Onwards and Upwards: 3 years and 1 journey later

Are you even a blogger-aspiring writer if you don’t write about your personal growth and experiences to share with a barely existing audience? I don’t know if I am, but this is something I am going to look back on, a few years down the line, and I’m putting this up on the internet, if you want to read it and draw even an ounce of motivation from it.

Graduation from an institution where one completes their undergraduate studies is not the greatest accomplishment in the world, nor is it worth endless appreciation and applause. It is an entirely different experience for everyone, in every generation of college students. But it is worth something — perhaps, a recognition for transitioning into adulthood and cultivating the ability to at least try to overcome the challenges life throws at us.

Three years ago, my choice to pursue an undergraduate degree in a place far from the comfort of home (but still incredibly comfortable), gave me the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and create an identity for myself — an identity that was still true to myself but past the trauma of my early adolescent years.

Campus Green, Jacobs University Bremen. Photo by: Haseeb Ahmed

In the beginning, things were more complex and volatile than I had ever imagined, and my deliberate, desperate attempts at changing my personality for the better were failing miserably. I was not going anywhere I wanted to be, I did not have a promising group of friends and my over-the-top university romantic comedy dream was nowhere close to being fulfilled. Top that up with advanced level organic chemistry no one prepared me for, a literal plethora of people and sentiments from countries I couldn’t even name, a constant homesickness and a sprained ankle that confined me to bed for three weeks. Quite naturally, within five months of being at university, I plunged into a kind of profound, confusing sadness; one that made me lock my doors and windows and hole myself up for hours on end.

But that, I can proudly say, is a thing of the past. With the understanding that only I could demolish the romanticised university experience I’d constructed for myself, I took a step back and realised that this here, was a group of people who knew nothing about my past and that they saw only what I showed them in the present. I could, in theory, be unabashedly myself and no one would know if I’d changed from the past or not. It took me a while to completely implement this: every time I made any sort of mistake, I felt the need to explain myself to someone, to show that I could do better, that I was better. I didn’t have to. We all err, and we all ask ourselves “why did I do that?”, but that’s an entirely personal conversation.

And that epiphany, I think, was really the turning point of my short university life. I did what I wanted, I liked, loved and disliked anyone I wanted, I pursued whatever and whoever I wanted — all of it, without hurting myself or the people around me. My unapologetic and somewhat fearless expression of myself brought me closer to the people I appreciated and needed, and took me away from those I didn’t. And today, I’m extremely happy with the people I am taking with me beyond the gates of the university.

During this process of learning about all that I was capable of and all that I wasn’t and throwing myself to things I loved, I fell in love with planning and organising, networking and applying. I fell in love with what my career could bring me if I prioritised, planned and executed. Some extremely ambitious friends and my professors propelled me further. This newfound appreciation and ambition put me on a path that is beautifully tailored for me, and even though traversing it is not going to be easy, I am truly and madly excited to do so.

Nearly everything about the intercultural and competitive environment that my university is set in, accumulated over time to make me the person I have become. And wherever I go next, I don’t think I’ll have to try so hard to ‘turn over a new leaf’ anymore.

And who thought we’d graduate amidst a pandemic? Photo By: Usharvi Basu

At this point, I don’t want to give out unsolicited advice; I am no motivational speaker and I haven’t conquered anything much in life. However, I do want to say this: university is a little crazy and lots of wonderful. It’s difficult, without question. But what’s on the other side, doesn’t matter for now, because it’s important — imperative, almost — to take, understand and cherish every day of the journey. And the worst of times will get better, if you work for it. You truly have to be the change you want to see in your life and also the world.

So, in conclusion, through many conventional and unconventional firsts, waves of confusion and sadness mixed with ecstasy and love, unspeakable (false) rumours, buckets full of all kinds of tears, high school like infatuations, grades that I’m proud of and not proud of, and, finally, odd amounts of spontaneity, I made it. It’s a bittersweet feeling: the past three years have given me space to fail, learn and grow and has kept me unscathed by the brutal world outside, but now, and rightly so, it’s time to move on.

Oh, and I found my rom-com dream, in case you were wondering.


P.S. This is what I wrote when I first moved to University: https://themisfitssite.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/the-unusual/ (cringe)

Review: Salvage The Bones

Salvage The Bones is a visceral, true to reality novel of a poor family of six in the eye of the storm – Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the United States of America in August 2005. The costliest tropical cyclone on record, the aftermath of the storm was nothing short of catastrophic. After having taking nearly 2000 lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in material damage, Katrina displaced almost one million people in the gulf coast region [1].

Salvage The Bones is also a story of love in the ugliest of places, filial affection amidst gut-wrenching poverty and strength where there is no strength to find.

