The Silent Majority

I want to thank Aysha Tanya Hashim, or whatever combination of those words she’s using to refer to herself these days, for pointing something out about my Book Bucket list in the previous post: there isn’t a single woman author on my list. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. That’s how well I have been trained by society to follow my gender role and ignore women doing “a man’s job”. I could, of course, say that it’s just a coincidence but I’m not going to. The lack of women writers in my list reveals a bias in me, one that is unhealthy, subliminal, and embarrassing. 99% of all the books I read are by men. With the exception of famous authors like JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, and Agatha Christie, I believe Maggie Koerth-Baker’s Before The Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, is the only work of nonfiction that I own or have read that was written by a woman. For this clear disparity, I apologise. This was not on purpose and I will try to bring balance back to my reading habits.

I thought that I could begin by listing the top 2 books in my “I Want to Read” Book Bucket, both of which were authored by women whom I deeply respect and admire. They are:

  1. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is the spiritual successor to Noam Chomsky as the world’s leading left-wing intellectual and liberal conscience. Her book No Logo was an inspiration, showcasing the way in which corporate hegemonies are sowing the seeds for a new aristocracy. Another group of people inspired by the book were Radiohead, who originally considered calling the album that eventually became Kid A, No Logo. (I just connected my last two posts to this one. Yay?)

I’m currently reading her second original work of nonfiction, The Shock Doctrine. It is a brilliant and terrifying account of how shock and awe tactics are being used to create and perpetuate injustices – economic, social, and political – across the world. While reading the effectiveness of these techniques I couldn’t help but think to myself, as Boromir did at the Council of Elrond, what if we can use this weapon against the enemy? We need a fundamental change in the way the world operates if we are to achieve global energy security, stop climate change and achieve some sense of resource equality. Well, Ms Klein is clearly ahead me on that thought.

Her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, released but a few days ago, touches on a topic very close to me, climate change and resource security. She advocates using these same techniques to no longer persuade people in power to change to a more equitable and sustainable model of business and administration, but to leave them no alternative. The video below, taken from the book’s official website can be seen as a trailer of sorts for it. I’m not a fan of change by activism; I believe it rarely makes a positive impact and whatever impact it makes tends to be chaotic and violent first. But this is something I might actually give a shit about. Sorry, Explosm.

 

  1. The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us by Dr Alice Roberts

I have been a fan of Dr Roberts for a while now, ever since I saw her incredible documentary on human evolution, The Origins of Us. She is one of the world’s leading medical anthropologists and the way she describes the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens is nothing short of exhilarating. The desire to read this book was born in me the moment I heard of its existence, but what inculcated a further curiosity was when I watched another one of her brilliant documentaries on YouTube. The Incredible Human Journey vividly describes the way that human beings evolved and spread from a relatively small number based out of the rift valley in Africa to becoming the most dominant species on Earth. The diversity and adaptability of human beings is also intensely elaborated upon by Dr Roberts, with each episode focusing on a different continent.

But as always, books allow authors, especially ones as engaging and knowledgeable as Dr Roberts, to elucidate their ideas and give a broader and more beautiful understanding of the issue. I also look forward to reading this book because Alice Roberts herself has described it as something of a concerted effort. She wrote 4 books in 5 years between 2006 and 2011, but has taken 3 years just to write this one. That implies a lot of research, editing, and care has gone into this one.

Amazon’s summary of the book is better than anything I can say about it. Here’s a summary of the summary:

Bringing together the latest scientific discoveries, Professor Alice Roberts illustrates that evolution has made something which is far from perfect. Our bodies are a quirky mix of new and old, with strokes of genius alongside glitches and imperfections which are all inherited from distant ancestors. This is a tale of discovery, not only exploring why and how we have developed as we have, but also looking at the history of our anatomical understanding.

I do have another reason for wanting to read The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, apart from the name, that is. And the reason is a girl. She’s barely 4 months old and is already changing the way I view the world. My niece, a beautiful baby girl named Nitya, is growing up so fast it astounds me. In the blink of an eye to a fog-headed old fart like me, she’s gone from being barely able to open her eyes to babbling in proto-language gobbledegook. As I don’t plan to have kids (again, you’re welcome, universe) whatever little affection I do possess towards children shall be directed entirely at my niece. And I would be fascinated to know how she can go from being the 3 kg mass of organic, freshly-made human I saw on May 9, 2014 to someone who will make one day be better than me at operating technology and a whole host of other complex tasks. 

So that should hopefully be a good start to rectifying the situation vis a vis my subconscious bias against women writers. If anyone has any suggestions, nonfiction would be preferable, please list them in the comments below.

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There’s A Book In My Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza

Internet fads, like Toxoplasma gondi, have successfully embedded themselves in the brains of a large proportion of the general populace and are changing the way we interact with the world, particularly cats. The Ice Bucket Challenge, purportedly a way to show solidarity with victims of Motor Neuron Disease, is the latest such trend to have captured the aam junta’s collective imagination, evidenced by the plethora of YouTube videos featuring celebrities from all walks of life emptying buckets of water on their head in the name of ALS. Side note, for some reason ALS is still archaically referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Wouldn’t Stephen Hawking’s Disease perhaps be a better name for it today? Anyway, the Ice Bucket challenge has since seen the emergence of an almost-equally popular (if slightly cerebral) variation, the Book Bucket Challenge.

Despite being a card-carrying member of the generation that basically invented the social media trend (referred to by the lead character of HBO’s The Newsroom as the “Worst. Generation. Ever.”), I have never really indulged myself in any passing social media fad, with the notable exception of dancing the Gangnam Style on the platform of Khajuraho Railway Station with Sarbojit Pal and Jonathan Donald. It’s true, I have never taken a selfie, especially a nude one (you’re welcome, universe), I have never done the Harlem Shake, and I haven’t even seen Frozen, let alone perform some quirky cover version of the song from that movie that everyone seems to be obsessed with. While I do pour a bucket of cold water over my head everyday (you call the Ice Bucket Challenge, we in India call it taking a bath), I have never recorded a video of myself doing it (see “No nude selfies” above).

