to the size of the bucket on the large excavator. Not only that, even the power the bucket on the mini could apply on the hard soil paled in comparison to the large excavator. Generally speaking, the mini excavator accomplished in an hour what the large excavator could possibly accomplish in less than 10 minutes. And with the large excavator seeming like it could start working at any point, I wondered about the utility of using the mini to do any work at all.

mini-excavator

But like I said, I was looking for something – anything – to help with the situation. So I asked the excavating contractor to get the mini up and running. This was at about 11 AM. For the next 6-7 hours, I watched the non-excavation crew continue to ‘complete’ their job, while the large excavator continued to be on standby. And all this time, the mini excavator plowed on the dirt with its small bucket and far inferior power. It kept digging as much as it possibly could, only pausing to refuel at one point. Nobody initially seemed to care much for the work that was being accomplished by the mini. It was only around 4 PM or so that we all started to notice the significant amount of area that the mini had excavated out. And by the time we stopped work for the day at about 6 in the evening, the mini had accomplished way more than what we had expected it to.

It was a moment of pure inspiration. “That right there is the perfect analogy for anything and everything you are trying to accomplish in your life,” I told my co-worker. Indeed, there were so many lessons to be learnt from just watching that mini excavator work. All it was was a small amount of work done continuously and without worrying much about the overall progress or the general expectations. It was work that was done not waiting for the perfect time to arrive when all conditions would be conducive for the work to be done. And it was work done knowing that the resources available at its disposal may not be all of what was needed to accomplish that task.

Most of these lessons may be well obvious and familiar to the point of being a cliche. But that doesn’t make them any less true.

Take going to the gym for instance. Working out is possibly the number one new year resolution ever made, and is also the first that gets thrown out of the window. We put targets and expectations on ourselves before we even get started. We wait for the right time to come in our lives to even get started – after this project is done, after this trip, when I finish my course, etc, etc – and then promptly convince ourselves that it was not a realistic goal considering all the ‘commitments’ we already had going. Or we go to the extent of making excuses that we don’t have what we ‘need’ to start working out on a regular basis – I need to get the right shoes, my gym doesn’t have these specific classes at these specific times, there aren’t enough treadmills in my gym, etc.

The key, as the mini excavator clearly demonstrated, is to do something and keep doing it without worrying about the overall progress or expectations. The effort to optimize every single aspect of our lives is not at all worth it. I am guilty of it myself. Instead, we need to focus our efforts on simply doing something – anything – and keep doing it. So next time you find yourself unable to get yourself to the gym, or unable to make the effort in any task you want, just ask yourself one simple question:

What would the mini excavator do? 

America, Bad Journalism, Dudeism, Fake News, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts

What ‘The Big Lebowski’ Teaches Us About Media Bias

In one of the most enduring scenes that ever came out of Hollywood cinema, there lies a rather deep hidden meaning. It becomes painfully obvious once you see through it. And when you do, you will appreciate the script and the context that much more. The scene is from the movie The Big Lebowski and features Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Here is the context (SPOILERS ahead!):

The Dude has failed in the task entrusted to him by an old billionaire. The task is to deliver a large amount of ransom money in exchange for Bunny – the trophy wife of the said billionaire. He has instead lost that money and the old man castigates him for his ineptitude by showing him the consequences of his failure – which involves a toe that is  believed to belong to the said kidnapping victim. Disappointed with himself and worried about the victim, The Dude then ‘discusses’ the situation with his buddy Walter Sobchak. Here it is in full:

WALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’ clock–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

Essentially, the Dude has come to believe that the toe that is shown to him by Jeffrey Lebowski (the Billionaire) does indeed belong to ‘Bunny’ – the Billionaire’s wife – the apparent victim of a kidnapping. But Walter is clearly having none of it. He firmly believes that the toe is another in a series of ‘victimless crimes’ that are done by ‘fucking amateurs’! (Of course, in the end Walter turns out to be spot on!)

Which all brings us to a simple question.