Esch is 15. Esch and her brother, Randall are default parents to their youngest brother Junior, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have a mother. Esch adores her brother Skeetah, who in turn, only has eyes for his prized pit bull, China — so much so that he often sleeps in the dog shed. Esch is also pregnant and the father of the child won’t look Esch in the eye, won’t acknowledge Esch.

As the motherless family that lives among abandoned cars and chickens prepares for the disaster that’s about to hit them, there are other matters at hand that need to be dealt with first: an alcoholic father, a basketball match that could give Randall a much longed for scholarship, illegal pit bull matches, and a not so secret teenage pregnancy. But for the Baptiste children, it’s all going to be okay, because all that matters in the end is their unbreakable relationship with each other.

Jesmyn Ward writes like she’s not afraid, like she wants to rip open wounds. She uses extremely powerful prose and sets graphic scenes; so graphic that you will shudder in disgust and get carried away in the deluge of it. But this graphic setting is important, because it forms the backbone of Esch’s world. In Esch’s world, there’s parallels with China, because China is a mother and a fighter and that’s what Esch wants to be.

“She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.”

– Salvage the bones

Esch is an unlikely heroine, unlike the teenage girl stereotypes we are faced with. She’s the kind of heroine that strikes a chord in you, one that you’re going to root for even when the book is over, one that the world needs right about now.

From forceful depictions of reality, Ward dives into poetic metaphor, describing everything, from Oak trees and magnolias and the wood, to Esch’s undying love for the father of her child, Manny. “Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.”

But this book’s most striking feature is not Esch’s confusing yet love-filled world, but Skeetah’s undying passion for his beloved dog, China, feelings that are mutual. Here, the story is about the unconditional bond forged between a man and his dog. Ward is a magician in describing the relationship that Skeetah and China have.

Ward’s expression is so vivid and raw that you will feel the sultry heat of the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage stick to your skin and you will feel the ache of unrequited love in your heart. When the storm finally arrives, what Esch calls home — The Pit — is home no more, but war zone. Ward, who lived through Katrina herself, describes the storm with never seen before intensity; an intensity that almost hurts. When the sky is finally clear and the residents step out of the debris, you cannot help but imagine yourself standing in the rubble. And from Katrina too, Esch draws inspiration, for she is a female with unprecedented strength.

“Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

– Salvage the bones

Salvage The Bones is an urgent book, a book that, above everything, unties the box known as privilege. In times like these, Ward’s narrative stands out because she has a story to tell, and she wants the monstrosity to show. She demands strong emotions from the reader. Ward does not shy away from having an uncomfortable conversation whilst also drowning you in poetry, and in the process, she creates a masterpiece.

~Ushashi

[1] https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/hurricane-katrina

Review: Origin

Each time Dan Brown writes a new book, he speaks in detail of a new socio-religious conundrum or an unanswered question at the cusp of Science and Religion: the usual these things that make his books worth waiting for. What’s the question going to be? But then you hear “Robert Langdon” and your expectations lower a little bit.

It’s always exciting to learn what new race-against-time our favourite professor of ‘symbology’ is going to be involved in this time around, but the entire premise is a bit redundant – an overbearing amount of information on religious symbols, a guided tour of a historically relevant city and a gorgeous independent-not so-independent woman cast opposite Langdon (or Tom Hanks, as you like it). Origin, Brown’s latest addition to “The Adventurous adventures of Robert Langdon” is no different.

Origin, 2017

Langdon and his lady (here, Ambra Vidal, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and engaged to the fictional Prince of Spain) aside, Origin’s co-protagonist is Edmond Kirsch, a futurist and an all-knowing master of technology. His predictions of the future have always been accurate and he has created technology beyond a 2017-human being’s perception or imagination. Kirsch is also a devout atheist and doesn’t shy away from publicly deriding and denouncing religion; he ardently believes that one day, the religion of science will dawn upon us. So, when he tells the leaders of the world’s religions that he has discovered something that will shatter the foundations of their faith and shake humanity to the core, you’re on the edge. Edmond’s dramatic narration in the first half builds up nearly all the adrenaline in your body.

But between Edmond’s introduction in the prologue and his much anticipated announcement, there’s almost a 100 pages of a very detailed and meticulous tour through the Guggenheim Museum. For those entirely uninterested in modern and abstract art, I suggest you skip.

Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, 2017. Photo By: Ushashi Basu

So let’s say you’ve finally arrived at the point where Kirsch appears out of smoke and is literally *this* close to his “stunning” reveal. Enter religious zealot hired by a shady, anonymous organisation who shoots Kirsch in the head and runs. What follows is the most intriguing yet boring plot ever: a high-stakes chase through Spain’s coveted tourist spots, explained like you were on a Wikipedia page.

