Author: Sreedevi Viswmbaran

Review:No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance StateNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I loved the first few chapters of the book. Thought it would be one of the groundbreaking books of its kind. Those chapters were not less than fiction and but then the whole focus of the book moved on to defending the author under various circumstances. It is understandable that the whole justifying thing should come under the purview of the book, but should have been crispier. I would have liked to have more on Snowden. But his presence is limited in the first chapters. There are no two ways about the truth. But the book was disappointing.

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Review: Burnt Shadows

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie portrays the journey of a Hiroko Tanaka, a girl of Japanese Origin, across multiple geographies and cultures. The story begins with an arresting image of three bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. From there, the story slowly unravels the interwoven stories of Weiss, Burton and Ashraf Families, spanned across generations. Hiroko, a survivor of August 9, 1945, Nagasaki Bombing, Hibakusha as they say in Japanse, travels to India to meet her late fiance, Konrad Weiss’s sister Elizabeth Burton.

As the backdrop changes to Delhi’s summer and it’s blazing Gulmohars, Hiroko finds a surprising, yet a truehearted friend in Elizebeth Burton and a soulmate in Sajjad Ashraf. Amid India-Pakistan separation in 1947 and the subsequent violence, Hiroko and Sajjad find themselves married and are forced to settle in Karachi, Pakistan unexpectedly. The fate keeps bringing Hiroko under the shadow of many historic events like the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki, India Pakistan Partition, Afghan war, Nuclear tensions in Asia and the 9/11 bombing. It is moving to see, how a survivor of such mass destruction still holds on to humanity until the end of the book.

Burnt shadows are as poetic as it can be, and a new meaning unravels in front of you each time you read it. The author has carved every character with such a finesse that the situations and emotions characters go through, will create a lasting impression on you. Occasionally, the writing seems to be the excelling point than the story, especially in the end.

The story is cast in a huge geographical and cultural canvas.The juxtapositioning of noted massacres of human history and the personal loss and sorrow is notable. The author brilliantly positioned love and humanity in such a contrasting environment of war and yet managed to invoke the right emotions without confusion. The wartorn Urakami, Delhi on the verge of Partition, Refugees at Karachi, the rawness of 9/11 bombing, the list of historical events author has picked to tell the story goes on.

Sajjad stood up quietly and walked over to her. “There is a phrase I have heard in English: to leave someone alone with their grief. Urdu has no equivalent phrase. It only understands the concept of gathering around and becoming ‘ghumkhaur’—grief-eaters—who take in the mourner’s sorrow.”
― Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows

Along with geographical grandness, Author also handles the nuances of multiple cultures very well. Many characters in the Novel come across multiple cultures as part of their journey and it is wonderful to see how each of them assimilate an entirely foreign culture, still, keep a part of their heart true to their own. The unfamiliarity of a new culture, the reluctance in pursuing its ways, and the inevitable acceptance after knowing it in depth, this cycle is a recurring theme with every character and the author does it with a distinct emotional portrayal for each character.Another motif you find all over is that of a story of ‘Spider and Islam’. Two families, The buttons, and The Ashrafs, with deeply interconnected roots, go through a series of events having a similar theme as that of ‘Spider and Islam’. As a reader, it is interesting to discern this patterns.

Another notable portion comes towards the end when author pits two popular ideologies, which are at odds. She does it with such nuances that, its impossible not to empathize with both of them. Abdulla, a conservative Muslim, who finds himself at the wrong end of the law and Kim Burton, still raw from the wounds of 9/11 and her personal loss,  come together in the end to voice out the obvious religion versus terrorism arguments.My favorite part of that entire dialogue is a soft toy analogy using which author choose to show, how dissimilar backgrounds and situations lead to opposing beliefs in individuals and how difficult it is not to sympathize with both the ideologies. Both the arguments have its own standing in the reader’s mind.

Considering how elaborate author was in the beginning, I am rather disappointed with the abrupt ending . I looked up from the last chapter as an unsatiated reader who could do with a little more specific ending. Despite this little glitch, I enjoyed the read and really took my own sweet time to savor the book. Some of the quotes from the book have turned my favorite now. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a memorable read


Fish Fry Equalizer

I recently watched Popular Malayalam actress Rima Kallingal’s powerful TEDx talk about gender discrimination prevailing in the Malayalam Film Industry. Rima Kallingal’s speech occurred in the wake of recent cyber attacks on her colleague and acclaimed actress Parvathy, resonated well with the current rising wave of woman empowerment in Malayalam Film Industry. The video is bang on in nailing the main points of unfair treatment of woman both offscreen and onscreen in the industry.