Nevertheless, the #BookBucket is a challenge I can certainly get behind. Even if it ends up not doing a thing to help any charity, the Book Bucket Challenge is a feather in society’s cap as it not only allows readers to share their love of books by listing the ten books that have influenced them the most; it also helps them receive recommendations for books that they may not otherwise come across. And with the exception of certain people using this challenge as an opportunity to wave their so-called sophisticated reading tastes in our plebeian faces, it has been a largely positive experience.

Something that most people maybe don’t know about the Book Bucket Challenge or #10BookChallenge (I like using hashtags in a place like WordPress, it just points out how absurd they look outside their natural habitat) is that it is an Indian invention. Just like everything else, ever. Except this was not mentioned in our glorious ancient holy scriptures, but is instead the brainchild of a Kerala-based NGO. According to this article from Business Insider: 

The Book Bucket Challenge is a drive started by One Library per Village, an NGO based in Kerala. The mission of this NGO is to create awareness and share the latest tools, services[,] and resources that add value to digital libraries, enrich user experiences[,] and enhance associated people’s career development and learning activities. Unlike what is coming across on Facebook, this challenge is not only about nominating your friends for listing ’10 books that have stayed with them for a while’. Instead, you have to make a list of the books you are willing to donate to libraries or needy people.

However, since I’m doing the Facebook version of this challenge, I’ll stick to listing 10 books that have stayed with me. As for donating books, most of mine are currently in safekeeping with various friends distributed all over the world, so I guess I’ve done that part already. Which brings me to another positive to have emerged from this challenge; one of the books an old friend mentioned in his list on Facebook turned out to be my copy that I had lent to him some 12 years ago when I was in high-school.

And with all those (largely unnecessary) qualifications out of the way, let’s inaugurate this most auspicious of internet fads.

Thank you, Madhura Joshi and Rameez Hussain for nominating me. Here are, in no particular order, 10 Books That Have Stayed With Me in Some Ineffable Way. I would, of course, like to list more than just my top 10, but I’m not going to. However, if you are interested to know what other books I could list, you can check out the 199 books I have added on my Facebook profile over here.

  1. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

And

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman

  

I know it’s a cheat to list two books right off the bat, but they deserve a single entry because of how closely they’re linked in terms of their subject matter and by the influence they have exerted on my life. There was a time when I was absolutely certain that all I would ever do in life was study particle physics. And after clearing the entrance examination to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 2010, I thought I was but one small step away from achieving the first stage of my dream. Instead, that turned out to be as far as I would go. A disastrous interview helped me realize how far behind my peers I was, and after a royal bollocking from the interviewing committee, I emerged from TIFR’s Colaba campus dazed and confused, but certain in the knowledge that a career in Particle Physics shall be to me what careers as a cricketer, footballer, actor, or singer are to other people.

My love for particle physics and cosmology was first kindled by my encounters with these two books. Richard Feynman’s effervescent personality, approach to life and epistemology, and ability to match a brilliant intellect with an equally brilliant sense of humour was an inspiration to me. Stephen Hawking’s book was difficult to follow as a 12-year-old, but I managed to grasp most of it by simply reading what I hadn’t understood over and over until I did, before moving on. I have crystallized in my mind the memory of reading the final words of A Brief History of Time (“For then we will know the mind of God”), closing the book, and thinking to myself: Now I know exactly what I want to do with my life. C’est la vie.

  1. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Through a series of nasty experiences, I had come to believe that all Indian fiction in English fell under one of two categories.

  1. ‘Exotic’, ‘colourful’ books that are Kipling for the late 20th and early 21st Century reader. They are the purview of those poor souls afflicted with the Brown Man’s Burden, a desperate urge to prove that under their light brown skin, they’re as white as any of their London/New York literati friends. The prose is so purple it can at times leak into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum and disappear off the page entirely.
  1. Bhagat literature. The heroic “nice-guy” and his attempts to win over a beautiful girl from a higher station of society than his. The girl won’t like him because of superficial reasons like her having nothing in common with him to the extent that in reality, they probably wouldn’t be able to have a simple conversation. Does he win her over? Yes. Every time.

The White Tiger was a rare exception. Sure, Adiga hails from similarly elitist backgrounds, but his descriptions of India were so brutally accurate, he might as well have included photographs and turned it into a graphic novel. The framing device was genius; the entire novel is a series of letters from the eponymous White Tiger – a small-town genius who’s had to fight his way up out of “The Darkness” of poor rural India into “The Light” of upper class urban India – to President Wen Jibao of China. The prose in this book is near perfection, not too difficult for the lay Indian reader and yet of sufficient sophistication that it can hold the attention of people used to tougher fare. As an aspiring writer who treats fiction as his Achilles Heel, I know how impressive it is to achieve that precarious perfect middle path.

  1. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Thank you, mon ami!

Merci beaucoup, mon ami!

My birthday this year was a low-key affair. And then a man from Amazon arrived at my doorstep carrying two gifts from my friend Arthur Cheysson. One of them contained Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and the other contained this next entry on my list: Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. We human beings are social animals; we’re fundamentally tool-makers. The things we make influence us in the strongest possible way. In that sense, as we work away on our pieces of stone, steel, or plastic, they make us as much as we make them.

