Stolen Focus: A Short Book Review

As I read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel from his work to what I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. I’ve lost sight of the things that matter, and I’m starting to operate in a state of extreme and perpetual chaos. I’m distracted from the things I should be doing – like reading, working out – and instead, I’m filling my day with mundane and pointless activities. I’m unable to read for long stretches without picking up my phone, without switching over to tasks that don’t need doing; the fact that I spend close to four hours a day on average on my phone – without any social media apps on it – is an indication of how frenzied my existence has become. I’m unable to find joy in the things that made me happy, and the only moment of clarity I experience is when I’m watering the plants on the terrace. Through all of this, I kept blaming myself. That something in my head had shifted and I was probably going through a phase, not too dissimilar to ones I’ve experienced in the past. Johann’s book gave me something else to ruminate on… Something that has changed drastically over the last two years of the pandemic. My environment.

Relying on scientific studies, interviews with experts, and personal experience, Johann Hari attempts to make a case for a crisis not recognized – that of our shrinking attention spans and our inability to focus. Johann presents his case in a lucid and accessible manner, never laboring the reader with esoteric and technical details of the studies he references, and always using his personal experiences and ruminations as a navigational tool. Regardless of the anecdotal halo to his book, his work is backed by solid research (as is evident from the 46 pages of end-notes) and anchored in today’s dominant scientific view. He lists 12 causes of this crisis, calling out some obvious ones such as technology and social media, to some less intuitive ones such as the rise of what he calls cruel optimism – the belief that individual changes will be enough to respond to a crisis triggered by a changed and overloaded environment. Meticulous and well-structured, Johann’s work is honest and a joy to read, and it showcases his ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Data points from Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus. Taken out of context, they may not mean much. But if any of these shock you, it might be worthwhile to pick up the book! A key callout is that these are mostly relevant in an American/ British context and not really a global one.

We’re overloaded with information and we’re fighting a losing battle to absorb it. We’re constantly trying to multi-task, thinking of it as a virtue when it’s not. We’re no longer experiencing flow states, periods of unwavering focus on a pleasurable activity. We’re tired and exhausted, anxious and insecure. We’re sleeping less and replacing that with screen time on Instagram or on Netflix. We’ve stopped reading, playing and letting our minds wander. We’re eating food that causes energy spikes and crashes, and breathing air that is literally dulling our senses. And lastly, we’re all trying to find an individual solution to this, harboring a delusion that somehow, holding ourselves accountable is the key to all this. When was the last time we succeeded in limiting our social media use? Or the last time we could read a book without picking up our phones?

Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting.

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Short Book Review

I still can’t believe that I finished a biographical account of someone who decided to raise bees for a year, and actually enjoyed it. Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is an eccentric record of her first steps as a beekeeper. Weird, warm and wonderfully but predictably woven, her writing floats and flits between the hive and her personal life, which keep feeding off each other. Never lingering and never still. Almost like a bee.

I’ve often marveled at our ability to find meaning in the most mundane of things. Or perhaps – and I’m certain that Jukes would agree – it is the other way around… Only when we begin to find meaning and joy in the most mundane of things, do we find ourselves. Like when we stop to notice how blue the sky is or how green the leaves of the trees are… She finds a totem in the beehive, and the act of keeping and caring changes her. Reeking of passion that borders on obsession, and always simmering with self-awareness, her story resonates.

As I feel new spaces forming, new possibilities opening beyond the hive, I too have been preparing to lift up, break out. I feel ready for it. The bees have chewed through some of my congested bits just like the wax moths do; I’m feeling better resourced, more in touch with things around me, more able to begin something new. Perhaps in a way – unbeknownst to them – it is the bees who are the open-handed ones; they are setting me free.
How much of looking, how much of wanting to look, is about its opposite – about wanting to be seen?
Last year, I was also feeling blocked, caught in a culture and a state of being that seemed to be short on care and to have little patience with sensitivity. The hive, for me, was about escaping that site of difficultly; or the hive was not about escape at all, but about the upwards thrust of my own hard-fought belief that something else was possible – a different kind of perception, of relation – within this less than perfect range.

Working from home for the better part of two years through the pandemic has shrunk my world down to the two rooms of my matchbox-sized apartment. It has changed me and warped my reality in ways I can’t fathom… But I’ve starting filling this reality with moments of extreme clarity born from simple acts: watching parrots peck at the bird feeder outside our bedroom, watering the plants every morning, feeling the soil for moisture and touching the flowers in the garden on our terrace. Not too dissimilar, I think, to the act of keeping bees. It has a rating of 3.76 on goodreads and is a satisfying read to kickstart 2022!

PS: A glimpse of the flowers in the garden on the terrace 🙂

The Book Collectors of Daraya: A Short Book Review


I’ve used reading as an escape from the realities of the world over the last 18 months. And in the process, I’ve managed to rediscover a kinship with books that almost borders on the edge of an obsession now. Some semblance of this obsession always existed since the day I picked up, as a 9-year-old, Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island. I’ve come a long way since then, but those memories remain some of my happiest: lazy afternoons at Nana’s place with The Five Find-Outers, the additional pages that my school librarian had to attach to my handbook just to make entries of The Hardy Boys I’d checked out, the late fees that mum had to pay at Abbas – a very popular circulating library, the pirated books and magazines that I bought from the vendors at King’s Circle.

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The Adivasi Will Not Dance: A Short Book Review

India’s coal belt cuts across the eastern states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, home to the Santhals among other tribal communities. As it did for much of the world since the industrial revolution, coal has played an important role in India’s march towards capitalism, and in the process, tied itself inextricably to the fates of such communities. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a collection of short, provocative and mostly apolitical stories that operate in the backdrop of a transformation that took place within such tribal populations, impacting their lands and their professions. Themes of destitution, prostitution and exploitation run through each story and detail the march of progress over a people’s plight.

The coup de grace is the book’s final story of an Adivasi who refuses to dance – hence the name – in front of a “Bengali President” at a function in the village of Godda to lay the foundation stone for an Indian billionaire’s thermal power plant. While the author avoids naming anyone, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the President in question is Pranab Mukherjee and the Indian billionaire MP is Naveen Jindal, and the story itself is based on an actual incident that took place in 2013.

We heard he was a very rich and shrewd man. He was also an MP. We also heard he likes polo – some game played with horses – and that his horses were far better off than all the Santhals of the whole of the Santhal Pargana.

I am far removed from the realities of the heartland, and in all honesty, some of the stories feel unremarkable to a mind incapable of grasping the enormity of state-sponsored marginalization and subjugation. I am also ashamed to admit that I know more about the history of racism and African Americans than I do about casteism in India. I’m reasonably certain that our progress, built on their plight as it is, is littered with countless events that could have been our moment of reckoning, not unlike George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in the West.

Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier?  

Perhaps an accurate reflection of my ignorance and insularity is that famous quote from The Game of Thrones, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The book is an easy read, has a rating of 4.13 on goodreads, and was banned by the state government of Jharkhand in 2017 – which is another big reason to read it 🙂