For nearly 7 pages in the middle of a hunt, Brown describes Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, its architecture, its history, its social influence, its contribution to…you get the point. And Sagrada Familia isn’t the only one victim to Brown’s exposition – there’s the Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Royal Palace in Madrid, bridges in Budapest, Winston Churchill, Antoni Gaudi and so on. Every time there’s something like that, you hit a lull in your reading momentum.

You get there though, to Kirsch’s discovery. And by the time you get there, there’s also almost 200 million people tuning into the revelation, thanks to Edmond’s posthumous fame and Ambra, the future queen of Spain.

The discovery is beautifully penned and unquestionably explained. Brown has done more than enough research and it’s visible. Here, there are no loopholes and all the pieces of the puzzle fit. The questions Brown addresses are questions we’ve all asked at some point: Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Edmond Kirsch, however, makes it sound like this is something entirely unprecedented and that our fundamentals as human beings will be doubted. After nearly 400 pages of stalling, exploring and feeling foolish every time Kirsch’s research was mentioned, you hear what Kirsch had to say, albeit through a pre-recorded presentation. But it isn’t as crazy as it’s made out to be. Anyone with the knowledge and memory of high-school biology and any technological skill whatsoever would’ve been able to tell. Once you sort of crack one code, it all seems rather obvious (this includes the identity of the anonymous caller). It is commendable though: Brown keeps you guessing even though you knew the answer all along.

In retrospect, if Brown had really written a discovery that would’ve shaken us, he’d have received much more media attention than he is used to.

Dan Brown exaggerates and uses hyperbole all too much. He pulls a lot of things out of proportion and gives us part-novel, part fact-sheets. Instead of using character development, he uses 2-pages of modifiers to establish his characters. But he also brings to light questions that are central to human existence and our civilisations and writes a book that’s well paced and factually accurate. And through the good and the bad and the predictability, Brown’s books are as entertaining as ever.

A Pandemic, Digitalisation and Us

So here we are — in the 4th month of the new decade, a year where we all thought we had 2020 vision. But things couldn’t have possibly gone anymore astray. We’re caught in the middle of something that is spreading by leaps and bounds and will undoubtedly change the course of our lives, society and the future.

The first wave of COVID-19 news came in January, after having been identified in December 2019. But in January, we were worrying about the Australian bush fires and discussing Brexit.

And before we knew it and at a speed we are all still trying to fathom, the virus was everywhere. Literally everywhere, resulting in this global health emergency. It was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 11th of March.

COVID-19 is the name that has been coined to refer to the respiratory illness caused by the novel Coronavirus, also known as the Sars-CoV-2. Indicative symptoms include shortness of breath and dry cough, accompanied by fever and fatigue. Whether the disease is air-borne is still under debate, but it has been confirmed to be spreading through close contact and respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs [1], and is most contagious when the person is symptomatic [2]. As much as we all are vulnerable to the virus, senescent people and people with underlying medical conditions are at the forefront. Not to forget all the healthcare workers, who are constantly in contact with those exhibiting symptoms.

As a result, the scientific community, universities and biological companies across the world have come together at an unprecedented speed to understand the virus and to develop a vaccine that could bring things back in control.

But then again, aren’t so many things about this entire situation unprecedented? It’s overwhelming and just the right amount of chaotic.

And here’s why: the mass digitalisation we’re all subject to. This is our battle not only with a virus (that you can kill with soap, when outside your body) but also digitalisation.

Because of the pandemic, we’re all more connected than ever. Our potential — as creatures who’ve developed this level of connectivity and as organisms who will stay connected with each other no matter what — is being realised at a behemoth scale. With every online class and midterm, with every online homeschooling lesson, with every grandma calling her grandchildren, with every star live-streaming their concert, the world is becoming a little more connected; each of these activities reinforces the fact that no one is too young or old to learn how to use technology. We’re all learning through innovation and creativity. It’s almost Utopian on certain levels. Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, has described this as an opportunity for people to imagine “a world recast through virtual networks.” [3]

We’re all trying our level best to keep up with one another and loved ones; the situation has given me the chance to reconnect with people I thought I’d never hear from again. And I’m sure we’ve all discovered that there’s nothing that we used do on a regular basis that we cannot do online (all those meetings that could have been emails…).


But to every bright and beautiful thing, there is a deep seated ugliness. And this time around, this ugliness is disguised as misinformation and panic. Thanks to the entire internet at our fingertips, immense amounts of time in our hands and uncertainty induced fear in our heads, misinformation is on a rampage.

As if daily updates from the WHO, our work institution and news outlets weren’t enough, there’s unsolicited chain messages on WhatsApp, conspiracy theories (fun to read, not to believe) and our friendly neighbourhood YouTuber ready to inform us of something new and share with us opinions, when all that matters right now are facts, correct scientific facts. In a time where we don’t know how each day is going to turn out, panic because someone couldn’t hold their breath for more than 10 seconds is the last thing we need [4].

