Friday, July 31, 2020

The Bookshelf Series 4 - Dr Satish Nargundkar

Satish teaches at the Georgia State University, Atlanta. I remember him introducing some very interesting books - 'A Whack on the side of your head', or 'Winnie the Pooh', that he gifted to Shobha when we were in college which we found very eclectic then. Later on, he gifted me one of the funniest books I ever read 'Dave Barry on Sex and Marriage', the classic 'I am that' and recently 'Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow' a year ago - few of the many books he has gifted or recommended. We Satish and I enjoy talking about various things on our many walks in Pune, Hyderabad and wherever we are. He is a blackbelt in Hapkido, an avid photographer (I use a lot of his pics on this blog), and a man of many other interests.
Pic courtesy - Marla Beggs Nargundkar

Let's hear it from Satish straightaway, about books and his bookshelf.
Note: My answers here assume that school textbooks do not count in this discussion. Certainly, many of those had some influence on me, but they do not reflect the act of voluntarily reading for the joy of reading.

HM. How did your reading habit start? Who influenced you early on to read?

SN: My brother, who is older by three years, was always a voracious reader. My preference as a kid was to get him to play outside with me, which was sometimes successful. Often, though, he would curl up with a book and refuse to play (being physically so much smaller, I must not have been much of a challenge or fun to play with!). So, I had no choice but to do the same and started reading what I could.

My parents and grandparents (mother’s side) all encouraged the reading habit and set examples with their own reading. For a short while between the ages of 8 and 12, I used to read portions of the newspaper to my grandfather, who was bedridden and had poor eyesight. We also had magazines in English and Marathi lying around the house, along with a cupboard full of books. Most of these were too advanced for me, but a kids’ magazine called “Kumar” in Marathi was an early favorite to read.

In early childhood, there were many Marathi storybooks that involved magical things that helped some poor kid or the least favored prince on some quest for redemption. The titles (translated from Marathi) were typically something like “The magic leaf”, “The magic lamp”, and the like. These were feel-good stories that I enjoyed, perhaps until age 10 or so. These as well as stories from the Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables, and other western Fairy Tales were the staple reading. We had a beautifully bound book called “The World’s Best Fairy Tales”, a Reader’s Digest collection with lovely illustrations in colour, a rarity at the time. The edge of each page had a golden veneer, so it gave the volume a distinctive look.

All these stories, apart from being a source of entertainment, usually had some moral that I am sure had an impact unconsciously. I cannot point to any aspect of my behaviour as an adult and draw a straight line to its origin as a result of reading any of these books (I doubt anyone can), but the relationship is probably there. Perhaps even more influential were stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, though I cannot claim to have read those books until I was into my teens. My early exposure to those stories was from listening to my grandmother tell them.

As an aside, I must mention that storytelling as an oral art form seems to be disappearing, as technology replaces grandparents in the role of relating stories and history. The credit for any influence that the stories I heard from my grandmother had on me goes as much to her skill as a storyteller as to the books from which she related those stories to us. Hearing them from her made the stories more real and inspiring.

HM. What were the books that impacted you most? How?

SN: Early Childhood
a) Fairy tales and other adventure stories in Marathi and English

b) Ramayan and Mahabharat

All these stories I think automatically inculcate in a child some sense of right or wrong, of treating others well, the ideas of Karma and Dharma, and even thoughts of life, birth, and death.


c) By the early teens, I was in boarding school at HPS Ramanthapur. Marathi reading had all but gone, and all my reading was in English. Enid Blyton was a favourite, as with most kids in India at the time. The various series of Enid Blyton were all enjoyable. I did not read Secret Seven much. Loved the Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers (and the dog), and the school series of Mallory Towers and St. Claire. Even though the protagonists in the school series were girls, I found Mallory Towers especially fun to read, since it mirrored my own life in many ways. There were six books showcasing the life of schoolgirl Darrell Rivers as she went through six years of middle/high school. I too was at HPS for 6 years. Darrell was shown as a girl that played lacrosse and got on the school team. I played basketball (despite my size!) and was on the school team. I was always interested in sports and athletic pursuits, and these books were inspiring. HPS Ramanthapur was modelled after the British Public Schools, and I suppose the descriptions of school life in those books really hit home for me.

d) In the mid-teens, I moved on from Enid Blyton to Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Biggles, and a few Nancy Drew. Of these, The Three Investigators were my favourite. Something about solving puzzles was more interesting to me than action adventures that was more the Hardy Boys style.

e) In the late teens, my reading moved in predictable ways to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason novels. By now, I preferred the male protagonists to the female ones (Poirot over Marple, and before that, Jupiter, Pete and Bob over Nancy Drew). Ellery Queen and of course, Sherlock Holmes, were the other detectives I liked.