Why did the Dude believe that the toe did indeed belong to Bunny? 

On the face of it, the apparent ‘proof’ consisted not of direct evidence of the identity of the victim, but instead consisted of an indicator – one which needs to be taken at face value without questioning in order to arrive at the suggested conclusion – that the toe does indeed belong to Bunny. It is this very ‘indicator’ nature of the evidence that Walter Sobchak questions and confidently declares that he could generate the same evidence by 3 o’ clock that same day (with nail polish!)!

The Dude believed the initial assertion (that Bunny was harmed because of his ineptitude in not delivering the money) not because of the ‘proof’ (a severed toe) that was presented to him. Instead, he started off by taking the initial assertion at face value without questioning, and then used the ‘proof’ to confirm this belief. The narrative was setup in such a way for the Dude that he just assumed the initial assertion was true and perceived whatever ‘proof’ he was then presented to simply confirm this assertion – even if that ‘proof’ was simply ‘indicative’ in nature.

Now where else have we all seen this? Where have we seen a topic being presented in such a way that it makes an assertion first and then uses primarily ‘indicative’ evidence to backup its claims?

There are a good number of ‘news’ websites and print media that utilize this very technique to sell stories and content. Many headlines from such organizations are usually articles involving a recent quote by a personality of some significance, or one or two facts that include numbers. This is then typically followed by a description of the context. But there is a sub-category here. This group of articles contain something more. It is usually subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

These articles contain a narrative that interpret the said development in a very specific way. And they do this not by offering any hard facts, but by providing evidence that are at best ‘indicative’ in nature. These articles usually contain a catchy headline that typically signals something to be feared or worried about. The article then starts off by repeating the assertion made in the headline in a more elaborate manner. Then it goes on to the actual quote or fact(oid) which typically forms a very minor part of the full article. Then the article attempts to reference previous similar developments in an effort to forge an apparent pattern – all spelling doom to varying degrees. Then the article goes on to make statements that involve the use of modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘might’, ‘could’ indicating the possibility of further bad news. And then, finally, at the end of it all, to tie it all together (I had to obviously use the pun!) and to bring a sense of authenticity and confirmation to their idle speculations, they ‘reveal the toe’!

The ‘toe’ typically involves a quote by someone directly unrelated to the actual development, but one who holds a position of some significance in some industry, academia or organization that would entitle him/her to have opinions on the matter under consideration. The bigger the said person’s significance/position, higher the level of authenticity that is perceived to be on the speculations. It is important to note that these quotes are not something that is made by these persons out of their own volition without being specifically asked for. This is almost always a situation where the quotes are actively sought out by the person writing the article, and these quotes are then included in the article to provide a sense of truth and authenticity (and general concern) to the speculative inferences/statements made preceding them. (They send us a toe, we’re supposed to shit ourselves with fear.) In a sense, the person writing the article has already built a narrative (without many facts to support them) and then looks for quotes from ‘experts’ or ‘analysts’ to corroborate the same. Of course, nowadays, these ‘experts’ are dime a dozen. (You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me.) So it is another question altogether whether every single ‘expert’ he/she contacts provides quotes that corroborate their narrative, or if he/she only includes those experts’ quotes that does corroborate their speculation.

**********

See this Dec 25th article on CNN Money about Brexit for a good demonstration of the above idea. Also go to this Dec 13th article by the same writer on the same topic where he appears to have some information that doesn’t necessarily support the narrative in the article in the Dec 25th article. Also observe how he has cleverly left out those pieces of information in the Dec 25th article.

***********

So at the end of it all, it is simply a case of the writer making an initial speculative assertion and then ‘revealing the toe’ to backup their claims. So the question you, as a reader, have to ask is, “Am I being presented actual proof based on hard facts, or am I being ‘shown the toe’?” If you suspect the latter, then you know the ‘news article’ is nothing more than clickbait garbage. If it is the product of actual investigative journalism, then you will probably see a lot more information in the form of hard facts backing up the said claims. It is up to you to actively seek out the difference.