Avoiding misinformation may seem difficult — how do you separate wheat from chaff? Almost everything on the internet seems reliable and there is always the looming trap of confirmation bias.

Trust the experts. Trust the experts writing for established sources – The New York Times, The Guardian, the World Health Organisation etc. Trust in science. If any piece of information seems even slightly off, cross-check it with these sources. And most importantly, treat the misinformation like the virus and don’t pass it on [5]. It’s really not that difficult to tell fake news apart — drinking truck loads of alcohol is NOT going to disinfect our systems.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best.

It is imperative that we use the means of communication at our disposal in the right ways – to work from home, catch up with friends over video calls, watch Netflix and stay optimally informed – not too much, not too little.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best. How we emerge from this pandemic could change how we communicate in the future, and this change is going to be for the better.

Use these mediums to spread positivity, if anything. Emphasize the need to stay at home, share with people how you’re keeping yourself entertained during isolation. Articulate through videos and messages that every single one of us has the power to save the world and that our social responsibility is greater than we can imagine. This is our chance to live our childhood dreams of becoming a superhero, crazy as that may sound. This is not just about protecting ourselves, but also our communities and everyone around us. Highlight the fact that collective decisions we make today will impact millions of people in the next year. [6]

All of this will pass and we will be reunited. None of our brunch mimosas or arcade dates are going anywhere. Everything will fall back into place but in due time. And the sooner we mutually agree on that, the better. And among the many things we will gain out of this, our understanding of human relationships will particularly stand out. We will love each other a little more, hate each other a little less. We will cancel fewer plans and we will worry less.

About a very distant image of the Earth, Carl Sagan said, “…it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” It couldn’t be more appropriate than it is today.

Pale Blue Dot, as taken from the Voyager Space 1 probe, 1990


References:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/how-long-coronavirus-last-surfaces.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_disease_2019

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-fears-rediscover-utopian-hopes-connected-world

[4] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

[5] https://medium.com/@alicefleerackers/covid-19-misinformation-more-viral-than-any-virus-a3b4d3e07890

[6] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196496/coronavirus-pandemic-could-have-caused-40/

Review: A Man Called Ove

In 6th grade, my friend told me that “cute” wasn’t really an adjective, that anything could be cute without any meaning. But if someone asked me to describe A Man Called Ove in one word, I would, without question choose “cute”. It is nothing but heart-achingly cute.

Frederick Backman’s 2014 debutante was not an instant hit: nobody really wanted to read the story of a Swedish curmudgeon waiting on his death. The book only became popular by word-of-mouth; someone must have read it and told all his acquaintances, “You have to read this book! Ove is horrible but you’ll love him!”

A Man Called Ove, 2014

Ove (pronounced “Oove-eh”) is a despicable man doing despicable things in his neighbourhood — kicking cats, calling people names, barking orders and thinking everyone is complete idiot. Simply put, he hates everyone and everything. He’s never known anything beyond his principles and his routine. All of this grumpy and inflexible behaviour changes however, when a noisy family of four moves in next to him, and knocks on Ove’s door at every step of the way. Suddenly, Ove’s quiet

life turned upside down and he is doing things he’d always grumbled about. The matriarch-like figure in the house next door, Parvaneh, makes it her responsibility to thaw Ove’s heart the minute she meets him and the relationship that evolves is incredibly heartwarming.

Over 340 pages, Ove’s story beautifully unfolds, going back to a time when his life wasn’t as black and white as you’d initially make it out to be. There is longstanding sadness and frustration within him and beneath the many layers of anger, there is softness, warmth and a soft spoken man who was once in deep,deep love. How he got to his present state is a detail I will not indulge in. I must mention Ove’s relationship with his wife, because it will, undoubtedly restore your faith in the immense amount of love we’re all capable of, loyalty and strength, especially in times of adversity.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”

A MAN called Ove

Backman writes with a tone of softness that is contagious. There is simplicity in his prose, making the book an emotional yet light read. He knows just when and how to pull at your heart strings and when you make you laugh. The balance between sadness and happiness in the book is almost perfect.

Although the book doesn’t take the reader through much of a journey, the journey here is Ove’s; it is his coming-of-age story, albeit at 59. All sorts of endearing, A Man Called Ove creates a soft spot in your heart and a filial bond with Ove. It’s one of those books you cannot predict anything about after having read only a few pages but it is also those books you cannot give up on. Once you get a glimpse into the gears inside Ove’s mind, you’ll want to see the book to the end.

