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May 9, 2010

I am reading a book called Philosophy Made Simple, by Robert Hellenga. I had never heard of it before I picked it up at a whim from this bookshop I frequent, as it was available at a very discounted price, and I am a sucker for anything to do with Philosophy.

As it turns out, the book is a novel about a guy, Rudy Harrington, who is still mourning the loss of his wife, who passed away seven years back. To cut a long story short, he has far from perfect relationships with his three daughters, none of whom are living the life he would have desired for them. One Christmas Eve, he decides to sell his rambling old house in Chicago, and to move to Texas and raise avocados on a twenty-nine-and-a-half acre farm that he buys from the widow of an old friend.

In a quest to try and find an answer to his life’s conundrums, he starts to read an old book of his wife’s, called “Philosophy Made Simple” (an anthology of philosophical thought through the ages, by an imaginary Indian philosopher called Siva Singh), hoping the old Masters will help him find answers to the questions that he is unable to ask himself.

It is a beautiful book, and makes me wonder (not for the first time) at the similarity of the problems that people of all walks of life face. I mean, the particulars are different, but the basic pain areas are so easy to identify with! I find myself nodding along at the thoughts of this man in his fifties, who is living on a farm in Texas, in the late ’60s, and who is a widower with three grown daughters.

My own life could not be more different from his, but some of his conversations with himself and other characters in the book have moved meĀ  to distraction. Sample this:

Forgive me, but my love for my wife was quite a different thing from what you propose. The pleasures you enjoy at Estrella Princesa (a high-class brothel on the other side of the border, in Mexico) is only a rough sketch of true pleasure, like my drawing of Plato’s cave. It is mixed with pain. Only when your soul follows wisdom do you find true pleasure. Most men live like brute animals. They look down and stoop over the ground; they poke their noses under the table; they kick and butt each other with their horns and hooves because they want these animal pleasures. True happiness is only when the soul acts in harmony with virtue.

How true! Then there’s another piece of advice he gets from one of the ladies from the aforesaid brothel:

This is it, Rudy. This is what you are looking for – alegria. The embrace of a woman. And the love of your daughters, your three lovely daughters… Your whole world is full of love, Rudy, and I think you know that. Gratitude is the word that should be on the tip of your tongue. Not ‘I’m worried I’m worried I’m worried,’ but ‘Thank you thank you thank you.’ For your daughters and the good times you shared with your wife, the hot water in your bathroom and this good wine, and these wonderful enchiladas. Don’t be afraid.

It is an accurate reflection of the frame of mind I am in, that these words truly struck a cord somewhere. Rudy seems to be moving along on the same path of self-pity and degeneration that I have taken up lately.

I hope both of us start moving on a trajectory for the better, by the time I reach the end of the book.


I was particularly captivated by the Spanish word alegria, and looked it up. It means Happiness. Turns out it is also the name of this beautiful song performed by the Cirque du Soleil. Watch!


The book has rekindled my itch to read Philosophy. Since there has been zero progress on the 12 books I had promised myself I would read this year, I think I will take up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after I am done with Philosophy.. and have read the mandatory thriller that I make it a point to read as an aperitif between two literary / non – fiction books. I am also just dying to order The Consolation of Philosophy by Alain de Botton from Rediff Books, but so far have been able to control myself. Epictetus would have been proud.

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