In this day and age of information/noise overload, if you even mildly suspect that you are being ‘shown the toe’, then it very likely is indeed just garbage. You should then be wary of any article from that particular source of ‘news’. This is a very simple and practical approach to consuming news media today and to distance ourselves away from fake news, pre-determined narratives, and idle speculation masquerading as truth. And if enough people do this on a regular basis, then we might still have some hope left for humanity’s progress.

Arbit, ART, Book Reviews, books, Thoughts

An Introduction to Japanese Crime and Detective Novels

It was probably in early 2015, when I had just purchased my Kindle, that I learnt about the existence of Japanese crime and detective novels, or more specifically speaking, about the existence of English translations of Japanese crime and detective novels. Since then I have read more than 20 books by Japanese authors – most of them being crime or detective novels – with more lined up for the months ahead. That is about 6-7 Japanese crime novels a year. To put that in perspective, the years of 2012-2014 probably saw me read about 2-4 books a year total. So yes, I totally got hooked on to them from the beginning. But more importantly, it (and the Kindle) triggered my overall reading habit back into motion, and since 2015, I have read about 10-12 books each year, if not more. My wife, who barely had any reading habit at all, has now more or less caught up with me on these books in less than a year! And it has got HER reading other books as well!

(As a small aside, I drove to meet her in Kansas City earlier this month. We were meeting up after a few weeks so I was excited to see her. She was reading a Japanese crime novel when I surprised her at the hotel room by arriving earlier than I had said. I was all smiles and excitement. HER immediate reaction, however, was to yell at me, “They just discovered 9 bodies!!! Why did you have to come at this very moment?!!!??” You get the idea….) 

My wife and I have gained tremendous satisfaction and a sense of awe from these books and would definitely want more people to experience this for themselves. And hence this post to  introduce people to Japanese crime and detective fiction.

It should be noted that these books only began to get translated to English a few years ago. And following the overwhelming response from the English reading community, publishers are now falling head over heels to get more works translated. So, most of the authors already have a large collection of books published in Japanese, but are waiting for them to be translated to English. The publishers appear to be ‘releasing’ these books once every few months or so, so always keep an eye out for new ones. I am not sure about the extent of the availability of these books in ‘print’ form. (I have only read 2 of these in print). But all of these are definitely available on Kindle. And seriously, a Kindle would be a worthwhile investment JUST to read these books!

So this post is intended to be about where to start, what to expect, what not to expect, general recommendations, and tips for reading the books. But before we get to the actual content, I would strongly recommend adhering to the following general tips:

Do not read any blurbs, summaries or reviews: I cannot emphasize this enough. I am a very strong believer in letting the book surprise you right from the first page without any preset expectations or ideas. And with the mystery novels such as these, it takes an even bigger significance. So even in this post, I am not going to ‘rate’ or ‘review’ the books. I will only make a general recommendation. So please, just dive straight into the book!

Keep track of the names separately: All these books are made up of Japanese names (duh!) that may or may not be easy to remember. Some books have a relatively small number of characters while others will require a mandatory index of characters to be created if you want to keep track of who is who. So it might be worth your while to have a small note that lists all the characters in the books.

Keep track of the geography: This is not really a requirement, but would definitely help visualize a lot of the action and gives a useful spatial perspective. You will also understand what is the difference between a city, prefecture and a ward!

Not for Kids: No other way to put it. This is not something you want to give to your kids to read. This is for the most part 18+ material.

Movie versions: Many of the books below have been made into movies and/or TV shows. But, as always, read the book first. Then watch the movie.

By the time you have read through a dozen books or so, you will also learn a lot about Japanese culture in general – including (and especially) the widespread existence and a seemingly complete acceptance of shady ‘Love Hotels’! (They are exactly what you think they are!)