Originally a BBC Radio 4 programme, it takes a simple and brilliant route to showcase the occasionally biological but mostly social, cultural, and political evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens. Authored by Neil MacGregor, the Director of British Museum, (from where all the objects in the book are taken), it is a gentle walk through thousands of years of human history, elucidated spectacularly through the objects that played an integral role in life and society at a particular place and time. Starting with stone tools from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the cradle of our species, we look at coins, sculptures, tea pots, and even a royal slipper until we end on the two objects that define our world and our position in time and space: the credit card and the solar-powered lamp and phone charger. The choice of those last two items speaks volumes about the age we live in.

I would like to add that the BBC Radio 4 programmes on which this book is based are available for free listening and downloading as a podcast over here. I highly recommend downloading them and giving them a shot.

7. Collapse by Jared Diamond

I originally intended to put Jared Diamond’s earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel over here. I then thought I perhaps ought to list Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet instead. My mind was finally swayed in favour of Jared Diamond’s Collapse when I was reminded of a quote by the man who wrote entry # 5 on this list.

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

As someone who works (sort of) in the (sort of) development sector, I believe this quote sums up perfectly why I’m joining in to make a fuss about climate change, clean energy, and resource security. We are not, as many people would think, trying to save the Earth. The Earth is safe for the next billion years or so; at least until the Sun turns into a Red Giant and swallows all the inner planets (refer to the header image). We are trying to save our own place on it, we are trying to save this giant edifice to human ingenuity, this global civilization of ours that, despite its shortcomings, remains the greatest thing human beings have ever come together to make. Collapse highlights the issues that lead to the end of civilizations; ends that are usually sudden, unforeseen, unpredictable, and unknowable until much after you have crossed the point of no return. For all we know, our civilization may have already crossed our point of no return and collapse is inevitable. That might not always be a bad thing if we can manage (or should I say #mitigate) it well.

Also, a massive shout-out to Dinesh Kapur, who took my copy of Collapse with him to Cambridge University and got it autographed by Jared Diamond himself!

  1. A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha

The book has a highly misleading subtitle: “The Indian History of a British Sport”. This book is so much more than the story of cricket in India; it is a story of how cricket conquered India. It’s a story of how cricket managed what the British Imperial Government couldn’t; to completely ingrain itself into the hearts and minds of the native population and stay there indefinitely. It’s the great colonial survivor that has since become as Indian as cutting chai and defecating on railway tracks. Cricket was handed down to me like a family heirloom. My grandmother speaks of watching CK Nayudu play in the 1940s, my older uncle of skipping college to watch Rohan Kanhai and Gary Sobers bat in the 1960s, and my father watched Viv Richards score his first test hundred in Delhi in 1974. I’ve watched Sachin Tendulkar score a brilliant 177 versus Australia in Bangalore before being dismissed by a man named Adam Dale (that’s literally the only thing I know about him), after which I saw Mark Waugh score 153 not out while Anil Kumble took 6 for 98.

Cricket has been a lot more than just a diversion, first for the British colonist and subsequently for us Indians – or as Guha describes them in the book “The Homesick Colonial and the Imitative Native” – it is a vehicle for national pride and the arena in which all of India’s socio-political complexities are effectively condensed in the form of a team that’s occasionally capable of extraordinary things but whenever it comes close to dominance ends up handing over a test series lead to a sub-standard England team BEFORE LOSING 3-1!

Guha’s book uses cricket as a framing device to tell the history of colonial and post-independence India, of conflicts between religions and between castes, and of men who transcended their station to become Gods only to be lost to obscurity once again. Guha draws parallels between events transpiring on the cricket field with events unfolding in India and how those events led to new developments on the field. A more appropriate subtitle would have been: How Life imitates Sport imitates Life.

  1. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Some of you might be surprised with this choice. Surely you mean the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Mr Alagappa? While I am as big a fan of the H2G2 novels as you will ever meet (and I’m not just saying that because I’m 6’3” and fat), I personally believe Dirk Gently is where you will see Douglas Adams at his very best. He wrote it at his own pace (to his publishers’ constant chagrin); you can see that every page was painstakingly edited and every line vetted a hundred times before it ended up in the final published draft. Douglas Adams probably only wrote when he was in the muses’ grip, the prose flows so effortlessly. But the reason why I’ve listed this book over his other work (including the under-appreciated but highly recommended ‘Last Chance To See’) is because of what he did to the art of storytelling in Dirk Gently.

Most novels keep things simple; they have a beginning, middle, and an end. Some novels use a technique called ‘In Medias Res’, where they story begins in the middle and we work our way back to the beginning before getting to the end. Dirk Gently does nothing of the sort. Richard Dawkins said that as soon as he finished reading the book, he turned it around and started again. That’s exactly what I did too. Dirk Gently begins and the plot progresses while being punctuated with brilliant little jokes that you sometimes don’t catch until the 5th or 6th time you read it, and then towards the end you slowly start to realize the book is a bit of a Mobius Strip. Also, since you’ve come this far, if you ping/WhatsApp/tell me the words, “My old maiden Aunt who lived in Winnipeg”, I’ll buy you a beer/beverage of your choice if and when we next meet.

  1. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Just to clarify, by Foundation Trilogy I mean Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation. This does not include the sequels written when Asimov was in a funny mood in the 80s.

This is not a cheat, btw. They are one book, one story released in 3 parts. So much has been written about these books, I struggle to think of anything new I can possibly add. In 1966, the Hugo Awards – I hate to describe them as such, but it gets the point across succinctly – the Oscars of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, decided to institute a one-off award to be given to the Best Series of All Time. Nominees included Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Asimov himself thought the nominations were a formality and this was all an excuse to give Tolkien the award. You know how this story ends. The Foundation Trilogy won it, and deservedly so. Side Note: The same year, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Hugo for Best Short Fiction went to Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman – two works that would definitely have featured in my Science Fiction Book Bucket.