Aside from these books, the teen years were filled with comic books. Amar Chitra Katha was a storehouse of knowledge of Indian epics and history, and Phantom, Mandrake, Tarzan were always devoured when found. TinTin and Asterix were harder to come by, but being in the hostel meant that someone would eventually get one from somewhere, and there was instantly a line of kids saying “after you” for the right to read it. Another popular comic book series was called Commando comics (I think) and featured stories of British heroism (typically RAF pilots) in WWII.


Engineering College days at Osmania University involved more movie watching in Hyderabad with the extra freedom, and reading did not progress too much in diversity. Generally, apart from mysteries, I read action stories, like James Hadley Chase, Alistair MacLean, Clive Cussler, Leon Uris, Erle Stanley Gardner (non-Perry Mason books too, with Donald Lam and Bertha Cool as the main characters), Sydney Sheldon, a few westerns like Sudden, Louis Lamour.I must mention that Perry Mason novels did teach me a lot of legal terminology that came in handy for my GRE. The only other books outside of this genre were, of course, those by P. G. Wodehouse.

During these college days, I once ran across one aged relative (an uncle or great uncle, I forget which) who asked me what I liked to read, and when I told him, he remarked, “these are all OK to pass the time, but you should read something that has better characterization, and helps you build character. Read some biographies of famous people like Gandhi or Bose. Read Shakespeare.” I politely said OK, and promptly ignored the advice, but the words obviously stuck in my head, since I remember them to this day.
Graduate School and Beyond, in the US
Moving to the US for my PhD in Management meant a change of field of study, as well as exposure to people from different parts of the world, and recommendations for reading from professors and fellow students. I discovered Isaac Asimov, and fell in love with science fiction novels as well as non-fiction scientific books. I read several books on philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology (all expository works written for the layperson, since I was no expert in these fields). Being away from home (India) and missing home awakened an interest in Indian philosophy and thought, and yoga. What I dismissed as foolish mysticism while in India, suddenly became something worth going back to. My study of Hapkido, a Korean martial art, introduced me to Grandmaster Gedo Chang, whose lectures on Eastern philosophy further convinced me of the value of going back to my roots and examining what I had missed.

I also started reading biographies and read a few, including Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln. The mystery genre remained close to heart, and I expanded to American authors like Ross McDonald and my favourite mystery author now, Rex Stout. In recent years, I have tried to read books in other genres, and read several Murakami books. Non-fiction works include books by Malcolm Gladwell, Kathryn Shulz, and others.
A closer look!

HM. Who are your favourite authors - top 5?

SN: My criterion to determine my favourite authors is simple. Can I re-read this author’s books numerous times without getting bored? These authors have withstood that test. There are several authors that have written more meaningful books that I admire, and they would make the list if I used different criteria to define a “Top” author.

i. P.G. Wodehouse (humor)

ii. Rex Stout (mystery/action)

iii. Isaac Asimov (science fiction, science non-fiction)

iv. Haruki Murakami (fantasy, slices of life)

v. Richard Dawkins (science exposition, primarily evolutionary biology)

HM. Could you share the list of your top 10-15-25 books?

SN: Multiple novels by Authors

a. Any of Enid Blyton’s many books (for the kid in you).

b. Any of several Wodehouse books.

c. Any of several Rex Stout books featuring Nero Wolfe.

d. Any of Isaac Asimov’s several hundred books. He was perhaps the most prolific writer ever.

e. Any of Murakami’s novels or short stories.

f. The Poirot novels of Agatha Christie. These, in hindsight, are not the best written in terms of literary merit or characterization but have great nostalgic value for me.

g. Perry Mason and Donald Lam/Bertha Cool novels by Erle Stanley Gardner.Again, these are formulaic but were part of my formative years, and so dear to me.

Specific Books

h. I am that, a collection of talks by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

i. Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahamsa Yogananda

j. Ramayana and Mahabharata, both by C. Rajagopalachari

k. The life of Mahatma Gandhi, by Louis Fischer

l. Roots, by Alex Haley

m. The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.

n. The World of Mathematics, a four-volume collection of essays, edited by James Newman

o. The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav

p. Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte

q. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

r. Where Eagles Dare, by Alistair Maclean. The movie was fantastic too!

s. The Guide, by R. K. Narayan. This is another one where the movie was a classic too.

t. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. Another good movie.

u. The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell (with Bill Moyers)

v. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

w. Flatland, by Edwin Abbott

x. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery

y. Poetry collections – these are different books, at least one for each of these poets/lyricists – Ghalib, Rumi, Kabirdas, Wordsworth, Shelley, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Shailendra, and several other Hindi/Urdu poets/writers, plus my grandmother’s poetry in Marathi.

z. Journey down melody lane – by Raju Bharatan. He has a strange writing style that I am not too fond of, but there is a wealth of information about music-making in the Hindi film industry during the golden era of music.