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In any case, below is a list of books/authors that I would personally recommend to get started with Japanese crime and detective fiction. This is a list of the authors who are most popular and recommended. And in the end, I have also included a list of other books where the author may not have had multiple books in print/translation.

Keigo Higashino: There is literally no other place to start. If you are talking Japanese crime and detective fiction, Higashino is pretty much the default starting point and the bench mark. There are currently 7 of his works available in English translation with an 8th on its way in 2018. From my knowledge, everybody pretty much starts with Devotion of Suspect X. And it is probably where I would recommend starting as well. It introduces the extremely adorable ‘Detective Galileo’ who will also appear on Salvation of a Saint and A Midsummer’s Equation. Each of those books are highly recommended. Malice and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are his other two strongly recommended books. The strength of Higashino’s books are the underlying premises and the steady development of the plot towards the revelation of these premises. Like most of the books listed in this post, Higashino’s books have a laser focus on the plot development, eschewing any and all distractions such as police bureaucracy, random female non-characters (I am looking at you Michael Connelly!), etc. All the above books are police procedurals and are probably the best introduction you can have to Japanese crime and detective fiction. The one outlier, of course, is Under the Midnight Sun. Coming in at more than twice the length of his other books, this book is more of a soap opera than a crime novel. (Its cast of characters went into several pages! And my wife had named two of them as ‘Fuckboy 1’ and ‘Fuckboy 2’ – implying exactly what they stand for!) It is extremely difficult to believe it is the same guy who wrote this book! So, even if you avoid Under the Midnight Sun, that is completely OK. It is by no means a bad book, just extremely un-Higashino like. But, as a fan of Higashino, I will put it like this: “Some Higashino is still better than no Higashino!”

Seicho Matsumoto: The first Japanese crime fiction book I read was Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. To this day, it remains the absolute best I have read. It has a strong premise, police procedural work meticulously detailed, very steady build up, and a satisfying conclusion – the hallmarks of an excellent detective novel. I was blown away and it provided the motivation to explore more in this genre. In fact, this book was so good that my expectations from Matsumoto ended up being too high for all his other books: Pro Bono, A Quiet Place, and Points and Lines. They are not bad books by any means, but are nowhere near the level of Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Would still recommend them, but do not be surprised if you feel the same way I do.

Tetsuya Honda: Probably the only author to feature a female lead detective, Honda currently has 2 of his books in English translation. Silent Dead was the first book to feature Detective Reiko Himekawa, and this was recently followed up with Soul Cage (reading in progress). Silent Dead featured the same engrossing (but extra dark) premise and mystery as other ones I have mentioned above and also had a fairly steady plot development. But the book makes use of some rather common tropes such as bureaucracy in the police department, non-communication of evidence at crucial junctures, misogynistic colleagues, etc. But to Honda’s credit, these still somehow tie into the actual plot development. (It is nowhere as bad as anything you will see in a Michael Connelly book). But the tension between the competing detectives is so well articulated that, midway through the book, I bet you will be heavily rooting for Himekawa!

So those are authors who have at least 2 books in print and whom I have read. Below are some more books that are worth reading:

Confessions by Kanae Minato: This book is not a straightforward crime or detective novel, but it does involve several crimes and a rather unusual approach to solving them that leads to even more grotesque consequences. The book itself is a great read. So good, that it was made into a movie that got nominated for the Oscars (Best Foreign language film).

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada: This book officially has the most grotesque premise I have personally come across. Which is probably the only reason why I would strongly recommend it! The writing and the plot development are not the best, but making your way through the book just to uncover the dark premise is worth the effort!

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: I have always strongly believed that the presence of bureaucratic situations in police/detective books are completely unnecessary and only work to hinder plot development. But what if the bureaucracy IS the plot itself? That is Six Four for you. Full marks for plot development and general premise, but the book lets you down big time in the ending. It is not that the ending runs counter to the plot development. It is not even an open ended conclusion. Instead, it actually looks like it is incomplete and kind of leaves you hanging. It is still a gripping read and there is definitely the bare necessary amount of resolution in the ending. But the real reason why I recommend this book is because, by the time you are done with it, you will know the structure and hierarchy of the entire Japanese Police force by heart! And you would have never thought you would care so much about the battle between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs!