The problem with Foundation is what TV Tropes calls the Science Fiction Ghetto, aptly summarized by this popular comic. I can help by listing what it isn’t, rather than talking about what it is because odds are either you’ve read about it in someone else’s list or it’s in your list. Foundation is not a space-opera a la Star Wars; it doesn’t have big spaceships fighting epic gigantic battles IN SPACE with multi-coloured lasers going all “Pew! Pew! Pew!” Except at one point in the book, but – wait, that’s a spoiler. Foundation does not have a brave hero who fights against all odds and triumphs in the end to live happily ever after. It has multiple heroes who are revealed to be flawed human beings who are not above trying to profit off their heroism. It’s not a book for children, though they can read and enjoy it as much as someone who’s fifty. It does not have robots that humans fall in love with. It doesn’t feature any aliens, especially aliens that look exactly like humans but with a few extra breasts. It’s not anything like what you expect it to be. What is it, then? In a word, extraordinary.

  1. Jeeves Omnibus by PG Wodehouse

Ironically, the first Jeeves book I ever read is the only one to not feature Bertie Wooster in it. Ring for Jeeves is the story of the time the world’s greatest valet (‘t’ not silent) went into the service of the 9th Earl of Rowcester who, thanks to post-war economic policies or something (it’s never mentioned clearly), is completely impoverished and desperate to sell off his stately manor, which has turned into something of a white elephant. It is the most unique plot you will ever see in a Jeeves novel, but replace a few characters and locations and it soon becomes standard Jeeves and Wooster fare. And that’s okay because plot doesn’t matter to a Wodehouse novel. In fact, I would go as far as to say only a fool reads Wodehouse for the story.

To quote Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (No, I haven’t read it either): Storytelling Trumps Beautiful Writing, Every Time. Chetan Bhagat tweeted this very same quote (without crediting her); possibly in an effort to explain why he does what he does.

Except beautiful writing wins when it’s Wodehouse. Pelham Grenville (PG) Wodehouse, Plum, is the greatest writer of the English language to have ever lived, and yes that list includes Shakespeare, Milton, and whatever other early 20th century author second-year Stephanians claim was their childhood favourite. Wodehouse trumps them all because his stories are terrible to non-existent. And yet, we read him, we worship him, we chuckle softly every few seconds while not caring about who Bertie has accidentally ended up engaged to because we know Jeeves will bail him out. We read Wodehouse simply for what he does to the English language. He doesn’t so much as make love to her (there is no sex in any Wodehouse story I have ever read) as he simply takes her out for an amazing evening of dancing, theatre, and fine dining before dropping her home promptly at midnight.

  1. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut writes using short words in short sentences. He swears as often as we do in real life and talks to the reader like this. No, like this, reader. Seriously, you, the person looking at these words, this is addressed to you, do you understand? It isn’t until you try (and fail) to imitate him that you realize how beautiful, graceful, and poignant his work is. To give it its full title, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is about many things. But I think its unifying theme is the inescapability of the dark side of human nature and a descent into madness. It’s a fatalistic comedy about a man tortured by being one of the few survivors of an Allied war crime; he was locked up in a Slaughterhouse (number 5) during the fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden that killed more innocent people than the bomb that hit Hiroshima.

Billy Pilgrim, for he is a man on a spiritual journey, seems unfazed by this because he is unstuck in time. He jumps from one era of his life to another at random, a gift or curse given to him by extra-terrestrials from the planet Tralfamadore who put him on display at an alien zoo where he was forced to mate with another human, a lovely young pornographic actress. He never says it once, and because I’m an idiot, it took me a few years to figure it out. Billy Pilgrim has PTSD.

This book has affected the way I view the world, it has been a warm blanket and protected me against the cold harsh winds of reality. I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five so many times my copy of this book is in tatters, the spine is broken, and pages are strewn everywhere. It’s dead, basically. So it goes.

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The greatest novel ever written. As a single work of fiction, there has been nothing better before or since. That’s all I have to say about it.

Phew! That was some read, eh? Mind commenting?

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Children of A

Alternative Click-baiting Title: 8 Radiohead Covers That’ll Make You Think Again
 
Warning: What follows next are words about music. Words written by me, about a band I love, and one of their more experimental songs. Which I also love. If you find effusive fanboys gushing over their favourite bit of music annoying, leave. Or, you know, stay and make an ass of yourself in the comments. I could do with the traffic.

 

That title is not missing a noun after the indefinite article. This blog post is about a song; a brilliant bit of minimalist electronic ambient experimentalism called Kid A. It’s the second song and title track of Radiohead’s fourth album, which released in October 2000. In 2010 Kid A was named ‘Album of the Decade’ by music publications Now Magazine, Pitchfork, Rhapsody, Rolling Stone, and The Times Online, while also featuring in the Top 10 Album of the Decade lists in 14 other publications. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty good piece of music. What Kid A isn’t, however, is an easy listen. An old friend of mine once told me he only truly “got it” after listening to the album for the 50th time. Indeed, when Kid A came out, it polarized fans of Radiohead and indeed fans of rock in general. 

You see in 1997, Radiohead released OK Computer. It is, in my humble opinion, simply the Greatest Album Ever Made. It’s better than Kid A, better than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side Of The Moon, Revolver, Nevermind, Are You Experienced?, London Calling, Led Zeppelin IV, Thriller, or The Wall, to name a few usual suspects who inevitably appear out of nowhere, like demons answering a summoning incantation, whenever the words “Greatest Album of All Time” are uttered. The album saved rock, in an era of Spice Girls, Aqua, and Puff Daddy, OK Computer was a god-send. It still speaks to me today and I suffer an almost visceral reaction listening to it. This guitar-heavy rock album propelled Radiohead to levels of stardom that they haven’t matched since, even today. And that almost killed them. The brilliant documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, highlights the vicissitudes of fame and the tension it put on the group, almost leading to their self-destruction. Which is why when Radiohead came out with Kid A, an album that’s more of an exploration in lush, ambient electronic music and almost entirely devoid of their traditional guitar-driven rock sound; it was brave, foolhardy, controversial, and genius. 

