Category Archives: Life and Death

Of celebrating life, even in death — this category contains some of my more personal posts.

The Taboo Topic

Death is a taboo subject. We are not supposed talk about it, or even think about it. It is almost like if we did, death might take notice of us, and we can do without that kind of attention. If we want to be inconspicuous anywhere at all, it is in front of Death.

I have been watching Six Feet Under recently, which is probably behind these musings on death. I am curious though — why is the topic of death such a taboo, despite its natural inevitability? I don’t mean the superstitious kind of taboo (“No, no, no, you are not going to die any time soon, touchwood!”), but the intellectual kind. The kind of chill that comes about if you try holding a conversation about it over a beer or at a dinner table. Why is death such a taboo?

To say that we are just scared of death is a bit of an oversimplification. Sure we fear death, but we fear public speaking more, but we can still talk about the latter. We have to find the reason for the special tabooness of death elsewhere.

One thing special about death is that it is a great equalizer — a fact almost too obvious to appreciate. Everybody dies — regardless of whatever else they do in their lives. Perhaps this ultimate leveling of the field may be a bit distressing to the more competitive among us. However high we soar, or however low we sink, at the end of our days, the score is all reset and the slate is wiped clean.

This slate-wiping business also is troublesome for another reason. It is so damn permanent. Its permanence has an aspect never present in any other kind of pain and suffering we go through (including public speaking). One of my personal techniques to handle minor aches and pains (such as a root canal, or even deeper wounds like the loss of a loved one) is to make use of just this lack of permanence. I remind myself that it is going to pass, in time. (For some strange reason, I do this in French, “Ça va pas tarder,” although, to be correct, I think I should be telling myself, “Ça va pas durer.”) I even shared this technique with my son when he broke his arm and was in excruciating pain. I told him that the agony would soon abate. Well, I said it using different words, and I fancy the little fellow understood, although he kept screaming his head off.

We can handle any “normal” pain by just waiting it out, but not the pain of death, which lasts for ever. Ça va durer. Is this permanence behind our fear of it? Perhaps. With absolute permanence comes absolute imperviousness, as any Spiderman fan would appreciate. What lies beyond death is unknown. And unknowable. Despite all the religions of the world telling us various mystical things about what lies beyond (you know, like heaven and hell, Karma and reincarnation etc.), nobody really believes it. I know, I know, some may honestly insist that they really really do, but when push comes to shove, at an instinctive, gut level, nobody does. Not even the ones who are certain that they will end up in heaven. Why else would holy men have security details? In Of Human Bondage, Maugham caricatures this strange lack (or impossibility) of real faith vis-à-vis death in his portrayal of the last days of the Vicar of Blackstable.

To live with any sense of purpose, I think we have to ignore death. A finite span of existence is just absurd at multiple levels. It makes all our lofty goals and ideals absurd. It makes our sense of good and evil absurd. It makes whatever we think of as the purpose of life absurd. It even makes the modest purpose of life proposed in the DNA-based evolutionary explanation (that we just want to live a little longer) absurd, for any finite increment in our life span is essentially zero when compared to the infinity of time, as the nerdy ones among us would readily appreciate. In short, there is only one real problem with life, which is death. Since we cannot avoid dying and paying taxes, may be we can avoid thinking and talking about it — a plausible reason behind the taboo nature of the topic of death.

Food Prices and Terrible Choices

Economists have too many hands. On the one hand, they may declare something good. On the other hand, they may say, “well, not so much.” Some of them may have even a third or fourth hand. My ex-boss, an economist himself, once remarked that he wished he could chop off some of these hands.

In the last couple of weeks, I plunged right into an ocean of economist hands as I sat down to do a minor research into this troubling phenomenon of skyrocketing food prices.

The first “hand” pointed out that the demand for food (and commodities in general) has surged due to the increase in the population and changing consumption patterns in the emerging giants of Asia. The well-known demand and supply paradigm explains the price surge, it would seem. Is it as simple as that?