That’s my list from A to Z, but I am sure I have forgotten some classics that made a big impact on me. As I age, I am positive only of the fact that I am not at all certain I can remember everything when I want to. I left out This Way is Easier, Dad, by Harimohan Paruvu, from this list, to avoid charges of nepotism in my choices. After all, the star of the book is my niece!

HM: How many books do you read on an average per year these days?

SN: My reading for pleasure outside of my work has slowed down over the last couple of decades, as my job requires reading textbooks, student papers, project reports, theses, dissertations, journal research papers, etc. So, when it is time to relax, books are generally not the first thing on my mind. Still, I average about 10-15 books a year outside of work-related books.

HM: How many books do you own?

SN: Perhaps two or three hundred. I have not counted, but around that number is likely from a glance at my shelves.

HM: What are the books you are reading currently?

SN: I just started reading Death, An Inside Story, by Sadhguru (Jaggi Vasudev).

HM: What's next on your list?

SN: I have no idea. I have lately taken up learning to play the keyboard and to sing, both with the help of YouTube videos. If an interesting book is recommended to me, I will read it. I have no plan.

HM: What are the books you have been meaning to read but have kept pending?

SN: None that I can think of. Access to books is so easy these days that if I want to read something, I simply go ahead and do it as quickly as I can.

HM:. What's the one book you value the most?

SN: I am that, by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

HM: What the best book-gift you got?

SN: A Random House Dictionary of English from my friend Srinu as we were both graduating from college, and not sure if we would ever see each other again, after four years of studying, playing, travelling, and goofing off together. This was the best gift not because of what book it was, but because of the sentiment behind the gift.

HM: What's the one book you regret losing?

SN: My notebooks from school days. I wish I could go back and read what I wrote in my notes!

HM: What's the favourite book that you gift people?

SN: That depends on the age and interests of the recipient, but my favorite is 'I am that', so that is the one that comes to mind first.

HM: Your favourite experience(s) around books, if any?

SN: Curling up with a novel in bed on a Sunday morning in the hostel as a kid. The smell of books in a dusty secondhand bookstore. The feeling of turning the pages. The hiding of a novel or a comic inside a textbook to avoid the wrath of a teacher, and reading that instead of studying. Finding a long sought-after book in a bookstore. Walking the streets of Abids and Koti in Hyderabad to buy books from the sidewalk. Feeling sad when I finished reading a book.

HM: If there's an author you would like to write like, who would it be?

SN: I think it is best to write like myself since I have discovered that when I read novels by writers who take over from an original author, I don’t like those books, no matter how accomplished the writers may be. For instance, Robert Goldsborough wrote some Nero Wolfe novels after Rex Stout, the original author, died. He copied Stout’s style, but for an avid reader of those novels like me, those books were poor substitutes. This is true in other arts too. I saw a live show of Amit Kumar. When he first sang Kishore Kumar’s songs, the response was tepid. But when he started singing his own songs, the crowd cheered. No matter how well one does it, copying another’s style does not work, since it only reminds people of the original, and one always looks worse in comparison.

Having said that, I would be thrilled if I could write with even half the impact on people that my favourite authors have had on me.

HM: What's your favorite place to shop for books?

SN: Atlanta had a bookstore called Oxford Books many years ago, that was a favorite haunt. Sadly, it went out of business when larger chains like Borders, and Barnes and Noble, came along. Now Borders is gone too, and Barnes and Noble barely makes it in the age of Amazon. I enjoy shopping for books in county fairs and other locations that sell secondhand books since one never knows what one will find.

HM. Any other thoughts around books?

SN: Many people have moved on to reading books on electronic devices. I too, read a couple of them on a Kindle while on an international flight. The convenience of having many possible books in one small device was undeniable. However, I hope that paper books never go away, and that future generations find pleasure in the turning of page by hand, and enjoying the way they smell.

Thanks Satish. That was a very detailed and vivid insight into your journey with books and how they influenced you. I notice that there are a few books on your list that I haven't read and I propose to read - 'The Dancing Wu Li Masters' (most likely a gift form you that's in my bookshelf could be the first). I have benefited hugely from reading all the books you gave me or recommended and look forward to more discussions around books in the future. Thanks again!

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