I usually am of the opinion that the song Kid A shouldn’t be heard on its own, but is best experienced as part of a sequence of the first four songs from the eponymous album. However, I was recently introduced to a rather interesting video via Reddit’s r/Radiohead community. This cover of Kid A, which at the time had only around 4,000 views despite being pretty good and over 2 years old, was a gateway video that led me to search for more covers of Kid A or of other Radiohead songs.

Now, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that a band as famous and respected as Radiohead have been covered by artists from numerous genres. What I did find surprising is how many covers there are of Kid A, a song notorious for its indecipherable and ineffable lyrics, a sound so minimalist that it borders on chiptune music, and its tendency to just revel in its own weirdness and incomprehensibility.What I found even more surprising was that quite a few of these covers are actually pretty damn good. 

As soon as I found these beautiful, exquisitely creative, unusual, quirky, random tributes to one of my all-time favorite songs, I desperately wanted to talk to someone about this and just share what I had discovered. So, I did. I tweeted a few times about these covers and then when I realized no one would care about this on Twitter, I decided to blog about it instead deciding that while I would continue to remain ignored, it would at least give me a reason to update my blasted blog.

1. Morgan McRae’s Cover of Kid A

This was the one I found on Reddit. It isn’t perfect, but I found it interesting and very well-made nevertheless.

2. Evan Chapman’s Percussion Cover of Kid A

I thought this was really creative and just an outstanding showcase of this guy’s persuasive percussive talent.

3. Punch Brothers’ Bluegrass Cover of Kid A

I had not expected that the words Bluegrass Radiohead Cover would ever escape my lips. But that’s before I discovered Punch Brothers. They’ve done quite a few Radiohead songs, but listening to their cover of Kid A sounds like the ideal background score for an adaptation of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. 

4. John Mayer’s Cover of Kid A

When I first saw that such a thing as a John Mayer cover of Kid A exists, I was surprised and apprehensive. Luckily, while the song retains John Mayer’s…umm… John Mayer-ness, it also captures the sound of the original very well. 

5. The Original Kid A 

What the fuss is all about. 

6. Hanson Covers Optimistic

Hanson is a band you might be aware of. They were one of the earlier 90s’ abominable kiddie-pop music products, a “band” created by marketing executives as a way to tap into the youth target demographic and increase sales in all quarters across the board. They had a huge hit in 1997 with “MMMBop, which I liked when I first heard it, because at the time I was 8 years old and didn’t know that the song was the product of businessmen, focus groups and boardroom meetings rather than drugs, depression, and creativity (which is how I like all my art to be created now). Eventually, the band grew up and decided to show the world that they actually do have some modicrum of talent and musical integrity. And what better way to do so than to cover a Radiohead song. Well, shit, it’s actually decent.

7. Vampire Weekend Covers Exit Music (For A Film)

I know I’m deviating from Kid A, but I figured that if I’m in for a penny why not list all my favorite Radiohead covers right here. Vampire Weekend are the current world heavyweight champions of Indie music. They’re the band every hipster loved in 2007 and consequently hated in 2008 when their debut album became a huge critical and commercial success. This cover comes from Stereogum’s ‘OK X’, a tribute to Radiohead’s OK Computer released on the 10-year anniversary of the album in 2007. 

8. John Vanderslice’s Cover of Karma Police

This is the one Radiohead song people are most likely to have heard. So this cover ought to be most illustrative of how people seem to achieve a new level of genius while just copying Radiohead. (God, that statement was excessively fanboy-ish, even for me!)

9. Gnarls Barkley Covers Reckoner

Most of you probably know of Gnarls Barkley as the band behind this ear-worm from 2006. However, this supergroup consisting of R&B soulster CeeLo Green and the man who produces everything fresh and brilliant in modern music, Danger Mouse, have also performed this absolutely electric, searing cover of Reckoner. What I particularly adore about this performance is that in the original song by Radiohead features some breathtaking falsetto singing by Thom Yorke. 

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Writing Infidelity

Spoiled by a habit of being paid to write or writing for publications with a reputation (positive or otherwise), I have continued neglecting this blog. Here’s some other places you can find my writing in the meantime.

5 Facts About India You Never Knew

Is Lewis Hamilton now one of the all-time greats in Formula One?

Once I find a regular avenue for my writing, I will direct the 20-odd people who inexplicably follow this blog (Thank you, BTW. You guys are awesome!) to that place to enjoy more of my rambling rants and ravings.

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The Winter of ’69 Is Coming

I was sitting in a dark, somewhat seedy bar in Kondapur, Hyderabad when the “DJ” started to play Summer of ’69 and the dark, somewhat seedy crowd went wild. I was amazed that even in 2014 there were people who had failed rather spectacularly to outgrow Bryan Adams’ anthem to nostalgia. When I was 15 and in high school, everyone was learning to play that very song on guitar. The seedy bars I went to aged 18-21 played Summer of ‘69 on the hour every hour. And here I was again, 26 years old and watching people cheer and whoop as soon as Bryan Adams’ annoying voice croaked “I bought my first real six-string!” through the speakers.