On the other hand, more and more food crops are being diverted into bio-fuel production. Is the bio-fuel demand the root cause? Bio-fuels are attractive because of the astronomical crude oil prices, which drive up the prices of everything. Is the recent OPEC windfall driving the price hikes? What about the food subsidies in wealthy nations that skew the market in their favour?

Yet another economics hand puts the blame squarely on the supply side. It points an unwavering finger at the poor weather in food producing countries, and the panic measures imposed on the supply chain, such as export bans and smaller scale hoarding, that drive up the prices.

I’m no economist, and I would like just one hand, one opinion, that I can count on. In my untrained view, I suspect that the speculation in commodities market may be driving the prices up. I felt vindicated in my suspicions when I read a recent US senate testimony where a well-known hedge fund manager, Michael Masters, shed light on the financial labyrinth of futures transactions and legal loopholes through which enormous profits were generated in commodity speculation.

The real reasons behind the food crisis are likely to be a combination of all these factors. But the crisis itself is a silent tsunami sweeping the world, as the UN World Food Program puts it.

Increase in the food prices, though unpleasant, is not such a big deal for a large number of Singaporeans. With our first world income, most of us spend about 20% of our salary on food. If it becomes 30% as a result of a 50% increase in the prices, we certainly won’t like it, but we won’t suffer that much. We may have to cut down on the taxi rides, or fine-dining, but it is not the end of our world.

If we are in the top 10% of the households, we may not even notice the increase. The impact of the high food prices on our lifestyle will be minimal — say, a four-star holiday instead of a five-star one.

It is a different story near the bottom. If we earn less than $1000 a month, and we are forced to spend $750 instead of $500 on food, it may mean a choice between an MRT ride and legging it. At that level, the increase in food prices does hurt us as our grim choices become limited.

But there are people in this world who face a much harsher reality as the prices shoot up with no end in sight. Their choices are often as terrible as Sophie’s choice. Which child goes to sleep hungry tonight? Medicine for the sick one or food for the rest?

We are all powerless against the juggernaut of market forces creating the food crisis. Although we cannot realistically change the course of this silent tsunami, let’s at least try not to exacerbate the situation through waste. Buy only what you will use, and use only what you need to. Even if we cannot help those who will invariably go hungry, let’s not insult them by throwing away what they will die yearning for. Hunger is a terrible thing. If you don’t believe me, try fasting for a day. Well, try it even if you do — for it may help someone somewhere.

How to Live Your Life

I think the whole philosophical school of ethics serves but one purpose — to tell use how to live our lives. Most religions do it too, at some level, and define what morality is. These prescriptions and teachings always bothered me a little. Why should I let anybody else decide for me what is good and what is not? And, by the same token, how can I tell you these things?

Despite such reservations, I decided to write this post on how to live your life — after all, this is my blog, and I can post anything I want. So today, I will talk about how to lead a good life. The first thing to do is to define what “good” is. What do we mean when we call something good? We clearly refer to different attributes by the same word when we apply it to different persons or objects, which is why a good girl is very different from a good lay. One “good” refers to morality while the other, to performance in some sense. When applied to something already nebulous such as life, “good” can mean practically anything. In that sense, defining the word good in the context of life is the same as defining how to lead a good life. Let’s try a few potential definitions of a good life.

Let’s first think of life as a race — a race to amass material wealth because this view enjoys a certain currency in these troubled times that we live in. This view, it must be said, is only a passing fad, no matter how entrenched it looks right now. It was only about fifty years ago that a whole hippie generation rebelled against another entrenched drive for material comforts of the previous generation. In the hazy years that followed, the materialistic view bounced back with a vengeance and took us all hostage. After its culmination in the obscenities of the Madoffs and the Stanfords, and the countless, less harmful parasites of their kind, we are perhaps at the beginning stages of another pendulum swing. This post is perhaps a reflection of this swing.

