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Archive for July, 2017

I got ‘The Art of Stillness : Adventures in Going Nowhere‘ by Pico Iyer as a birthday present from one of my favourite friends. It is a short book at around seventy pages and so I finished reading it soon.

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In ‘The Art of Stillness‘, Pico Iyer, who is a traveller and a travel writer, looks at our life today, the busy schedule we have, the multi-tasking we do, how we are always connected and plugged in through the convergence of communication systems and social media, and asks the question, whether we can switch off, whether we can unplug ourselves, whether we can get away from it all, whether it is beneficial, whether it is possible.

This book has a freshness to it, because the theme it addresses is very relevant to our twenty-first century way of life. When Pico Iyer says,

“With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk”

we feel that he is talking about us and our lives.

The book divides itself naturally into two parts, though the division is not a sharp line in the sand – it is more like the way one colour fades away into another. In the first part, Pico Iyer contrasts all the noise, action, distraction, interruption which are part of our everyday lives with stillness and describes how stillness looks like, when it is present and when it is practised. In the second part, he describes how unplugging ourselves from this noise for even a short period of time everyday is reinvigorating and helps us see things from a fresh perspective and helps make our day more productive. The first part is more contemplative while the second part is more practical. Depending on your inclinations you might like one part or the other more. I have always been a useless person who avoided practical stuff and I always loved contemplation more and so I liked the first part of the book more.

We live in a world where action is valued and contemplation is not. As the William Henry Davies poem ‘Leisure‘ says, our life is so busy and full of care, that we don’t have time to stand and stare. This book tells us how contemplation, and standing and staring is valuable too.

There is a TED talk on this topic by Pico Iyer and this book is an extension of that talk. I haven’t heard that talk yet, but I presume it will be a good accompaniment to the book.

The book has beautiful photographs of the stunning Icelandic landscape. The photographic artist Eydis Eynarsdottir who is Icelandic, describes her artistic vision and journey in her one page essay. I have included a couple of the stunning photographs here to give you a feel.

Icelandic Landscape 1

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Icelandic Landscape 2

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Here are some of my favourite passages from the book to give a feel of how it looks like.

As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps even his brother, is traumatized for life. “There is nothing either good or bad,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it do.”

…at some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected. Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.

We glimpse a stranger in the street, and the exchange lasts barely a moment. But then we go home and think on it and think on it and try to understand what the glance meant and inspect it from this angle and that one, spinning futures and fantasies around it. The experience that lasted an instant plays out for a lifetime inside us. It becomes, in fact, the story of our lives.

I loved ‘The Art of Stillness‘. It is not a young person’s book though. If you are young, or young at heart, you can and you probably should read this book. But you should also be trekking, climbing mountains, doing bungee jumping and parasailing, skiing in the Swiss Alps, seeing the pyramids and the great Wall and the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu and falling in love and having romantic dinners in London and Paris and Venice and St.Petersburg and Shanghai and taking cruises on rivers and oceans. When you have been there and done that, you should take this book down from the shelf and read it again. But if you have already done these (or are not interested in doing these) and have already had rich life experience (don’t worry, even a punk like me who is an introvert and a couch potato has had rich life experience. You probably have handled some amazing, challenging situations), then this book is written exactly for you and will make lot of sense.

Have you read ‘The Art of Stillness‘? What do you think about it?

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Ever since ‘Centre Court‘ by Sriram Subramanian came out, I have wanted to read it. But the distractions of life and Wimbledon got in the way. Finally I put aside everything yesterday and read the book in one sitting. Here is what I think.

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Centre Court‘ tells the story of Shankar Mahadevan, who is a twenty five year old tennis player. Currently he is ranked 41 in the world. He is, at present, at Wimbledon on the eve of the championships. As his ranking is high enough, he gets a direct entry into the main draw. But as he is not seeded, life is unpredictable, as he could face a higher player in the first round and get knocked out. What happens next? Is he knocked out in the first round? Does he progress deep into the competition? I can’t tell you more about the story, because you should read the book and discover it yourself. 