That’s when the penny dropped. These were not disparate groups of people; no, they were the same. The same people who cheered Summer of ’69 in seedy bars at the age of 20 in 2008, were cheering Summer of ’69 in seedy bars in 2014, aged 26. Was it because they had stopped caring about music in the same way I had stopped caring about whatever gritty new American TV show was all the rage on social media? Why was that? After giving that question a bit of thought (and gin), I came up with the idea that it’s because we are now rather suddenly gaining an understanding of the value of time and the imminence of death. When you’re 15 or even 21, time is an empty stretch of ocean extending before you until it disappears over the edge of the horizon. All you want to do then is experience as much as you can, drown yourself in new and exciting pleasures. At 26, you start spotting land at the end of the horizon and suddenly, your time is precious and you want your pleasures to be simple, uncomplicated, regular, and something you can share with as many other people as possible. Thus, it’s easier to cheer and whoop to the unimaginative and clichéd strains of Summer of ’69 than it is to go out there and search for good contemporary music. It’s probably why our parents (or at least mine) stubbornly held on to their old tapes of Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar even while AR Rahman was making the best music of his career, before his he turned towards the new musical direction of rampantly stealing from Algerian and Middle Eastern musicians.

Well, I thought some of you might be interested in exploring new music once again, just like you did while in college, though instead of a large folder full of unorganized mp3s that span genres, decades, and quality; all I can offer is a list of some rather interesting musical acts I have come to grow rather fond of since 2010. Unfortunately, it is quite common for people who are knowledgeable about any human endeavour to use that learning as a weapon to protect their own fragile and bloated ego. Thus, people now are rightfully hesitant to heed anyone’s suggestions for trying out new music. Well, luckily for you, I’m not some sort of music connoisseur, and this is not some sort of hipster one-upmanship contest with me saying, “Look at all this music you’ve probably never even heard of”. These aren’t exactly underground acts; some of them have been around for over a decade. I’m just putting this out there in the hope that this list spreads and I will not have to endure any more Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi the next time I’m at a seedy rock-themed bar in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Delhi. So, without further ado, here is a collection (in no particular order) of what I believe is the best music I have heard in the last 4 years.


 

1. Das Racist

Some of you might have already come across the comedy styling of Hari Kondabolu. If you haven’t, I recommend you check this and this out. Das Racist is a rap group that consisted of Hari’s younger brother Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dapwell), fellow ABCD Himanshu Suri (aka Heems), and Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.). Their formation story is rather different from most hip-hop bands; they met at the prestigious Wesleyan University, perhaps the United States’ leading liberal arts school, which counts 13 Pulitzer Prize winners, and the likes of Joss Whedon, the creators of How I Met Your Mother, and Michael Bay in its alumni. The band is not some sort of privileged minority satire of hip-hop as much as it is a deconstruction of rap, race, and politics in the US. The name, a phoneticized version of ‘That’s Racist’, was a response to what Himanshu Suri described as a game “(…) to take all the seriousness out of making legitimate commentary on race, because that can get very annoying. So when something veering on racially insensitive would pop off in a commercial on television or something, it would be like, who could yell “That’s Racist” first”. Of course, if you don’t care about the socio-political commentary behind the music and just enjoy some phat beats and sick rhymes, this could work for you on that level too.


 

2. M83

In something with no precedent whatsoever in all of human history, some sort of revolution is taking place in Paris. Daft Punk were just the beginning, there is a lot of very interesting musical talent emerging from France, most of whom sing in English. French electronic/indie rock group M83 have been making music since 2001, but I only heard them for the first time in 2011, when their album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, was described by music critics as a summoning of the best of The Cure and New Order. That, the fact that the band are named after the closest and brightest spiral galaxy in the night sky, and that ‘cosmic’ and ‘trip’ were the most commonly used words to describe their sound, made me check them out almost instantly. While they definitely combine elements of 80s synthpop with a very 90s shoegazing, post-grunge feel, I would have to say that their sound can be best described as the auditory equivalent of watching an episode of Doctor Who. Particularly, an episode written by Steven ‘Adds Needlessly Messianic Undertones in Everything’ Moffat.


 

3. Deafhaven

Somewhere in the 1990s, metal completely lost it. Metallica started making shit like Load and Re-Load before making St. Anger and Death Magnetic, two ginormous pieces of pure, unadulterated excrement that now make Re-Load look like one of their greatest albums ever. Iron Maiden too only came out with their last good albums, Brave New World and Dance Of Death between 1999 and 2003. Throughout the 2000s, instead of rocking out, sticking it to the proverbial Man, and headbanging so hard that it took three cans of Violini spray before you were capable of lifting your head the next morning; metal fans indulged in only two pastimes. The first was arguing about who invented metal (some say it was Black Sabbath, others say Judas Priest, others say Led Zeppelin, and a few even point to The Beatles, with Helter Skelter as the first metal song). The second was arguing about what sub-sub-genre of metal a band or song belonged to. “What? Death Metal? Can’t you see this is clearly Norwegian Industrial Alternative Melodic Sludge Doom Heavy Grindcore?” Well, Deafhaven is a metal band that combines death/doom/whatever metal vocals with a sound that tends more towards Magnesium or Aluminium than heavy metal. Since no metal review is complete without coining a new genre to describe the band, I hereby dub Deafhaven ‘Death Mithril‘. It may come across as slightly disconcerting to the metal regular at first, but it grows on you until you can see the complexity and calmness behind the facade of chaos.


 

4. Broken Bells

As I said before, this is not supposed to be a list of “underground bands you’ve never heard of”. Broken Bells is a huge, multi-platinum selling supergroup consisting of James Mercer, the lead singer of The Shins (you know, the guys who made this song?) and Danger Mouse aka Brian Burton. Who is Danger Mouse? He is the Illuminati, the Men In Black (well, Man…), the Petyr Baelish of contemporary music. If in the last ten years you’ve heard an album that you think is something really good, possibly even awesome, there is a very good chance that Danger Mouse is lurking in some corner of that CD/record/folder. He’s worked on albums for Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Norah Jones, Beck, Sparklehorse, Electric Guest (a nice indie rock band I’ve just started listening to today, so I can’t feature in this post), and is working on U2′s next album. Danger Mouse, along with Cee Lo Green, also formed the group Gnarls Barkley; you’ve probably heard their Grammy Award winning song Crazy from their Grammy Award winning album St. Elsewhere. So, yeah. Danger Mouse + Shins = Brilliant. Check it out.


