First Person

Do you hide your self-help books behind rows of great literature? Here’s why you need to stop

Everyone admits that they could improve some aspect of their lives, but no one wants to be seen actually seeking help to do it.

Admitting that you read self-help books is a sure-fire way to lose all kinds of credibility: intellectual, emotional and financial. A person who reads self-help books is like the kind of person who writes to agony aunts – someone who manages to get themselves into the most unimaginable scrape possible, but also someone who has no qualms wasting precious time seeking advice from celebrities with dubious credentials.

In other words, the typical reader of self-help literature seems like a desperate, socially-incompetent creature, to be pitied for their problems, rather than admired for their attempts at self-improvement.

While most people say they want to improve in at least one area of their lives, no one wants to actually be seen doing it, specifically if those skills are of a psychological or social nature. If you want to run a marathon, for instance, it is okay to be seen practising everyday, but if you want a successful relationship, God forbid you read a self-help book which teaches you how to be a better partner (ironically, seeking couples’ counselling after a relationship has already broken down, is somehow seen as socially permissible.)

By the same token, it is perfectly acceptable to read manuals or how-to books on cooking, coding, or to learn a new language. People are even willing to enrol in classes that train you to do these things. But when it comes to figuring out life’s fundamental questions – like how to be a good friend, how to be happy, what to do with anger – you’re supposed to figure it all out on your own.

via Flickr CC BY
via Flickr CC BY

The irony of self-help

Like most members of my family, I learnt how to read at an early age and never stopped. Once I was through reading everything by Roald Dahl and Enid Blytons, done with popular series like Tintin, Tinkle and Champak, I began raiding the libraries of older people in my home. These consisted of a wide assortment of books – literary classics and women’s magazines to books on childcare, origami and self-help.

As a result, I developed a highly indiscriminate reading habit early on. No book was too good or too bad for me. Young and still unaware of literature with a capital L, I found something of value in everything I read. Self-help books were no different.

We had a lot of self-help books at home. Most of them belonged to my father. The books ranged from advice on how to speak in public, how to read fast, how to be fulfilled, and how to move things with your mind. What I learnt (aside from the fact that moving things with your mind is called psychokinesis – a very cool word to know when you are ten) was an important piece of wisdom, that seeking help is okay and that there is no shame in trying to be better than you are.

I don’t quite know when the shame crept in. I remember one incident – I had gone to a book exhibition with a fellow book-lover. It was part of our annual ritual where we would buy books made available at ridiculous discounts. This included Penguins classics, science fiction, Kafka and Kundera – the usual suspects. This time I also picked up a self-help book on how to do things alone. The book had a clunky title: Positive Solitude: A Practical Program for Mastering Loneliness and Achieving Self-fulfillment (1991) by Rae Andre. I was recovering from a particularly bad break-up and having a hard time being by myself. Even though I was a veteran of self-help literature by then, I knew instinctively to hide the book from my friend, who was perusing, at the time, a well-worn copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

via Flickr CC BY
via Flickr CC BY

For some reason, I knew it was acceptable to have existential pangs about turning into a cockroach, but to have a mundane and ordinary problem like suffering from a break up was hugely embarrassing. Few people feel the need to justify their reading of fiction – it enriches our lives by giving us access to completely different worlds.

But if books tell us that there are alternate ways of living our lives, that we don’t have to submit to the dominant social script of our time, that we can write and re-write our own story, then self-help books too play an important role. As much as I love getting lost in a novel, there are times when the comfort of a book is not enough. Sometimes what I need is concrete advice. It is one thing to read Tolkien’s creation Gandalf say, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” but quite another to know how to structure that time.

Unfortunately, when we took our haul to the checking counter, my friend caught a glimpse of my book on how to do things alone. I don’t quite remember what mortifying thing he said, but I do remember the raw feeling of burning shame rising inside me. I felt exposed and inexplicably angered, partly at the circumstance that created the need for me to buy the book and partly at the feeling that I needed to justify my reading choices.

The moment passed, I got home and began to read my book. I began to follow the instructions it laid out: for the first time in my life, I went for a movie alone. I started going on solo-walks, going to coffee shops by myself and, eventually, even took myself out on solo dinner dates. Now, as a resolute do-er of solo things, it is difficult to imagine that there was a time when I would hesitate to do something that I enjoyed, simply because I didn’t have company. Without having read that book, I might never have started and my life would be devoid of all the art exhibitions, movies, walks, farmer’s markets and strange adventures I had had by myself.

Of course, it is entirely possible that I might still have learnt to enjoy life on my own, as many people have. However, it has always perplexed me when people are so quick to ridicule and discard something that helps other people find their way.

via Pixabay CC BY
via Pixabay CC BY

The myth of total self-sufficiency

One reason no one wants to be seen reading a self-help book is that we want to give others the impression that we are totally self-sufficient. No one wants to admit that they could possibly be lonely or unhappy, or in need of psychological help.

There is a widely-held belief that self-help books don’t actually work and cannot possibly bring about lasting change. While the self-help industry, like any other, is not without its share of frauds, much of what we read in self-help literature can give us solid advice.

For instance, the main message of the self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie, is that if you want people to care about your needs, you need to care about theirs first. The book is full of sentences like, “Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted.”

Sure, the book has things you might already know: it tells you that you need to smile, make sure that you don’t have bad breath, be a cheerful, encouraging person. But the core message is valuable – that nothing can substitute your genuine concern for another person. All things considered, this not such a bad place to begin forming relationships.

Another classic, M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (1978), taught me that love is not the same as attachment. Love is a verb, not a feeling. It is something you do for another person, even though you might not always feel loving. This is a hard-won piece of wisdom at age 30, but at 15, it was a novel and life-changing idea.

Even the much-satirised Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), by Stephen Covey, contains some reliable nuggets on getting things done. Covey writes, “You have to decide what your priorities are – pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically – learn to say ‘no’ to other things; the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

None of these books are without their flaws, but the idea is to treat them like you would any part of life – keep the parts you like and ignore the rest.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.