A Man Called Ove is a book about love and loss, frustration and triumph, confusion and clarity and breaking and fixing — all of which leaves you a bit fuzzy and sad on the inside. Pick this book up if you want to fly and cry through unconventional and conventional love in the most unlikely of people and places.

Review: A Little Life

“Of all the books in the world, why did you choose to read this one?” screamed my friend at my face as I pulled the big book out of my bag while we waited for our appointment. I told him that it had been recommended to me by someone I trusted wholeheartedly with book recommendations. I was barely 20 pages in and extremely excited for what the book had in store for me and so, I scowled at my friend for crushing my hopes. Little did I know that I was in for a read of a lifetime – yes, read of a lifetime.

For the first fifty or so pages, A Little Life seems like any other book set in the heart of New York – big city, big dreams and four friends fresh out of college, maneuvering their way through this chaos. They work, they complain, they go to parties and they go to art galleries and they throw parties – a standard but well painted picture. But 50 pages out 720 tells you nothing. What unfolds through the rest of the book is perhaps, one of the (if not most) harrowing and painful literary journey.

Jean-Baptiste Marion (JB), Malcolm Irvine, Willem Ragnarsson and Jude St. Francis (I’ve added their full names for dramatic effect) are out of university and…lost. They hold on to each other while the tide plays with their ambitions. We know that JB is an aspiring artist and Malcolm a budding architect, that Willem wishes to become an actor one day and Jude is a lawyer and mathematician. However, the book, that took Yanagihara eighteen months to write, spans over a time period of thirty years and so, friendships and relationships and careers and houses are fleeting.

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

A Little life

As the book progresses, two of the characters achieve their dreams and some characters slowly step away from the limelight of the narrative and it becomes evident that everything – the past, the present and the future – revolves around one character and one character only: Jude St. Francis. The book becomes a biography of a fictional character, stitched together by his friends, his colleagues, his doctor and confidante, his adoptive parents and most importantly, his past. Nobody really knows Jude (for a significant part of the book, at least), who he is and where he comes from and why he is so incredibly reclusive – and yet, they exist for as long as he exists; they exist because he exists.

Through hyperbole and exaggeration that she has admitted to using, Hanya Yanagihara describes the battle that life is when one has to live with chronic trauma and depression. She explores human suffering in all its forms and its origins and whether it truly ever ends, but at the same time, takes on unconditional friendship and what it means to be a true friend in a time when deteriorating mental health and anxiety is rampant. The extent of the trauma and the countered friendship are both grossly overstated – to the point that both of them are equally painful. The author tends to drag her readers through a bed of nails to truly emphasize her point and very often, this feels rather unnecessary. There’s only so much devastation and ache one can take; I found myself vomiting after certain parts of the book.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, 2015

A Little Life forces on you emotions and thoughts so profound and so tormenting that you’re often frantically searching for consolation in any form – either in an acquaintance who has read the book or cute kitten videos. There’s also a dearth of emotional counterpoint in the book – there is no relief or moment of deliverance anywhere. At about the 430th page begins the segment “The Happy Years” and one would think those years are truly happy and things look brighter for every character. It does and there’s a weight that’s lifted off your shoulders, but this is only the calm before the storm; things only get inexplicably worse. The lack of redemption creates an intense feeling of frustration that could drive you mad. You’re searching for a glimmer of hope like a child at a treasure hunt which keeps you turning the pages until you realise its over and you made it through Yanagihara’s ultimate test of patience and tolerance.

Without question, the prose is exceptionally eloquent, shifting smoothly between the past and the present. It takes immense artistic capability to able to write the way Yanagihara has and she truly makes the most of her role as a puppeteer. She wields her power to the most of her capability, which in turn, gives the reader a guileless experience. It took me a whole month and two days to finish the book – the most it has ever taken me to finish a book – and I cannot say I am disappointed. The story is no Pandora’s box, but more of a very difficult maze that one is navigating while also profusely crying.

A Little Life took a little part of my life with it when it was over. It taught me a great number of things, especially about friendship. I have a tight group of friends and the three of us have been kindred spirits for a long time now, in spite of having been separated by cruel distances. It’s one of the most unconditional expressions of love I have known and this book taught me how much more I need to love them, how much more I need to trust them and how much kinder I need to be to them; that life won’t let me say goodbye when I would need to.

Crying with Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm is a very emotionally expensive task but there’s no other way out of this book other than completely immersing one’s self in the misery and magic of it all.

Remember how in The Fault in Our Stars Hazel Grace says that The Imperial Affliction (her favourite piece of fiction) was the kind of book “that fills you with this weird evangelical zeal and you become convinced that the shattered world would never be put back together until every living human has read the book”? A Little Life is one of those books.

