The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Paths of the wandering chromosome

The journey of man: a genetic odyssey (Penguin, Rs 495) by Spencer Wells is a fascinating and beautifully written scientific detective story. It is about the journey we have taken as a species, from our birthplace in Africa to the far corners of the earth, and from the earliest evidence of fully modern humans to the present day. The excitement of this book, and of the documentary film associated with it, is that this journey is, in every sense, one of self-discovery. Our DNA carries, hidden in its string of four simple letters, a historical document stretching back to the origin of life and the first self-replicating molecules, through our amoebic ancestors, and down to the present day. What makes us uniquely human is that every one of us is carrying his or her personal history book around inside us. We simply need to learn how to read it. This effortlessly readable book breaks down the boundaries between genetics, history and anthropology, and opens up the question of human coexistence in the present: “It is ironic that the final Big Bang of human history, which has given us the tools to ‘read’ the greatest history ever written — the one hidden in our DNA — has also created a cultural context where it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out this work.”

An indian monk: his life and adventures (Rupa, Rs 95) by Shree Purohit Swami is the autobiography of one of those cosmopolitan Hindu spiritualists, like Vivekananda, who had charmed a very high-brow set of European modernist mystics like Yeats, Rothenstein and Sturge Moore. Yeats wanted from the Swami a “concrete life, not an abstract philosophy”, and this book, published by Macmillan in 1932, was the result, with an introduction by Yeats himself. This is Yeats’s description of the Swami, after they met at Sturge Moore’s salon: “He makes one think of some Catholic theologian who has lived in the best society, confessed people out of Henry James’s novels, had some position at Court where he could engage the most absorb- ed attention without raising his voice, but that is only at first sight. He is something much simpler, more childlike and ancient.”

Forest interludes: a collection of journals and fiction (Kali for Women, Rs 250) by Anita Agnihotri is a collection — translated and edited by Kalpana Bardhan — of the fiction and non-fictional prose of a fairly well-known Bengali writer. Agnihotri is an IAS officer who works on rural development projects. Her writings reflect her extensive travels and experience of some of the poorest tribal areas in Orissa and east-central India. Bardhan’s English prose is often a bit knotted up, and one cannot help wondering what she means when she opens her introduction by describing Agnihotri as “well-regarded by the Calcutta literati, considered very bright and highly original”.

Destructive emotions and how we can overcome them: a dialogue with the dalai lama (Bloomsbury, £ 4.99) narrated by Daniel Goleman addresses questions like the following: Why do seemingly rational, intelligent people commit acts of cruelty and violence' What are the root causes of destructive behaviour' How can we control the emotions that drive these impulses' What role do destructive emotions play in human evolution' Are they universal, or does culture determine how we feel' Can we learn to live at peace with ourselves and others' A number of important scientists and philosophers had a series of exchanges with the dalai lama on these “eternal” questions, and this book is a provocative narrative of those interactions put together by the author of Emotional Intelligence. Good chapters on the neuroscience of emotions and the scientific study of consciousness.

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