Rima Kallingal starts her speech with an anecdote about how she experienced or rather how she started recognizing gender discrimination in the form of Fish fry. Her mother while serving fish fry choose to divide the only three available fish fries among, her brother, her father and her grandmom(eldest in the family) leaving out the 12-year-old much to her dismay.

While many applauded the actress for courageously giving voice to the silent victims of female discrimination in an industry which is often deafened by the drums of Hero worshipping, for some the entire meaning was lost in translation. Some just didn’t get the apparent symbolization of gender discrimination and took the whole issue quite literally, and thus started trolling the actress for the TEDx talk.

Among those slanted set of feedbacks in FB, one comment got my attention. A person narrates quite ferociously, as we can guess from the language, how he worked in another country as a manual laborer for seven years to marry off his sisters and how getting an extra fish fry is a small thing considering he spent a chunk of his golden years to help his sisters make a home for themselves. Such a thought-provoking comment it is! It proves how gender discrimination adversely affects both the genders equally in the long run. Oh, the irony of that statement!

Let’s think objectively about a woman from a financially backward family who decides(assume she has the power to make this decision) to serve a the symbolic fish fry aka nutritious food to Men in the family, who do manual labor. For her, that’s the most logical thing to do as Men, the assigned breadwinners of a patriarchal society, need to be fed well to ensure further financial prosperity. However pitiable that sounds, many a woman, especially in rural India, might be forfeiting, sometimes even willingly, their share of food, attributing it to the culturally ingrained sacrificial nature.

No wonder more than half of the woman population in India suffers from anemia. This discrimination leads to the much larger issue of undernourishment of pregnant women and in newborn children. While we try to remedy such effects of gender discrimination, the panacea for the root cause is rather evident, Financial Independence of Woman. When we strive to make an equitable society, economic empowerment of Woman should be a cornerstone.

Just like the way we, women fight valiantly to break stereotyping and rigid gender roles, it is essential for a woman to create her own foothold of Financial freedom. For the coming generations, financial Independence should not be a choice given to women. More economic activities by women lead to decreasing means for discrimination. By taking up financial responsibility, women not only ensure her standing in the society but also paves way for a new culture which future generations can be proud of.

Attaining financial freedom is easier said than done. The basic and crucial step to financial freedom is Education. It opens up a wide array of possibilities to women. Moreover, Education helps everyone, regardless of gender, to create an awareness of an inclusive and gender-neutral society which is essential for the development of the country.

So in effect, by getting that extra Fish fry, Men also do not seem to be getting any advantage in the long run. It is to everyone’s benefit to dividing the fish fry equally. Education and the financial independence comes along with it can be the great equalizer while dividing it.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a cheery book to start the new year, still the book managed to hold my interest until the end. The factual representation of HeLa cells journey, how HeLa is so important to science even today and the perpetual confusion  on the privacy trials of biomaterials, the books covers all these aspects ever so gracefully. Once you delve into a little deeper into the book, it becomes difficult to identify the goal of the book. Deborah Lacks, daughter of Henrietta Lacks, eventually the books turns into a memoir of hers. It is like a pitchfork with two metal prongs, parallels of the Journey of HeLa cells and Journey of HeLa’s daughter. You can reason out as Henrietta Lacks two immortal lives, one that of the cells and the other journey of her spirit, which lives on through her family. I enjoyed reading it and would go for a four

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The ones who can see Thestrals

Dealing with the loss of dear ones is a never-ending journey in search of the alluring light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel. The loss, the beginning,  itself is so emotional that mere words can not confine the essence, so private that anyone other than you won’t understand what you are feeling, thus it is inconsequential here. The journey is about survival.The most significant phase of this journey is when you acquire enough courage to look back to that day and see how it changed your life so far. Personally, it took me more than a year to look back and live over the day I lost my father. Facing how an ‘Ordinary day’ changed to an ‘Unusual’ one,  without an emotional breakdown, turned out to be my first step towards a million mile journey, the journey of survival.

An immediate response to such painful loss is denial. Such a facade gives you an unreal peace of mind, a temporary easy way out. But eventually, the ineluctable reality slowly seeps in. The higher the barrier you create, the fiercer the effect of sorrow will be on you. Nevertheless, it helps you to deal with it at your pace and time. There were many moments when I closed my eyes and let myself believe everything is alright in the world. The numerous missed calls I made to my father’s cell, how I stopped talking about him altogether, the way I never told my preschool daughter that she lost her most favorite person in the world, all these anodyne stuff temporarily alleviated the dull ache in the heart. None lasted long and reality eventually took over.