 

5. Kendrick Lamar

See, I told you this isn’t going to be a list populated with obscure artists nobody’s ever heard of! Unless you haven’t heard of Kendrick, in which case, I assume you don’t follow a lot of contemporary hip-hop, because he has been receiving high praise from almost every rapper, producer, and casual rap enthusiast in the world. Case in point, when his album good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t win the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, the winner - Thrift Shop‘s Macklemore – himself stated “You (Kendrick) got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” While that probably doesn’t do much as a recommendation, though it might endear Macklemore to you a bit, it is genuine. Kendrick is probably the best active MC in the world right now, and that’s in a list that includes Eminem.


 

6. Enter Shikari

Though this band has been around since 2003, and their breakthrough album came in 2009, I only heard them for the first time in late 2010. And no, they aren’t Indian. Enter Shikari’s post-hardcore metal sound, accentuated with dubstep-influenced electronica, is brilliant on its own, but what makes this even better is that they appear to be quite earnest musicians with a message. Their songs talk about the alienation that many young people feel with the establishment, the sense that the best days of your life are behind you and that those days were pretty shit to begin with, as well as climate change, resource inequality, and the urgent need for a social and economic revolution. It’s the kind of “youth empowerment” stuff we hear with nauseating regularity from the kind of people who BJP supporters call NGO-wale; except it’s put to some great music and expressed using words and emotions that reflect my sentiments about the issues more accurately.


 

7. Dualist Inquiry

If you have a TV in India, you might’ve noticed a new channel some time ago. If you haven’t, turn on channel 667 on Tata Sky (I don’t know the numbers for the other cable service providers and can’t be bothered to look them up). That’s the first good thing MTV have done since Fully Faltoo. Called MTV Indies, it’s a channel that’s dedicated (as of now) to Indian independent music. It’s also the first MTV channel worldwide to show a music video in nearly 8 years. The flagship band for this channel is, in my opinion, one of if not the best indie band from India now. Dualist Inquiry’s Doppelganger was easily the best album to come out of India last year. Their sound is an electronic heavy, synthpop influenced, psychedelic and largely instrumental kind of indie rock. Whilst not especially inventive or original, they are a step in the right direction, and their excellent production and skill could easily lead to the kind of genre-busting, path-forging new sound many of us are waiting for Indian indie bands to create.


 

8. The Child of Lov

When I first heard the self-titled debut album of The Child of Lov (aka Belgian/Dutch musician Martijn William Zimri Teerlinck), I couldn’t help but compare him to Damon Albarn. The album shared many similarities with Albarn’s early solo work with Gorillaz, viz. the incessant genre-switching, the almost child-like glee of making any sort of musical cacophony, and where Albarn’s Gorillaz fused electronic music with rap and hip-hop, The Child of Lov’s fusion tendencies created a Frankensteinian amalgam of electronic R&B and soul music. I treated this album as the early exploratory forays of a musician whose career I was expecting to follow rather keenly. While looking up his real name for this blog post, I found out that he died on December 10, 2013. May his electronic soul rest in peace.


 

9. Tame Impala

Did you like The Beatles when they were the Fab Four? Did you like them more before they went Back In The USSR? When Sorry Girls, Lennon Was Married and not The Walrus? When Paul was still alive? But do you also wish they could also win the Ashes 5-0? Well, lucky for you, there’s just such a band! Starting this brief about Tame Impala with a comparison to The Beatles may seem unfair to the Australian band, but what they lack in mop-tops, they make up for with a sound that’s described as neo-psychedelic space pop/rock, but is actually 60s hippie revival. These Bondi Beach Boys have successfully managed to integrate the music and feel of 1960s UK and California into Sydney and thereafter around the world.


 

10. The Lightyears Explode

If for nothing else, their album’s name: The Revenge of Kalicharan and their album cover. But even then, what I like about The Lightyears Explode is the fact that these guys come closest to achieving that unique, Indian-indie sound that we’re looking for. A piece of musical originality that betrays its roots better than the odd strain of a veena or beat of a tabla ever can and is yet more forward than backwards. I’m not saying this Mumbai-based punk band has it, but they’re heading in the right direction.


 

And with that, one hopes the tyranny of Bryan Adams will fade into darkness and the Winter of ’69 shall finally be upon us, and it will not be a moment too soon. You know, when I look back now… that summer seemed to last forever.

If you’ve read this far, sneak the words ascii 42 into a comment and the next time we meet in person, I will buy you 2 drinks of your choice.*

*Conditions Apply

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A short bit on some of my personal heroes

Hint: It’s not Nietzsche or Douglas Adams or even Radiohead.

The creators of South Park – Matt Stone and Trey Parker – are the only people in the entertainment industry who are anything close to being role models to me. They are the source of not just my life philosophy – a sort of nihilism sans melancholy, but their vendettas against maturity, political correctness, and society’s holy cows, along with their subversive, almost anarchist sense of humour is something I can relate to on a deeply personal level. Even the story of how they met is amazing when heard from their own voices. The boring version is that they met at film school while at studying at the University of Colorado. But Matt Stone puts it this way:

“We were the only two people who were into comedy and doing weird little films that weren’t black-and-white sexual exploration pieces. And so we were kind of thrown together because we were the only two who wanted to not be Martin Scorsese.”