The trouble with a race-like, competitive or combative view of life is that the victory always seems empty to the victors and bitter to the vanquished. It really is not about winning at all, which is why the Olympian sprinter who busted up his knee halfway through the race hobbled on with his dad’s help (and why it moved those who watched the race). The same reason why we read and quote the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was never about winning. And there is a deep reason behind why a fitting paradigm of life cannot be that a race, which is that life is ultimately an unwinnable race. If the purpose of life is to live a little longer (as evolutionary biology teaches us), we will all fail when we die. With the trials and tribulations of life volleying and thundering all around us, we still ride on, without reasoning why, on to our certain end. Faced with such a complete and inevitable defeat, our life just cannot be about winning.

We might then think that it is some kind of glory that we are or should be after. If a life leads to glory during or after death, it perhaps is (or was) a good life. Glory doesn’t have to be a public, popular glory as that of a politician or a celebrity; it could be a small personal glory, as in the good memories we leave behind in those dear to us.

What will make a life worthy of being remembered? Where does the glory come from? For wherever it is, that is what would make a life a good life. I think the answer lies in the quality with which we do the little things in life. The perfection in big things will then follow. How do you paint a perfect picture? Easy, just be perfect first and then paint anything. And how do you live a perfect life? Easy again. Just be perfect in everything, especially the little things, that you do. For life is nothing but the series of little things that you do now, now and now.

Image By Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Melesse using CommonsHelper., Public Domain

Giving What We Can

I found this charity initiative that I believe will make a real difference. It is called “Giving What We Can.” In fact, it is not a charity website, but a portal with a few recommended organizations listed — those that are efficient and focus on the extremely poor. Sure, it tries to lay a guilt trip on you, but it really does give you hard-to-find information.

While going through it, I suddenly realized what was bothering me about the “normal” charity activities. Most of these activities operate locally, not globally, and therefore end up helping the slightly worse-off. In a world where the richest 20% command 80% of all the income, local charity only means the top 5% giving to the next 10% — the extremely wealthy helping out the very wealthy. This kind of charity never reaches the really poor, who desperately need help.

Living in this highly skewed world, it is hard to see how rich we really are, because we always benchmark ourselves against our friends and neighbors. For instance, as a “poor” graduate student in the early nineties, I used to make about $12,000 a year. It turns out that I was still better off than 90% of the world’s population. It is not surprising — my stipend was more than the official salary of the President of India (Rs.10,000 a month) at that time!

Coming from a rather poor place in India, I know what real poverty is. It has always been too close to home. I have seen a primary school classmate of mine drop out to become a child laborer carrying mud. And heard stories of starving cousins. To me, poverty is not a hypothetical condition allegedly taking place in some dim distant land, but a grim reality that I happened to escape thanks to a few lucky breaks.

So the local charity drives bother me a bit. When I see those school children with their tin cans and round stickers, I feel uncomfortable, not because I cannot spare a dollar or two, but because I know it doesn’t really help anything — except perhaps the teacher’s KPIs. And the twenty-year-olds with their laminated name badges and certificates of authenticity also make me uncomfortable because, certifiable bean-counter that I am, I wonder how much it costs to hire and outfit them. And who benefits?

Similar bean-counting questions haunted me the last time I sponsored a table at a local charity dinner at $200 a plate — $100 to the hotel, $50 to the entertainers, and so on. Who is the real beneficiary? Some of us turn to local churches and spiritual organizations to share and help others. But I cannot but suspect that it only helps the middlemen, not the extremely poor we mean to direct our aid to.

These nagging doubts made me limit my charity activities to my own meager personal drives — two dollars to the hawker center cleaning aunties and uncles, gas pump attendants, those old folks selling three tissue packs a dollar, and the Susannah singer. And handsome tips after the rare taxi rides. And generous donations to that old gentleman who prowls CBD and strikes up a conversation with, “Excuse me sir, but do you speak English?” You know, the next time he asks me that, I’m going to say, “No, I don’t. But here’s your five bucks anyway!”

