Three short book reviews and some thoughts on consumerism

The last time I read an R. K. Narayan book, I was bored to death. Somebody should have told me that Narayan’s forte was children’s literature. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Swami and Friends. It’s crisp, funny, intelligent, and profound, all at the same time. If you’ve seen Malgudi Days, you might even remember some of the scenes, which were copied word to word from the book. Swami’s languid life in Malgudi is nothing short of enviable. It takes us back to a simpler past, to our childhood, when the biggest worry in life was forgetting to finish homework. Swami induces that nostalgia and I identified with the characters at several levels. Take Swami’s friendship with Samuel the Pea for example:

The bond between them was laughter. They were able to see together the same absurdities and incongruities in things. The most trivial and unnoticeable thing to others would tickle them to death.

Haven’t we all had a friend like that? For the pure reminiscent quality of this book, I highly recommend it. But I might not be surprised if I’m the only adult who hadn’t yet read it.

For one who doesn’t read much of non-fiction, I read not one, but two non-fiction books this summer. The second one was in Marathi called Prakashwata by Dr. Prakash Amte, son of noted social-worker Baba Amte. Ok, I have to admit, I had heard of Baba Amte, but never really paid attention to what he did. I had also heard of Pula Deshpande giving a lot of charity to Anandwan. Only after reading Dr. Amte’s Prakashwata was I able to put the pieces together. Baba Amte ran the leprosy clinic Anandwan, and wanted to do something to help the tribal people near Hemalkasa. Dr. Prakash Amte decided to take over the responsibility there and in the ’70’s opened a clinic for the aborigines of Hemalkasa. A clinic set up in the woods, with no electricity, no state-of-the-art tools, limited supplies, Dr Amte and his wife Dr. Manda Amte and their group of volunteers took years to settle in this environment and win the hearts of the locals who had no idea what modern medicine was. Dr. Amte not just helped the tribal people with their health, he and his volunteers also helped the people learn basic farming, opened a school for their children, and gave shelter to orphaned wild animals that would often be killed by the villagers.

Sometimes one needs to be reminded that kindness, close to sainthood, still exists in this world. In spite of being doctors, who could have lived a wonderful life in the city, Dr Amte and his wife decided to give up on worldly luxuries and work for people they had otherwise no affinity towards. They did it (and are doing it) only because of the goodness in their hearts. I wish, quite hopelessly, that I had such conviction.

I also read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded and loved it. I love newly coined words, and Friedman introduced me to one –  affluenza. Friedman defines is as the epidemic for spending. Nowhere would you come across affluenza with as much intensity as you would in a country like India in the 21st century. Go to a mall, any day of the week. Try to find a time of the day when it’s not crowded or bursting with people. Find me a high-end shop that has no customers. Tell me of a teenager, with no income of her own, who doesn’t spend a shameful amount on hair, clothing, or electronic accessories.  Consumerism has reached such heights in the past 5 or 6 years, that I am shocked at the growing needs of people. Big cars, bigger houses, flashier clothes, expensive phones – we want everything. There’s no space for these houses, or no decent roads for the cars, but we have the expendable money.

And the difference is even striking when I read books like Swami and Prakashwata. In the former, Swami makes a list of things he needs for his exam: paper, pens, nibs, ink. When he shows it to his father, he is reprimanded that money doesn’t grow on trees and Swami has to take what he needs from his father’s desk and ask for nothing more. For Swami, who “had never known that his wants were so few,” this is a bitter disappointment. In a poignant incident which Dr. Amte describes in his book, his wife takes their sons to the city of Nagpur. Their sons, who have been brought up at the isolated clinic in the woods, haven’t seen the city or its luxuries. When they see an apple for the first time, they want it. They ask their mother to get them one, who tells them that she doesn’t have the money to buy them any. The children then proceed to ask their mother what exactly does money mean. Would any child growing up in an Indian city be unaware of the thing called money? Is there any innocence left in today’s children? I hope there is. And even though the disparity between Swami of yesteryears or people like the Amte family in today’s world and the affluenza ridden people of today is getting bigger and bigger, I would like to believe that there’s still hope. Hope for kindness, and doing good, and altruism.

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