A recurring statement in numerous interviews is that they find liberals, especially Hollywood liberals, far more interesting targets of satire than Republicans, and that most liberals are much worse at taking jokes aimed at them than conservatives, maybe because you don’t find a lot of good satire targeting the liberal side of an argument. I wasn’t always sure about this, my opinions on most matters classify me as a ‘Liberal’ and I thought that the South Park episode making fun of Atheism, a side I am firmly on, was hilarious, and more importantly, poignant; I understood the point they were trying to make and it probably stopped me from becoming what Dawkins describes as a ‘Militant Atheist’. So I thought maybe Liberals are not as bad sports as Matt and Trey make them out to be.

You know, I learned something today. They are right. Here’s a link to a 2010 Huffington Post article about the duo. The comments on this are a cesspool of delicate, self-inflated egos that have pricked quite hard and are scrambling desperately to reaffirm their own lofty ideas of being the modern world’s sociocultural Ubermensches.

Samples include:

Just poking fun at everything because you don’t understand the issues enough to know the difference between right and wrong isn’t cool, it’s asinine.

and

The are garbage people, living in a trash era in a rubbish universe, reveling in the intolerable stench of themselves and everything that surrounds them with every toxic breath. Their only theme is whether their exhalations are more poisonous than their inhalations, and their only answer to the question is “Fyoo, a whole!”
It’s very possible they may jointly comprise God 2.0. If they remain true to their vision of absolute spiritual, moral, and aesthetic bankruptcy, their careers must inevitably climax in martyrdom by some uniquely public, juvenile, repulsive, and meaningless suicide pact, (mutual immolation in rancid diapers?) after which religions will be based on South Park for the next 5,000 years.

or

Kind of amoral, narcissistic, frat-boys. Kind of like GWB

Yup. You have completely disproved their point. Well done.

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Is The End Nigh?

Before you read this, I would suggest checking out the exact opposite point of view, espoused by Anupam Guha over here. While I don’t agree with everything he says there, I do like his characterization of urban, Indian youth and the phrase he uses to describe them, ‘petty bourgeois’. The choice of words I think plants him firmly within that camp, and my appreciation of it lands me there too.

Side note: People have this idea that a blog post must be at least 2,000 words long and coherent and have a particular subject. Trying to ensure that my blog ticks all these boxes is perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve managed to update this blasted thing only once every few months. So, in the time-honoured tradition laid down by every self-aggrandizing speaker at every formal function I have ever attended, I will begin by saying “I’m going to keep this short” before droning on about something that you probably don’t care about.

I’m going to keep this short. This post is, in essence, an explanation of why I’m not commenting at all about the supposed elections taking place in the world’s largest supposed democracy. Of course, my inability to not fly off on irrelevant and irreverent tangents makes the possibility that this post will continue to be only about that remote, but I shall persevere. So, why do I refuse to be drawn in (until now, that is?) Because I think we are collectively, as a society, deluding ourselves. We are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, only pausing to notice an iceberg looming in the distance and saying to ourselves, “It’s an exaggerated threat. We’ll be fine!”. Yes, I’m aware of how bad an analogy that was. But my point is this. There are many well-intentioned, well-meaning, extremely intelligent people I know personally who are looking at these elections as if they are the cornerstone to India’s future. And maybe they are right; maybe decades, even centuries from now, people will look at the Indian General Election of 2014 in the same way that we today view the German Federal Election of 1933. But that presupposes civilization will last the next few centuries. I’m not try to be a climate prophet of doom, this is not a “OMG! climate change is going to kill us all!!!” rant. Even in worst-case scenarios, humanity will survive. In what state, however, is a different matter altogether. All I’m saying is this. Yes, this election is important, and yes, I do hope that a certain politician from a certain state with the largest coastline in India doesn’t end up becoming our Prime Minister. But that’s most likely what’s going to happen. And here’s the thing, very little will change. Change comes not from one man’s will or from the authority of the seat of Prime Minister. If that were possible, solving India’s problems would have been a piece of cake. We’ve had numerous well-meaning PMs in the past, some of whom commanded greater loyalty among their party members, possessed more charisma, and were more authoritarian than the one Liberal India is hoping and praying doesn’t become our next one. They couldn’t do shit, and neither will he. 

What will dictate the future of India are things that people have only a cursory interest in now. They glance at news articles about it, maybe like the occasional FB post related to it, and almost never read anything substantial written about the topic, though I don’t blame them. Climate change, resource scarcities, wealth inequality, India hitting some sort of Malthusian crisis point, natural calamities, falling trade; these are the factors that have historically shaped the rise and fall of civilizations and will shape the fall of our global civilization too. I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense we are close to a major catastrophe in this light. It’s just a feeling for which I have no evidence, but I can feel it in the same way one feels that it’s going to rain soon. Something in the air, something in the way things are going, it just makes me feel we have maybe a decade or two, maybe even less, to sort ourselves out before the shit hits the fan. 

Like most writers on the internet, I too secretly crave comments on my blog but am too proud to openly ask for them. Well, here I am doing that now. And just to make it easier, I am going to ask you a question that you can choose to answer in the comments. Or you could ignore it and just say I’m a lazy, nihilistic, so-and-so who can’t be arsed to do anything, even hold an opinion. Whatever floats your goat

I think, whether we like it or not, the balance of probability is that towards Narendra Modi is going to be India’s next PM. Suppose, like Dominic Cobb in Inception (THAAAD!), you had the ability to plant an idea in his head with the knowledge that he will actively pursue it in his own inimitable style, what would that idea be? (Please don’t be a spoilsport and say, “Step down from being PM” or something like that). Think about it, what would you make him do that would make his tenure tolerable, possibly even good, for India and even the world? 

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