Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Book Review)

img_1434Intro: You know Trevor Noah, right? The Daily Show on CC, its previous host Jon Stewart, his replacement and all that good stuff? No? Then wherever have you been getting your ‘authentic news’ from? And if you know him, Noah’s biracial looks, his almost British accent and his sincere humor would’ve made you curious. And when his book came out, you’d have wanted to read whats the fuss all about (and understand why he is even writing an autobiographical book in his early 30’s!). I wanted to read it too, but it was Bill Gates recommendation that made me move it from my ‘To Be Read’ list to ‘currently reading’.

About: Born in apartheid to a black native mother and a white father, (during a time when inter-racial relationships were against the law with up to five years of imprisonment) Trevor’s birth was actually the result of a “crime”. This is where the book gets its name (in case you were wondering). Being the comedian that he is, one is poised to laugh at some joke he is going to crack, and so when you start reading his book, you are not surprised by the humor. What is surprising, a few pages in, is when it is not all jokes. He talks about apartheid not as a concept, but as a day-to-day reality he grew up in, about the racial discrimination and miserable lives of the black natives in ghettos (away from the white neighborhoods), with hardly any means struggling to make ends meet. For me, all I knew was “apartheid” is policy of “discrimination based on one’s race” and that it ended in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the first black president; this book shocked me with the length, breadth and the depth of it. And how the world outside (especially, America) is so different with so much going on.

Noah describes how the black community kept fixing problems of the past, when they were pillaged for generations, and never progressed using skills or education to move ahead in life. It was a curse that Noah’s mother called the “black tax” that they had to keep paying just to bring everyone back up to zero. Read this excerpt from the book just for the sake of perspective:

“I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?”

Sounds terrible isn’t it? Stuff like that certainly gives me the blues and I go in a denial mode, but Noah’s humorous take on everything lets you take it all in without any of that gloom – that, I think, is the value of this book! Some incidents are outright hilarious and you could not stop laughing out loud. The mixed kid that he was (and looked), Trevor was always confused which group he really belonged to – blacks, ‘coloureds’, Indians or the whites – and his insight into their inter-group dynamics is nothing short of remarkable. But he found is place as someone who gets people’s work done, and so, he was welcome everywhere! “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your of my color.” His coming of age chapters are entertaining with his many heartbreaks, his years of hustling selling pirated CDs, being a DJ and all his entrepreneurial endeavors which he pulled off quite successfully.

The main theme of the book is Noah’s relationship with his mother, Patricia Noah, who raised him singlehandedly. She was stubbornly religious and tried her best to inculcate religious faith in him. But she was also an independent thinker, fierce and fearless, who raised her son by never letting any social, racial or economic boundaries come in the way. She understood the importance of language, and made sure Noah learnt to speak English (which black people did not), along with other native tongues. Trevor was a very naughty kid and a handful for his mother, almost always giving her a good chase around the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they were a great team and he credits his mother for making a man out of him; this book is Noah’s heartfelt tribute to his mother.

Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is entertaining, interesting and, of course, funny. But you would leave the book having learnt so much about racial discrimination, poverty, domestic violence and adversity, and everything that made such a brilliant comedian out of him!

 

 

EXTRAS:

“My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies.
I went with the cookies.”

“That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.”

“The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.”

“It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in.”

“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.”


‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kelon
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

Some of my earliest memories are from the house I grew up in: a huge British bungalow surrounded by aged trees and inspiring wilderness (attributed to lack of any proper gardening). I was must have been in early elementary, sitting by one of the bright windows that thrust in the tropical sun, tracing the dotted lower case letters in a handwriting workbook: my father was teaching me the cursive hand, the norm, and expectation, back in the day. I’d trace each letter over and over until I could reproduce it independently on a  4-line notebook.

Why do I bring it up, here? Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon is all about tracing until you can reproduce it independently. Or something to that effect. The book is not about stealing per se, as much as it is about making a paradigm shift in how you see the world. It bursts the idealist bubble some of us create for ourselves (for the worse), only to realize that art builds on art, and there is nothing “original” as such in this world. Suddenly, you feel you are a part of this huge fraternity that is working with you; you are not lonely anymore, sitting by yourself in a cave trying hard to create something out of thin air! The small book is a compilation of friendly advice stippled with inspiring quotes and clever visuals. A quick fun read, and certainly recommended for business leaders, artists, writers, budding spiritualists and anyone who is trying to inject creativity into their life and work. “In other words: this book is for you”

Some quotes and thoughts I liked are below:

Pick Masters who inspire you, emulate them and try to see the world as they do/did; fake it till you make it. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

The great thing about dead masters is that they cant refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.

You are going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

Embrace your limitation and keep moving.