But seriously. Take a look at this website. I think you will find it worth your time.

Midlife Crisis

In one of my recent posts, an astute friend of mine detected a tinge of midlife crisis. He was right, of course. At some point, typically around midlife, a lot of us find it boring. The whole thing. How could it not be boring? We repeat the same mundane things over and over at all levels. True, at times we manage to convince ourselves that the mundane things are not mundane, but important, and overlay a higher purpose over our existence. Faith helps. So do human bondages. But, no matter how we look at it, we are all pushing our own personal rocks to a mountaintop, only to to see it roll down at the end of the day — knowing that it invariably will. Our own individual Sisyphuses, cursed with the ultimate futility and absurdity of it all. And, as if to top it off, our knowledge of it!

Why did Camus say we went through the Sisyphus life? Ah, yes, because we got into the habit of living before acquiring the faculty of thinking. By midlife, perhaps, our thinking catches up with our innate existential urges, and manifests itself as a crisis. Most of us survive it, and as Camus himself pointed out, Sisyphus was probably a happy man, despite having to eternally push the rock up the slope. So let’s exercise our thinking faculty assuming it is not too dangerous.

Most of us have a daily life that is some variation of the terse French description — metro, boulot, dodo. We commute to work, make some money for ourselves (and more for somebody else), eat the same lunch, sit through the same meetings, rush back home, watch TV and hit the sack. Throw in a gym session and an overseas trip once in a while, and that’s about it. This is the boring not merely because it really is, but also because this is what everybody does!

Imagine that — countless millions of us, born somewhere at some point in time, working hard to acquire some money, or knowledge, or fame, or glory, or love — any one of the thousands of variations of Sisyphus’s rock — only to see it all tumble down to nothingness an another point in time. If this isn’t absurd, what is?

If I were to leave this post at this point, I can see my readers looking for the “Unsubscribe” button en masse. To do anything useful with this depressing idea of futile rock-pushing rat-race, we need to see beyond it. Or have faith, if we can — that there is a purpose, and a justification for everything, and that we are not meant to know this elusive purpose.

Since you are reading this blog, you probably don’t subscribe to the faith school. Let’s then look for the answer elsewhere. With your permission I will start with something Japanese. Admittedly, my exposure to the Japanese culture comes from Samurai movies and a couple of short trips to Japan, but lack of expertise has never stopped me from expressing my views on a subject. Why do you think the Japanese take such elaborate care and pride in something as silly as pouring tea?

Well, I think they are saying something much deeper. It is not that pouring tea is important. The point is nothing is important. Everything is just another manifestation of the Sisyphus rock. When nothing is important, nothing is unimportant either. Now, that is something profound. Pouring tea is no less (or more) important than writing books on quantitative finance, or listening to that old man attempting the Susannah song on his mouth-organ on Market Street. When you know that all rocks will come tumbling down just as soon as you reach the pinnacle of your existence, it doesn’t matter what rock you carry with you to the top. As long as you carry it well. And happily.

So I try to write this blog post as well as I possibly can.

Candle that Burns Bright

A classmate of mine from IIT passed away a few days ago. When I heard the shocking news, I wanted to write something about him. What came to mind were a couple of disjointed memories, and I thought I would share them here. For fear of causing more pain to those close to him, I will keep all the identifying references to a bare minimum.

We used to call him PJ — an acronym for a mildly insulting expression, which probably had its origin in our academic envy. PJ was academically brilliant, and graduated at the top of a class filled with almost pathologically competitive and bright IITians. This intensity that he brought to bear on the less superhuman is part of my first memory.

Troubled by this intensity, we once formed a delegation to appeal to PJ’s better nature. I don’t remember who initiated it, or even who was there in the delegation. But it certainly feels like something that Lux or Rat would do; or Kutty, perhaps, if we could get him to do anything at all. Anyway, we approached PJ and requested that he take it easy. “What is the big deal, man? Slow and steady wins the race, you know.” PJ’s response was an eye-opener. “Sure,” he said, “but fast and steady is better!”