Once the reality sets in, the blame game begins. which makes you question everything and anything around you? ‘Why me’? ‘What did I do wrong to deserve this?’ A million questions which can never be answered pops in your head. My personal spiritual beliefs always pointed towards the ‘karmic cycle’. But is Sorrow, really a karmic derivative? Much to my dismay, the karmic solution lies way beyond my human comprehension. Even if we keep track of the good or not so good deeds of our lifetime, we will never know if that goes to the debit or credit column of the Karma tally. The recent news report about how a man rescued a rabbit from Northern California wildfire and how that might have endangered the rabbit’s litters who may starve to death in some underground tunnel. A rather innocuous deed turned into a noxious one and yet again we fail to comprehend the grand scheme of Universe.

Another way to distract your mind is to start thinking the alternative scenarios. The ‘what if’s will echo in your head perpetually. The could-have-been- happy scenarios, and the possible turn of events will occupy your mind long enough. There will be an infinite number of things which you could have done better or you should have avoided and all those memories make a stunning reentry to intensify the suffering. It is like poking to see if the wound still bleeds. I did this self-torture for a while before realizing the futility of it. How much ever you poke around the past, it never changes and the best version of past is what was actually rendered.


When you run out of excuses to occupy your mind, it will eventually circle back to the raw sorrow of the loss. When you hide the remains of sorrow deep inside you, they turn into little seeds. You will never know when these seedlings become an all-devouring monster trees. The ways of sorrow are grappling and eventually, it will hide even the brightest sun. The ways depression can hit you is unimaginable. There was a time when I was addicted to mirrors. The moment when your eyes are filled with tears, and when you almost close the eyelids, you see make-belief images on the mirror, you see shapes and wonder what are they. It took me a while to realize no matter what I imagine, it will be only me in that mirror. That realization and acceptance will help you pull out of such pitstops before the tipping point.

The only bright spot in this journey is that you get to feel your red threads of fate along the way, the eensy red threads which connect your destiny with many others. Even a smile from a stranger you meet on your morning walks becomes a firefly in your low lit sky. They might have never thought twice about it, but there are many times, a smile and a hello from complete strangers lingered inside and brightened my mind. You will find your own tethers and hinges to keep you earthbound. No matter how down you are, there are hands which lift you up and refuse to leave you ever, its all about recognizing the love of family and friends. During the lowest of my lows, a worldly wise man told me ‘to count your blessings’ and I literally did that and the list turned out to be my anchor to life.

Over the past few months, I have read a gazillion articles on how to handle loss and went on from one thing to another in a loop trying to get a grip. None of them worked. None of them works. None of them will. You can get distracted and train your memory to forget it but from time to time the pain resurfaces. The weight of loss never leaves you even with time. It is something time can never heal. Eventually, you will learn to run with it or make peace with it in your own way. But the bruise stays with you forever festering and healing along with the ups and downs of your life. Once you see the Thestrals, there is no unseeing it.

Loss of a loved one is a life-altering event. You never stay the same anymore. It becomes a part of you and your personality. The sooner you accept it the better. It changes you in ways you can’t even anticipate. It uproots few emotions and plants an entirely new range of emotions.It makes you aware of the mortality, it makes you value the tethers and hinges of your life. The loss, sorrows, trauma, we would be much lighter without any of these. Since the fate has chosen to tread along this path, its better to assimilate the best parts of it, the heightened empathy, a better self who appreciates the value of people around you, to name a few. Every day I strive to be the best version of me in the eyes of my late father and along with time, I hope it becomes my second nature. That would be the best eulogy I can ever give him

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Self-help books never worked for me so far. It always ends up giving me a temporary high and I, as a person, tend to move on to other things pretty quickly. So I do not know where to label this book. As of now, I am pretty high on it and think whatever written absolutely makes sense. It has given me a completely new perspective to ponder and the last chapter was illuminating, to say the least. Having said that, I believe, help should come from within. Any outside motivation may or can act as a trigger or like a road sign to show the way forward. But to raise yourself from any adversity, it is our willpower that all it takes. The book may or may not help you. But you can definitely help yourself. I think the book says the same thing. I enjoyed reading the book and it has lent me a hand in the process of overcoming my emotional barricades. I would go for three stars.

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Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very interesting book, which tells you in a no-nonsense way how insignificant we are in the earth’s history still how we possess demonic powers to alter the course of evolution. It leaves you with an eerie warning that we could be both the dinosaurs and meteoroid in the next extinction event. The book ends with a spine-chilling image of a ‘Frozen Zoo’ of extinct species. Everyone who wants to know about the Climate change and the human interference over the Life on Earth must read this book to get an elaborated view.
Wjem the USA decided to come out of Paris Climate Accord, I was really surprised to see some comments on social media, saying ‘Climate change is a hoax’. The more we progress, the more tunneled our vision has become. The book says it all, to know the truth, you just have to observe around you and you can see the change. I would go with four stars for the book,

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