There is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Saul Steinberg: What we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.

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Book Review: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Especially so, methinks, when it comes to the business of getting enlightened.

The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle was a book I had heard about on and off but never got around to it. But I am ever so glad I did. It is in a question-answer format based on the authors talks and the questions he was asked. The few main concepts appear repeatedly throughout the chapters only to drive the point home so the reader really gets it. Tolle, from time to time, quotes from the New Testament, Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism asserting that his teaching is nothing new and is already present in the teachings of the major world religions.

I listened to the audiobook that worked best in my situation where taking time out specifically to read was not working out. The authors calm voice would even put me to sleep, if I was listening lying down after the days work! Ha! But the best part of  an audiobook is I play it over and over while I’m doing work around the house as against picking up the book to read all over again.

The Main Ideas:

1) You are NOT your thoughts
This plants a seed in us of the concept that thoughts are an independent thing separate from the One who is observing them.

I found it interesting how the mind (and the thoughts it generates) were significantly dwarfed in comparison to the much higher concept of its Owner. The mind is more or less like a limb or the eyes, very important, yet but a part of the whole. Unfortunately, a majority of the world is suffering from the epidemic of “incessant thinking” and the mind has taken over its Master, the Self.

2) Time and the mind is one and the same thing
Imagine the Earth devoid of human life, inhabited only by plants and animals. The question “What time is it?” or “What’s the date ?” would be quite meaningless. The oak tree or the eagle would be bemused by such a question. “What time?” they would ask. “Well, of course, it’s now. What else is there?” The predominance of mind is no more than a stage in the evolution of consciousness. We need to go on to the next stage now as a matter of urgency lest the human race destroy itself.

The eternal ‘Present’ is the space within which ones whole life unfolds. Life is now. The past is a memory trace stored in the mind of a former Now. The future is an imagined Now and when the future comes, it comes as the Now.

3) All teachings are but signposts
All spiritual teachings only point to the one Reality that can not be described in the realm of words of any language. People might talk endlessly about ‘God’ without ever knowing or experiencing the Reality that the word points to.

Reminds me of how it is said beautifully in the Tao Te Ching about the Tao (the mysterious Way of the universe): those who know do not speak of it, those who speak do not know!

4) Emotional Pain Body
This is an autonomous entity in itself residing in us that is formed by pain experienced and accumulated the past and present. It feeds on pain and wants to survive by either suffering or inflicting pain on oneself or others. To acknowledge and observe it in oneself is the beginning of its end. A nice piece in the Huffington Post here.

This concept is of significance (and could be very helpful) in intimate relationships, as that’s where one can see the pain body awaken and create trouble.

5) Inner Body
In the past seekers have held the body as a hurdle to getting to enlightenment. Like the Buddha himself, who subject his body to extremes for six years trying to transcend it and realized that it was futile. Tolle says that the body is in fact the key to getting to the Pure Consciousness or Being through what he calls the Inner Body, which is the energy field within that gives life to the physical body. He gives some ways to connect with the inner body: observing the silence without that takes you to the stillness within, concentrating on ones breath, paying total attention to routine mundane activities.

My take:
Tolle has put some abstract concepts into words skillfully. The best part about the book is that enlightenment, or ones journey towards it, does not necessarily have to be something in the distant future only after years of meditation. He shows how to experience eternity right now, as now is all there is. I really found it quite encouraging.

I experienced that ‘shift in consciousness’, if you will, when I felt that eternity in the Now with my complete presence and the absence of any thought mostly with and around Nature. It truly is beyond thoughts or words – the peace, the ecstacy. That was the coolest part. Though it might last for a short time before a thought barges in to label this ‘state’. I think we all have glimpsed it, aware or unawares, one time or the other. I have been doing meditation, or attempting it for some time now, and honestly, I don’t know what exactly am I to do with my eyes closed. I’ve read a lot of literature on it. But only a handful of times have I come out of it and felt close to how it ‘should be’. That said, being fully present every moment is meditation without having to sit in solitude, cross legged and eyes closed- something impossible for me with preschooler and a toddler!

Lord Krishna in the Bhagwad Gita tells Arjuna to put in the best and 100% in any work (fully present), not expecting the fruits of it (not thinking) but surrendering it to The Lord. This can happen when one is fully present. Conversely, being fully present brings a sort of loving detachment with the work done, as prescribed by Lord Krishna. Well, at least I see it that way!

Most of us are book hoarders in varying degrees. It gives a sense of “owning” the wisdom in them. But the best way is really to take the concepts from great books, internalize them (i.e. go beyond the intellectual stimulation and academic discussion), and most importantly practice to make them a part of you. That would be, in the truest sense, owning them forever. The Power of Now is a great book with wisdom that comes from experience.