I’m sure this fast and furious pace of PJ’s brilliance brought him many well-deserved accolades later in a lifetime perhaps best measured in terms of its quality rather than quantity, impact rather than longevity. But PJ was never an all-work-and-no-play fellow. I remember once when the MardiGras girls came to the Mandak dining hall (“mess”) to eat. Studying them with that hapless fervor that only a fellow IITian can fully appreciate, we discussed this development with PJ. He said, “Yes, we want to mess with them!”

IIT happened to us at an age when friendships came easy and the bonds forged stayed strong. With PJ gone and the connections a bit weaker, I feel a bit of unraveling. And the melancholy words that ring in my mind remind me — ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

PJ was a brilliant man. I hope his brilliance would be source of strength and courage to those close to him. You know what they say, a candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. With one of our brightest candles flaming out, what I feel is a sense of some darkness descending somewhere far.

Photo by armin_vogel cc

Gurus of a Disturbing Kind

Perhaps it has got something to do with my commie roots, but I am a skeptic, especially when it comes to the “godmen” of India. I cannot understand how they can inspire such blind belief. Where the believers see miracles, I see sleight of hand. When they hear pearls of wisdom, I can hear only gibberish. And when the new age masters claim to be in deep meditation, I cannot help but suspect that they are just dozing off.

Although my skepticism renders me susceptible to seeing the darker side of these modern day saints, I do have a counterbalancing respect for our heritage and culture, and the associated wisdom and knowledge. It is always with thrill of awe and pride that I listen to Swami Vivekananda’s century-old Chicago speeches, for instance.

The speeches of the modern yogis, on the other hand, fill me with bewilderment and amused confusion. And when I hear of their billion dollar stashes, bevies of Rolls-Royces, and claims of divinity, I balk. When I see the yogis and their entourage jet-setting in first class to exotic holiday destinations with the money extracted in the name of thinly disguised charities, I feel a bit outraged. Still, I am all for live-and-let-live. If there are willing suckers eager to part with their dough and sponsor their guru’s lifestyle, it is their lookout. After all, there are those who financed Madoffs and Stanfords of the greedy era we live in, where fraud is a sin only when discovered.

Now I wonder if it is time that the skeptics among us started speaking out. I feel that the spiritual frauds are of a particularly disturbing kind. Whether we see it that way or not, we are all trying to find a purpose and meaning to our existence on this planet through our various pursuits. We may find the elusive purpose in fame, glory, money, charity, philanthropy, knowledge, wisdom and in any of the hundreds of paths. All these pursuits have their associated perils of excess. If you get greedy, for instance, there is always a Madoff waiting in the wings to rip you off. If you become too charitable, there are other characters eager to separate you from your money, as my Singaporean readers will understand.

Of all these pursuits, spirituality is of a special kind; it is a shortcut. It gives you a direct path to a sense of belonging, and a higher purpose right away. Smelling blood in the carefully cultivated need for spirituality (whatever spirituality means), the yogis and maharishis of our time have started packaging and selling instant nirvana in neat three or five day courses that fit your schedule, while demanding vast sums of “not-for-profit” money. Even this duplicity would be fine by me. Who am I to sit in judgment of people throwing money at their inner needs, and gurus picking it up? But, of late, I am beginning to feel that I should try to spread a bit of rationality around.

I decided to come of out my passive mode for two reasons. One is that the gurus engage their victims in their subtle multi-level marketing schemes, ensnaring more victims. A pupil today is a teacher tomorrow, fueling an explosive growth of self-serving organizations. The second reason is that the gurus demand that the followers donate their time. I think the victims do not appreciate the enormity of this unfair demand. You see, you have only a limited time to live, to do whatever it is that you think will lead to fulfillment. Don’t spend it on wrong pursuits because there is always something that you are sacrificing in the process, be it your quality time with your loved ones, opportunity to learn or travel, or enjoy life or whatever. Time is a scarce resource, and you have to spend it wisely, or you will regret it more than anything else in life.