Centre Court‘ is a rare bird, because it is a tennis novel. There are no tennis novels out there. I remember Monica Seles tried writing one which was supposed to be a part of a series aimed at young adult readers – a romantic novel series with a tennis backdrop. I don’t think it took off. The only kind of tennis books out there are ghosted biographies and table top books filled with beautiful photographs. There might be an occasional book about a famous match like the Federer – Nadal Final or the Borg – McEnroe final. Otherwise that shelf is really thin. Sport novels, in general, are very rare. I have read a couple of cricket novels, and loved them, but even in cricket, which is rich in literature, novels are rare. In tennis, novels are nonexistent. So ‘Centre Court‘ is unique. It breaks new ground. It is wonderful when a new literary experiment is attempted and it succeeds gloriously and we are there at close quarters to experience it. I loved that.

The second thing I loved about the book is this. ‘Centre Court‘ is a pure tennis novel. It has, of course, its share of drama, because sport is about drama after all. It has the inspiring story of an underdog we all love backing. It is about parents and children and family. It also has a whiff of romance. But, in the end, it is a tennis novel, a tennis novel of the finest kind. Does it mean that you need to know and understand tennis to follow the story and enjoy the drama? Not really. You can follow the story, enjoy the drama, emotionally invest in the main characters and go through an emotional rollercoaster with them, even if you are not a sports fan. But if you are a tennis fan, a tennis player or have been related to the game in any way, your experience will be richer. Because the book takes you on a tour of contemporary tennis history, talks about some of the great matches and players, tennis strategy and tactics, the politics in tennis, the administrators, and the evolution of equipment and technique. Sometimes it digresses into other sports like cricket and chess and draws parallels between them and tennis. It discusses many legendary sporting events in brief but sufficient detail. There is even a discussion on whether sport is art. So beautiful! When I saw that famous quote on being under pressure by my favourite Keith Miller, I couldn’t stop smiling! It was like the author took all the beautiful things about sport, put it in a novel and gift-wrapped it and presented it to his readers. All these beautiful things blend seamlessly with the story. How the author managed to do that, I have no idea.

If you are a tennis player or a passionate tennis fan, this book will embrace you, make you a part of the story and make you relive your own life. There is a description of the movie ‘Almost Famous‘ by music critic Tom Moon, which I love so much. It goes like this.

“There’s a scene in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semiautobiographical film about his unlikely rise as a teenage rock critic, that illustrates the kinetic thrill of discovering music. The Cameron character’s big sister has just left home, and he’s checking out her record collection – gazing meaningfully at Cream’s Wheel of Fire and Led Zeppelin II as though trying to decipher sacred texts. When he opens the gatefold of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, he finds a note : “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

He follows the instructions, drops the needle on the hi-fi, and hears those galvanizing guitar chords, a call-to-arms across generations. Even though maybe he’s ten years old, he promptly gets the glassy look in his eyes which says, “Please don’t disturb this cosmic moment.” With this one scene, which has no dialogue, Crowe makes manifest something music lovers know in their bones. That if you listen intently, you will encounter more than just constellations of cool sounds – that lurking within them is information worth having, perhaps even a signpost pointing you toward the next key step on your journey.”

If you are a tennis fan and you read this book, you will feel something like that, about your past. I did. The past just came back instantaneously and I could see my whole life as a tennis fan unfolding before my eyes – Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Monica Seles, McEnroe, Connors – the film reel moved on and on with beautiful vivid images. It was like being in the middle of ‘Cinema Paradiso‘.

So, that’s it. Read this book. You will love it. If you are a tennis fan, you will love it more.

I have just one regret. I wish Nirmal Shekhar, who was one of India’s finest tennis correspondents, was still around. If he was, he would have read this book and written a poetic essay about it. It would have been beautiful.

Have you read ‘Centre Court‘? What do you think about it?

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