Researcher Life : Getting out of the Tunnel

Its the ‘resolutions’ time of year!

The first two years of my PhD were pretty challenging; full of technical roadblocks and the toils that come with setting up a lab and research design from scratch. As a result, I was mainly just reading work related things and towards the end of this two years period, I felt myself getting caught up in what PhD students often refer to as a ‘PhD Tunnel’. The only things that seems to penetrate this tunnel full of articles, manual and applications was mindless social media platforms. Not the most fulfilling experience. So I made a simple resolution – to try and incorporate more mediums of reading about and listening to the wider world.

Since I am (or at least was before I started my PhD) an avid reader, I started by telling myself that I would read as many more books as possible. Since I travel considerably and like having things to listen to, I decided to delete Facebook from my phone and install a nice Podcast app instead. Slowly this grew to a book app and some audio books that would fit in my humble phone storage. These simple steps led to a lot of new experiences for me.

This post however, is restricted to books – paperback, hardback, e-books on my app or downloadable audio books. I would like to give a big shout out to Juggernaut before I proceed. This is a wonderful platform to encourage readers and writers in India. Do check it out! They publish in multiple Indian languages. And if you are looking to get into Podcasts BBC Radio 4 is my favourite. They have Podcasts on Science, Culture and History, and just about anything really. Most of the content is academic based and approachable.

Maybe a post on Podcasts will follow at some point in the future (when I am no longer a podcasts-listening novice). For now, here is my 2017’s experience with books…

I started my Christmas-New Years break last year (2016) by reading an entire book in 3 days. This was ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ by one of my favourite authors,  Khaled Husseini. It had been years since I binge read like this. This was a brilliant start to remind me how lovely it felt to read a novel that can make you engrossed in a world not yours, can make you laugh and cry. ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ gave me a boost to get new books and think about all those topics that I thought I wanted to know more about, but just hadn’t bothered.

  • Indian Mythology

For a while now, I’ve wanted to revisit Indian Mythology. I frequently read the works of Devdutt Patanaik, but in 2017 I finally took the plunge and read his retelling of the Gita, called ‘My Gita’ and of the Mahabharata, called ‘Jaya: An Illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata’. Both the books were brilliant with anecdotes from different parts of the country that I was totally unaware of. Stories re-told with regional twists, villains made into heros, highlighting different qualities preserved across generations.

  • World Mythology

I have also been curious about how ancient world civilizations evolved different mythologies, some overlapping with others, some not at all. This led me to get 3 books ‘D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths’, ‘D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths’, and ‘Deutsche Heldensagen’ (German Heroic Sagas).

I started with the Norse Myths since I had least insight into Norse mythology. These were so captivating and interesting, that I started both the German Sagas and Greek Myths simultaneously. As a result, neither is finished yet, but it is wonderful to see interconnections in all these world mythologies.

For example, India has a tale of a mother protecting her warrior son with the power of her long blindfolded eyes. But since the warrior covers his genitals and hips, they remain weak and bring about his eventual downfall. Greece has a story of a mother immersing her son in water that will make him impervious. But she holds his ankles to immerse him, thus making his ankles the weak spot. Although I knew about the relationship between a potential overlap between Greek and Indian mythology, I was surprised to find a similar story in German Myth. In the German Saga, a warrior bathes in Dragon blood to be invincible, but a leaf falls on his shoulder making his shoulder the point of downfall.

  • Authors I wanted to explore

You know the feeling when someone talks about a book and you think ‘hmm, maybe I should try reading this’, but never do? This section is dedicated to all those authors.

The first on the list is Haruki Murakami. I had never read a Japanese author, but when I stumbled upon Murakami’s name in conversation after conversation, I had to give it a try. I started with ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’, and I’m delighted I decided to read his work. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked onto his easy style of writing about deep and controversial issues.

Another author I’d been meaning to read again was Jane Austen. I was very young when I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and I didn’t trust my 13 year old self’s judgement about it any more. So I gave ‘Sense and Sensibility’ a shot and again, what a lovely read! I finally understand why Jane Austen is revered even today. I look forward to more of her work in the coming year.

When I first moved to Germany, I realized its University education was guided by philosophy teachings a lot more than I had experienced in India (where a brief history of psychology sufficed) and UK (where the focus was mainly on biological psychology). Hence, early on in my time in Germany I thought of looking into reading a historical/philosophical account of psychology. Since I work in the psychiatry department of a university hospital, my obvious choice became ‘Madness and Civilization’ by Michael Foucault. At first glance this is just overwhelming. Foucault makes a million references to history, paintings, sculptures, cultures, traditions, dramas… he seems to know everything going on at a certain time in history and then reflects on how all these events (that you as a reader may not know of) shaped civilizations in a certain way (that you may or may not know of). Once I got over the plethora of information, its easy to extract the crux of what he wants to say, and how insightful this crux is.

  • Languages

As you may have noticed one of the books above is in German. I had started learning German when I moved to Germany for my PhD. While I had over time gotten proficient in Children’s books like ‘Pippi’, I tried to move on to higher level German. The mythology book above, for e.g. is written for adults. I also read my first novel in German ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’. Again, a Murakami novel – deep topics in easy language. Although I did slip into reading a lovely children’s tale for a while – ‘Nils Holgersons Wunderbare Reise’ by Selma Lagerlöf. A little boy’s adventures flying with a flock of geese was too cute to pass.

Reading in German gave me a weird kind of confidence that I didn’t have before. Before Germany, I had always exclusively done leisure reading in English. So I wondered if I could read in German, could I also read in Hindi? A language I speak fluently but hadn’t read in since school. So I went ahead and started reading 2 books from the only author I remembered liking back in school, and whose translated work I had read later in life as well – Premchand. While I successfully finished reading ‘दफ्तरी’ (Daftari), I am still halfway done with ‘दो बैलों की कथा’ (Do Bailon Ki Katha).

While at first I was hesitant to read in German and Hindi, to my great surprise, I enjoyed reading in both. Although much much slower than in English, each language has its own flair and style.

  • The World

2017 was a crappy year for world politics, and everything I saw or heard was filled with so much negativity that I craved for a nicer perspective on our world. So I turned to a graphic novel, ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi and two retelling of world history – ‘Salt’ and ‘The Silk Roads’ by Mark Kurlansky and Peter Frankopan respectively.

While ‘Persepolis’ was a beautiful narration of how an individual is affected by bigger societal decisions and survives and rises above it all, ‘Salt’ gave a lovely look at how our societies have been shaped through a single commodity – salt. I’m still reading ‘The Silk Roads’ and enjoying the narration of how communities in contact influence each other, their foods, traditions, the spread of religion and mythology. I highly recommend ‘Salt’ and ‘The Silk Roads’ to anyone surrounded by people claiming the world is doomed. The world has and will survive, even if it ceases to exist the way we know it today.

  • Light Reading

There was a whole lot of light reading that I did on the go, but I want to mention 2 books here that I particularly enjoyed.

The first is ‘The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad’ by Twinkle Khanna. The book is not as witty as her blog, but if you want a heads up on the upcoming Bollywood movie ‘Pad Man’, feel free to check out the last story in this book.

The second book is ‘Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter’. For those of you familiar with Neil Gaiman and/or Terry Pratchett, you know what to expect from this book. Those of you not familiar with the authors, wait for a BBC series by the name of ‘Good Omens’ releasing in 2018 🙂

Do let me know what you’ve read/heard/seen this year, what you plan to read/listen to/watch next year. And if you need some more inspiration to start reading, here is a Ted talk by someone who spent her year reading a book from every country in the world! 🙂

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