So don’t be blind. Don’t mistake group dynamics for salvation. Or charisma for integrity. Or obscurity for wisdom. If you do, the latter day gurus, masters of manipulation that they are, will take you for a ride. A long and unpleasant one.

Photo by jeffreyw cc

Of Dreams and Memories

I recently watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), which describes the tragic plight of the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a severe stroke and became “locked-in.” During my research days, I had worked a bit on rehabilitation systems for such locked-in patients, who have normal or near-normal cognitive activities but no motor control. In other words, their fully functional minds are locked in a useless body that affords them no means of communication with the external world. It is the solitary confinement of the highest order.

Locked-in condition is one of my secret fears; not so much for myself, but that someone close to me might have to go through it. My father suffered a stroke and was comatose for a month before he passed away, and I will always wonder whether he was locked-in. Did he feel pain and fear? So I Googled a bit to find out if stroke patients were conscious inside. I couldn’t find anything definitive. Then it occurred to me that perhaps these stroke patients were conscious, but didn’t remember it later on.

That thought brought me to one of my philosophical musings. What does it mean to say that something happened if you cannot remember it? Let’s say you had to go through a lot of pain for whatever reason. But you don’t remember it later. Did you really suffer? It is like a dream that you cannot remember. Did you really dream it?

Memory is an essential ingredient of reality, and of existence — which is probably why they can sell so many digital cameras and camcorders. When memories of good times fade in our busy minds, perhaps we feel bits of our existence melting away. So we take thousands of pictures and videos that we are too busy to look at later on.

But I wonder. When I die, my memories will die with me. Sure, those who are close to me will remember me for a while, but the memories that I hold on to right now, the things I have seen and experienced, will all disappear — like an uncertain dream that someone (perhaps a butterfly) dreamt and forgot. So what does it mean to say that I exist? Isn’t it all a dream?

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

I first found this modern-day classic in my father’s collection some thirty years ago, which meant that he bought it right around the time it was published. Looking back at it now, and after having read the book, as usual, many times over, I am surprised that he had actually read it. May be I am underestimating him in my colossal and unwarranted arrogance, but I just cannot see how he could have followed the book. Even after having lived in the USA for half a dozen years, and read more philosophy than is good for me, I cannot keep up with the cultural references and the pace of Charlie Citrine’s mind through its intellectual twists and turns. Did my father actually read it? I wish I could ask him.

Perhaps that is the point of this book, as it is with most classics — the irreversibility and finality of death. Or may be it is my jaundiced vision painting everything yellow. But Bellow does rage against this finality of death (just like most religions do); he comically postulates that it is our metaphysical denial that hides the immortal souls watching over us. Perhaps he is right; it certainly is comforting to believe it.

There is always an element of parternality in every mentor-protégé relationship. (Forgive me, I know it is a sexist view — why not maternality?) But I probably started this post with the memories of my father because of this perceived element in the Von Humboldt Fleischer – Charlie Citrine relationship, complete with the associated feelings of guilt and remorse on the choices that had to be made.

As a book, Humboldt’s Gift is a veritable tour de force. It is a blinding blitz of erudition and wisdom, coming at you at a pace and intensity that is hard to stand up to. It talks about the painted veil, Maya, the many colored glasses staining the white radiance of eternity, and Hegel’s phenomenology as though they are like coffee and cheerios. To me, this dazzling display of intellectual fireworks is unsettling. I get a glimpse of the enormity of what is left to know, and the paucity of time left to learn it, and I worry. It is the ultimate Catch-22 — by the time you figure it all out, it is time to go, and the knowledge is useless. Perhaps knowledge has always been useless in that sense, but it is still a lot of fun to figure things out.