No review, no movie and no verbose explanation could do justice to the emotion that this book is. It’s nearly impossible to capture the essence of the book in any way other than reading it. I just hope I’ve been able to inspire at least one person to read the book. Despite the excessive and awe-inspiring melodrama and the disgusting amounts of pain, everyone (except those going through any kind of physical or mental distress, in which case I very strongly recommend against it) needs to pick this masterpiece up. It’s entirely worth it.

Ushashi Basu

The Creativity of Dreams and How to Manifest Them

The idea to write a piece on the interconnection between dreams and creativity came to me in a dream. I’ve dreamt entire plots of great thriller novels and even their sequels. But this is not just me, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dreaming is a process that occurs voluntarily in the mind, mostly during specific times of sleep. It can be described as a collection of clips, images, feelings and memories – both good and bad. The intensity and the contents of dreams change throughout the sleep cycle, with the most significant of them occurring during REM – Rapid Eye Movement – phase of the sleep. Brain activity is highest during this phase (as measured by encephalograms), which could explain the vividness in dreaming. While dreaming, the brain connects events that have occurred throughout the day, thereby weaving narratives.

Creativity, on the other hand, is one of the human mind’s most inexplicable qualities. It has historically been extremely difficult to determine what creativity stems from. A friend, who studies psychology told me that creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology. Creativity is known to create new connections between different brain regions, but only recently have neuroscientists, through fMRI’s, PET Scans and other scanning technologies, been able to study creativity more closely.

Quite unsurprisingly, dreaming and creativity are closely intertwined with each other, so much so that it is almost impossible to study one without the other. Because the brain stitches stories about everything and everyone we encounter, it could lead to the birth of novel ideas, and developing on this idea could quite possibly help sharpen our creativity (even for those who are always whining about how they’re not creative…at all). Dreams have proven to be inspirational – affecting the whole world kind of inspirational – multiple times in the past; in 1818, Mary Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created life and went on to write Frankenstein, one of the most influential science-fiction works of all time. Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini composed his most famous work “Devil’s Trill Sonata” after the devil played the tune to him by his bedside in a dream. During dreaming and during creative processes, dopamine level increases in the “pleasure centres” of the brain, and this acts as a positive feedback loop to keep dreams and ideas constantly flowing.

“Creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology!”

Ignacio Muñoz, research assistant and undergraduate student of Psychology, Jacobs University Bremen.

It is not entirely difficult then, especially for those already creatively inclined, to manifest their creative dreams and project them into prose, poetry and other forms of art. The product can, quite easily be superior to those produced during wakefulness, simply because of the enhanced brain activity.

But is it possible to use this aspect of dreaming in fostering creativity without actually sleeping? Perhaps.

In his book “Writing: A Memoir of The Craft”, Stephen King writes that in both activities, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum of rational thinking.” It is absolutely feasible to train our brain and our mind to silence itself during any time of the day and push it into a where the brain activity does not manifest as physical activity. Daydreaming for example, is one situation where our mind wanders and gives rise to sudden bursts of creative ideas.

Another way to embody creative dreams is dream recall. As unbelievable as it might be (from experience), it is possible to completely recall all our dreams and then, note it down. A key factor that influences our ability to recall dreams is the speed at which we fall asleep and at which we wake up. The longer the state of our hypnagogia – a state of half wakefulness and half sleep – especially when we are waking up, the better our memory of the dream. And if the dream is ingrained in the brain as a memory, it could be used a ‘plot’ for another dream, and the cycle goes on. Relaxing into bed and gradually letting our body take control, hence, could have drastic effects on our creativity. The only people who have very minimal dream recall ability are usually clinically depressed, according to studies, but that is a different aspect of discussion altogether.

Either way, writing books or a plot for a movie based on a dream is not only achievable, but also encouraged. All of our crazy, erratic dreams could be our brain trying to tell us a story, a story that holds the potential to become a great work of art. At the least, it could push each and every one of us to create without any kind of inhibition. We need as much art as possible in the world – philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that good art is a vehicle of truth – and so, maybe it would be wise to harvest anything that allows more art to be created.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and finish the three part dystopian tale I’ve been dreaming of for years.


Ushashi Basu


For more, visit:

https://time.com/4737596/sleep-brain-creativity/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/14/stephen-king-on-writing-and-creative-sleep/

Life As A Synaesthete – A Colourful Chaos

Around 1 to 3% of the people in the world have Synaesthesia – a neurological condition that is characterised by the involuntary stimulation of multiple, unrelated sensory or cognitive pathways at the same time, leading to several interconnected sensory experiences. An example of Synaesthesia would be the association of colours with alphabets and numbers – someone who suffers from grapheme-colour Synaesthesia identifies each alphabet or number with a specific colour and cannot possibly imagine any set of alphabets that is not coloured.