So there you have it. Enough book recommendations to keep you occupied and hooked on to Japanese crime novels for the next several months. Now please do yourself a favor and start reading Higashino!


		
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5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 3/3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) (The Food Part 2) for more.

Indian Food in NYC

I suppose in the end, it all came down to the Indian food for me. Very early on, it became painfully obvious that I was going to be spoilt for choice in every conceivable aspect. So, at this point, I am just going to go ahead and list the places I frequented the most and/or the ones I just want to give a special shout out to:

  • Spice Grill: God knows how many times I ordered from this restaurant for delivery. Yes, the mega-awesome ‘Delivery!’ guy from my previous post was delivering food from Spice Grill. I just could not get enough of their vegetable/paneer base and the very satisfying amount of food they packed into their ‘Lunch Box’ order. I pretty much had the same exact order every day for several weeks. Very prompt delivery (duh!) and great tasting food. The irony here, of course, is that I never actually visited their restaurant in person during all my time there! And I suppose I still owe them a good review on Yelp.
  • Vatan: If you have about $35 to spend on the best vegetarian meal, then really consider your decision already made. This is not just food. This place is a divine experience in itself. Devanshi and I went there multiple times with increasingly satisfying meals (and took our friends along with us). This is an all-you-can-eat place where the waitresses serve you at your table. The menu is primarily Gujarati food, but really, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. This is vegetarian food in all its glory and appeal!
  • Desi Deli: A Punjabi dhaba in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan that is open – get this – 24/7! With a limited menu serving both vegetarian and non-veg dishes, it pretty much gives you enough finger-licking food to more than fill your stomach. (Think Quality of food > Quantity of options). This place was a 15 minute M50 Crosstown bus ride away from my apartment. And anytime we found ourselves on the west side of Manhattan, there was really only one place in our minds for food. I will always remember that one time when I randomly woke up hungry at 3 AM, took the crosstown M50 to 10th Ave, ate a hearty meal, took the same bus back to my apartment, and went back to a blissful sleep! There should definitely be a Desi Deli in every city. No exceptions.
  • Adiyar Bhavan: This place probably served the widest options of South Indian food, and is best enjoyed in the restaurant. I learnt the hard way that having these food items delivered really brought down their taste and texture, making for an underwhelming experience. But eating the same food there, it was obvious that it was the best South Indian food place in Manhattan. I particularly have high praise for their Rava dosas and the sambhar that is served with it.

Shout Outs:

  • All the Jackson Heights restaurants in Queens: I only visited Jackson heights about 4-5 times and tried a new place every single time. I recollect having some memorable chats at Raja Sweets and Fast Food. Perhaps if I had spent a lot more time in that neighborhood, I would have found a place that I would have frequented often, but my visits there were limited.
  • Mumbai Express and Usha Foods: Great chat places in Floral Park in Queens. Usha Foods also had a whole array of snack items to take home. It was a long ride there, but totally worth doing it on a Saturday or Sunday late morning.
  • Darbar Grill: Ordered a lot of ‘Lunch Boxes’ from here as well (similar to Spice Grill).
  • IndiKitch: The only Indian ‘fast food’ place that had perfected the ‘Chipotle Model’ for Indian cuisine. There are so many ‘fast food’ places that were trying to ape the Chipotle style of menu – rolls, rice bowls, etc – but IndiKitch was the only one that got it spot on. Their menu might be a little difficult to navigate if you are not actually there, but once you get it, you will quickly realize why it works so smoothly.

So there you have it. Everything I found out and explored in NYC that was Indian food. I am sure there are many more there that I didn’t get to, but I guess that is for next time.

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And with that, I have concluded the ‘Food in NYC’ part of my ‘5 Months in NYC’ series. More posts still to come on other aspects of NYC.