The book is a commentary on American materialism and the futility of idealism in our modern times. It is also about the small things where a heart finds fulfillment. Here is the setting of the story in a nutshell. Charlie Citrine, a protégé to Von Humboldt Fleischer, makes it big in his literary career. Fleischer himself, full of grandiose schemes for a cultural renaissance in America, dies a failure. Charlie’s success comes at its usual price. In an ugly divorce, his vulturous ex-wife, Denise, tries to milk him for every penny he’s worth. His mercenary mistress and a woman-and-a-half, Renata, targets his riches from other angles. Then there is the boisterous Cantabile who is ultimately harmless, and the affable and classy Thaxter who is much more damaging. The rest of the story follows some predictable, and some surprising twists. Storylines are something I stay away from in my reviews, for I don’t want to be posting spoilers.

I am sure there is a name for this style of narration that jumps back and forth in time with no regard to chronology. I first noticed it in Catch-22 and recently in Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. It always fills me with a kind of awe because the writer has the whole story in mind, and is revealing aspects of it at will. It is like showing different projections of a complex object. This style is particularly suited for Humboldt’s Gift, because it is a complex object like a huge diamond, and the different projections show brilliant flashes of insights. Staining the white radiance of eternity, of course.

To say that Humboldt’s Gift is a masterpiece is like saying that sugar is sweet. It goes without saying. I will read this book many more times in the future because of its educational values (and because I love the reader in my audiobook edition). I would not necessarily recommend the book to others though. I think it takes a peculiar mind, one that finds sanity only in insane gibberish, and sees unreality in all the painted veils of reality, to appreciate this book.

In short, you have to be a bit cuckoo to like it. But, by the same convoluted logic, this negative recommendation is perhaps the strongest endorsement of all. So here goes… Don’t read it. I forbid it!

The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham

May be it is only my tendency to see philosophy everywhere, but I honestly believe Maugham’s works are the classics they are because of their deep philosophical underpinnings. Their strong plots and Maugham’s masterful storytelling help, but what makes them timeless is the fact that Maugham gives voice to the restlessness of our hearts, and puts in words the stirring uncertainties of our souls. Our questions have always been the same. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And where are we headed? Quo vadis?

Of all the books of this kind that I have read, and I have read many, The Razor’s Edge takes on the last question most directly. When Larry says, out of the blue, “The dead look so awfully dead.” we get an idea of what his quest, and indeed the inquiry of the book, is going to be.

Larry Darrell is as close to human flawlessness as Maugham ever gets. His cynical disposition always produced vivid characters that were flawed human beings. We are used to snobbishness in Elliott Templeton, fear and hypocrisy in the vicar of Blackstable, self-loathing even in the self-image of Philip Carey, frivolity in Kitty Garstin, undue sternness in Walter Fane, the ludicrous buffoonery of Dirk Stroeve, abysmal cruelty in Charles Strickland, ultimate betrayal in Blanche Stroeve, fatal alcoholism in Sophie, incurable promiscuity in Mildred — an endless parade of gripping characters, everyone of them as far from human perfection as you and me.

But human perfection is what is sought and found in Larry Darrell. He is gentle, compassionate, single-mindedly hardworking, spiritually enlightened, simple and true, and even handsome (although Maugham couldn’t help but bring in some reservations about it). In one word, perfect. So it is only with an infinite amount of vanity that anybody can identify himself with Larry (as I secretly do). And it is a testament to Maugham’s mastery and skill that he could still make such an idealistic character human enough for some people to see themselves in him.

As I plod on with these review posts, I’m beginning to find them a bit useless. I feel that whatever needed to be said was already well said in the books to begin with. And, the books being classics, others have also said much about them. So why bother?

Let me wind up this post, and possibly this review series, with a couple of personal observations. I found it gratifying that Larry finally found enlightenment in my native land of Kerala. Written decades before the hippie exodus for spiritual fulfillment in India, this book is remarkably prescient. And, as a book on what life is all about, and how to live it to its spiritual fullness in our hectic age, The Razor’s Edge is a must read for everybody.