First described in detail in 1880 by Sir Francis Galton, the phenomenon was more often than not ousted as ‘crazy’ and considered an anomaly in society. Fearing ostracism, synaesthetes, for generations, have rarely spoken of their condition; most of them keep it a secret their entire lives.

Synaesthetic experiences don’t just stop at associating letters with colours. Every logical combination of senses – sometimes even more than 2 – can lead to Synaesthesia and there are about 80 documented types of Synaesthesia. Chromesthesia, the most common form of synaethesia, allows the synaesthete to visualise colours in different shapes and forms as soon as they hear any note of music; the opposite also holds true.

Now imagine being able to see every hour, every day, every week and every month of the year before you, carefully laid out in the form of a staircase or a chessboard or a ladder kept at rest. Everything is colour-coded – vacations, weekends, exam days and birthdays – and no colour repeats itself. Your to-do list floats around in this endless space and fits like pieces of a puzzle in this intricate network. Each day that passes by takes you to the next block, like you’re a pawn in a game your brain is playing with time. This madness is known as Sequence-Space Synaesthesia and this is what my brain looks like.

I’m not crazy and I’m not alone, however. Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, everyone’s favourite Billie Eilish, music composer Hans Zimmer, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynmann, actress Marilyn Monroe and perpetually misunderstood creative legend Vincent van Gogh – all suffer(ed) from Synaesthesia. For centuries, Synaesthesia has been used extensively as a literary device to describe the intermingling of senses of the protagonist. Although references to Synaesthesia can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, it became extensively popular in the 19th century in the works of poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. It is also found in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and other works of the 20th and 21st century. In most of these works of literature, Synaesthesia appears as pathologies, romantic ideals or emotional completeness, as Patricia Lynn Duffy writes in the Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia.

As much as a synaesthete’s mind is mostly absolute chaos, it also serves as a sink of creativity, especially for grapheme-colour synaesthetes and chromesthetes. Such individuals are skilled at using their ability to indulge in and excel at complex creative activites such as music, art and theatre. With my Sequence-Space Synaesthesia, all I ever do is organise and schedule and schedule and organise; the word ‘deadline’, in all its representations in popular culture does not scare me and time holds no meaning for me – it’s a game I need to finish. The upside of having SSS is that I can remember birthdays and anniversaries with an almost freakish accuracy.

How one acquires Synaesthesia is still rather ambiguous – while some researchers believe that it runs in families, it is also believed that brain damage or trauma to the head can result in the development of Synaesthesia. Another theory suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – substitution of a single nucleotide at a specific position in the genome – results in decreased pruning or decreased inhibition and increased activation in the synaesthete brain. Cross-talk between different regions of the brain may also account for different forms of Synaesthesia.

One thing to remember about Synaesthesia though, is that it is not a disease and is not directly harmful. Most synaesthetic experiences are pleasant or neutral, but there are reports of these experiences leading to sensory overload. For example, although the Sequence-Space Synaesthesia doesn’t affect me in any kind of social setting, it makes me extremely prone to severe panic attacks about the things I still need to do (even if it is in a year). Something that has helped me keep these moments at bay is Bullet Journaling – systematically and warily noting down everything I have to do, including attending a party, gives me a peace of mind nothing else does.

Synaesthetes often assume that everyone sees the world the same way they do; it comes as a setback (and sometimes as an existential crisis) to know that this way of looking at commonplace things is not all that common. Talking about it may give synaesthetes a different perspective on this condition, but most just don’t mention it and it works. For all we know, it is as normal as breathing.

Ushashi Basu

For more, visit:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/what-it-s-like-to-live-with-synaesthesia-a7079241.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

http://uksynaesthesia.com/

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Lydia is dead, and her family doesn’t know about it yet – that’s not a spoiler, that’s just how the book starts. Her body is later found in the local lake and questions like “Why was she there?” or “Did someone lure her there?” arise. One would think then, that Everything I Never Told You, in its 292 pages, investigates all the plausible reasons that could have lead to Lydia’s unexpected death – like most literary thrillers – but that’s far from what the book is about; as a matter of a fact, there is not much (if any) investigation at all.

It’s 1977, in a small, deserted, almost eerie town in Ohio, and the first thing you’d notice would be the Lee Family – half Chinese, half American. They’re misfits and all they ever do is worry about the stares they receive from colleagues, neighbours and strangers. The children are a funny mixture of black hair and blue eyes, something that almost never happened in the time frame the book is set in. And quite naturally, this ostracism causes the family to just balance on a very tightly strung tight rope; every action, every word counts. Lydia’s death topples them all over.

In a haunting page-turner, Celeste Ng explores how deep seated racial prejudices are and how it seeps into familial relationships. The book asks questions and talks about issues in a way that plunges the reader into a feeling of frustration and sadness – so much so that there were moments I didn’t want to finish the book. Each character invokes very strong emotions, ranging from uncontrollable anger to heart-wrenching pity and in spite of fundamental flaws in the Lee’s and everyone associated with them, one cannot choose sides. It’s incredibly painful to read of all the things that go unsaid – you almost feel like a chained spectator, helplessly watching the family fray at its edges and the drama unfold. Through the entirety of the book, there’s a stagnant nagging feeling of grief and misery tugging at your heart – almost like having a lump in your throat but the tears never coming.

“People decide what you’re like before they even get to know you.”

Everything I never Told You, Celeste Ng, 2014

Celeste Ng writes like she never took her pen off the paper, so coherent and eloquent is the prose. Although her debut novel, Ng’s control over her writing is extraordinary and her puppetry of her characters is extremely powerful. She very easily plays with her reader’s emotions and demolishes the happy ending with a snap of her finger; such is the art of her writing. Moving back and forth before and after Lydia, she gives an insight into the Lee household – both emotionally and physically – with astonishing clarity. The book ends on a soft note but is left open to interpretation – something that plays a crucial role in the development of the novel.

Everything I Never Told You may not have been the best book I’ve ever read, but it is definitely one of the most important books I’ve read, for reasons I cannot indulge in for now. As much as I urge everyone to pick this book up, I’d advise you to read it only if you are able to deal with heavy, unsettling emotions.

In short, this book takes the reader on a long guilt trip – for all the times they’ve eyed someone for looking different. And we know all of us have.

Science, Storytelling and Scientific Storytelling

Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We’re all literary artists in one way or another, using our individual linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our lives – in an attempt to place more significance on who we are as people. Storytelling is perhaps the simplest and most engaging form of “imaginative activity”, holding the power to incite the deepest of human emotions.

Science on the other hand, is one of the most powerful tools that has the ability to change the way humans think and the decisions they take for themselves and their societies. Science holds the power to heal. Consequently, scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day and how scientists convey what they learn has the potential to have profound effects on humanity as a whole.

The scientific knowledge that we gather every day has to be able to inspire action, especially by our leaders and people who govern us. And this need to inspire action based on hard facts and figures obtained in research can only be ignited by the activity humans have participated in for generations: storytelling. According to Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, by crafting a story that we are passionate to tell because it serves a real purpose, our stories will have a bigger impact on the world. And there are very few things in this world that are as passionate as scientists giddy from successful results they want to share. However, even in the presence of fervent passion for one’s research, proper scientific storytelling would only be effective when scientists want to convey complex information with not the motive to just throw out everything they know, but the desire to provoke thoughts and to inform the audience with an outward focus.

Scientific storytelling could transfer a lot of valuable information and telling a story out of scientific research isn’t all that remote and difficult as one would normally imagine. Every discovery and every research that was ever born had a story to tell. Humans are also constantly stitching narratives in their head – about how their favourite shirt didn’t fit, how the tomatoes at the supermarket were all rotten and how the glimmer in their lover’s eyes made their day – in fact so much, that almost 65% of all our conversations are personal anecdotes and gossip.

Research shows that although our brains are not constructed to retain facts and figures for a long time, they are incredibly good at perceiving, understanding and remembering stories. Our brains involve themselves when telling or listening to a story – more than one sensory region is activated during a storytelling activity. Storytelling stirs a significant number of emotions and plays with human psychology, thereby engaging more audience. Storytelling is also the only thing that works in order to affect a change in belief and behaviour in the masses. Together, Science and Storytelling are almost like a power couple. An amalgamation of narrative and research data could stimulate the audience not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Subsequently, such a stimulation would allow the story to stay with its listeners for days.

Storytelling has proven to be effective in marketing and large businesses, giving us no reason to believe that it would not work in science. In a 2014 paper, Roald Hoffman, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters (emeritus) at Cornell University, wrote that because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in [our] scientific world…but science does depend on compelling narratives and that science has stories to tell.

Perhaps the quantification of scientific ideas as well the idea that science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ for it to be communicated has vanquished the prose in science. But it is never too late to reinforce the importance of narratives that is found in science. Humans are already manufactured to tell stories and so, all that remains to be done is to spur a willingness to write and narrate a story from what scientists learn. Storytelling has a considerable scientific component; conversely, embracing scientific storytelling could only prove to be the most effective form of science communication.

Ushashi Basu

Featured Photograph (on homepage) by: Anusha Das

Read More:

https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/aug/28/science-storytelling-digital-marketing

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/03/09/the-science-of-storytelling/#565f09212d8a

https://lifehacker.com/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-5965703