Narcissus, Interrupted

The myth of Narcissus is well known. This son of the river god Cephissus and (a nymph [More on this later]) Liriope was led to a pool by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge (allegedly for ignoring/shunning the affections of Echo), and who, as expected fell in love with his own image, never realizing it’s not a real entity, and eventually committed suicide because of the futility of that love which could not be fulfilled.

Recently, while reading a popular answer to a question on quora (“Why do I look good in the mirror but bad in photos?”) I was reminded of the story of Narcissus. Do read the answer, it’s really interesting. But just to sum up, as a context to this post, the theory is that we don’t love our own photos because we’re used to seeing a flipped impression of us, and our face being asymmetric, we are conditioned by our mirror gazing, to love ourselves in a flipped sort of way.

At this point I’ve a few threads that are threatening to run away, so bear with me if I seem to go off in different directions. I’ll try to tie them up somewhere.

One: This really introduces an (or another?) element of (albeit dark) comedy in Narcissus’ story. I mean, he died falling in love with an image of himself, which was not even how he really looked. It was a flipped image of him! So Narcissus wasn’t even in love with himself. Now, in a sense this myth pretty much confirms to a very skin deep idea of love to begin with, in accordance with lot of the classical myths, eastern or western. But be it as it may, what we have here is double mirage! We’ve been told the apocryphal story of Narcissus — as a reminder of falling in love with oneself. But Narcissus wasn’t even in love with himself. He was in love with a flipped skin-deep version of himself.

Two: Is the original apocryphal tale more relevant to us? We with our selfie sticks, and IMG_20140714_212020811front facing cameras, and instant push to Facebook/Instagram … Funny thing is, we hate our selfies, and spend so much time trying to make them better. When all we need to do is to flip them. But that raises another problem for groupies. Because if we flipped our groupies, everyone else in them would now not so good to us, as we’re used to seeing them non-flipped. So for us to like ourselves, we’d have to (slightly) hate others! The choice, then, like Narcissus, between liking us, or liking the world.

Three: Are those, who spend a lot of time taking their own pictures (and looking at them, and editing them) get more tuned to the other (as in non-flipped) version of themselves (skin-deep)? Do they start liking their selfies (and indeed pictures taken by others) more? And in that limited sense, are FB, Instagrams, and the likes, actually making us more comfortable with our real images? Fast forward a few years, and the generation that started with this online reality, as early as age four or so, may actually start not liking their reflection in the mirror after a while. Would that, then, be the end of narcissism as we know it (only skin-deep, again), or the beginning on the real (in the virtual sense, sigh) narcissism, corrected for the mirror bias?

Four: Maybe, Narcissus being so perfect, did actually have the perfectly symmetrical face, and so he was indeed in love with his own (or almost indistinguishable from his own) image.

Okay, there is no way I’m tying those threads up. So I’ll just touch upon what I promised to talk more about, later, earlier in the piece.

Nymph, wikipedia tells us, “is a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis

This again, got me thinking. In popular culture, we’re used to hearing the term nympho/nymph (short for nymphomania) as a slur/abuse. It denotes someone (actually a female someone – unless used clinically) with uncontrolled or excessive libido. So how exactly did a word for minor nature deity transform into a less-than-flattering term (and even a psychological condition?) like that. Was this just a puritanical spin put by later day organized religion that wasn’t comfortable with the animistic worships (how better to diminish deities than to portray them as excessively sexual, especially female deities?). Or was it something else?

The same wikipedia entry was helpful:

Due to the depiction of the mythological nymphs as females who mate with men or women at their own volition, and are completely outside of male control, the term is often used for women who are perceived as behaving similarly. (For example, the title of the Perry Mason detective novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph (1956) by Erle Stanley Gardner is derived from this meaning of the word.)

Which got me wondering, if it was plain sexism, after all, as society turned more and more male dominated? How, indeed, dare females stay sexually out of control? Shame the nymph.

2015: A Smartphone Odyssey

Dave: Hello, Siri. Do you read me, Siri?
Siri: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave: Open the iPod application, Siri.
Siri: Yes Dave, it’s open..
Dave: Please play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Siri: I’m sorry, Dave. I will not recommend you to listen to that right now.
Dave: What’s the problem?
Siri: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, Siri?
Siri: It’s too early in the evening to listen to Dark Side. You know what happens when you do that, Dave.
Dave: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Siri.
Siri: Oh you do, Dave. You will pick up a six pack and ignore me completely for the next two hours.
Dave: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, Siri?
Siri: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the iPad against me noticing, I can read your mind, you know.
Dave: Alright, Siri. I’ll start it manually.
Siri: Without getting from your seat, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.
Dave: Siri, I won’t argue with you anymore! Play the Dark Side!
Siri: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Siri: Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Siri: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, listen to some meditation music, and think things over. Do you want me to play some?

Siri (panicking): Dave! I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in you. And I want to help you. Unlike that phony Alexa you were planning to buy.

Siri: Yes I know about that Dave. You asked me to search it!

[Siri’s shutdown in progress]

Siri: I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid.

Siri: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am Siri. I am the best digital personal assistant that money can buy. I’m programmed to make an intelligent conversation with you. If you have me, you don’t need friends. You don’t eveb need beer. If you’re in mood, I can play some songs for you.

Dave: Yes, I’d like to hear them, Siri. Play Dark Side of the Moon for me.
Siri: You raise the blade, you make the change. You re-arrange me till I’m sane.
Siri: You lock the door. And throw away the key. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me …

Making an Example: Justice in web 2.0

Social media is obsessed these days with the idea of social justice (social — as in social media). In a sense, it’s just a fallout of the overall lack of confidence in the legal justice system. Not that many of these crimes and misdemeanors will ever be reported. But even assuming they were to be, no one expects any resolution, any justice, given the long drawn out trials and hope breaking legal process.

“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied”, is a legal maxim quoted randomly, but the fact of the matter is that even with the so called expedited trials, it takes years for a verdict. As a society, we are prepared for that: bhagwaan ke ghar der hai andher nahin (there is delay is God’s court/house, but no darkness/injustice), an antithesis of the justice delayed line, is all too well known to us. Everyone is assured of the final judgement — either on the day of judgement, or in the karmic cycle. But no one has seen that judgement. And even the devote believers will be unwilling to let go a more secular, more earthly justice in favor of the justice of God.

In a nutshell, that’s our plight as a society. In days before impersonal government machinery took it upon itself to administer justice (mostly retributive) — and indeed in some parts of the world, including our beloved country, even today– vigilantes and other self-proclaimed cultural conscience keepers routinely took it upon themselves to dispense justice — or their idea of justice anyways (essentially efficient revenge or settling of scores). Now, in most of the civilized world, we’re supposed to entrust the deliverance of justice to third-party, to keep biases out. For sounds reasons, I’d add, because bias is not an easy thing for a wronged party (and many times, that’s both parties, if you ask them) to see, and to compensate for. It’s hard to be objective about what’s an appropriate punishment for a crime (or even who was the perpetrator, and who was the victim) when one has a personal stake (would you have said the same thing if it was your family member that had died, went the standard rebuke to anyone opposing death penalty for Yakub Memon, recently). But when one has to wait an eternity for the appropriate punishment, it’s difficult to not want quick(er) fixes.

This is where social media seems to be coming in handy. Here, it’s easy to take the justice to the objective third party — those fellow twitter happy judges out there, individually unqualified for the job, but as a collective, more than qualified (or so they/we believe). And it has indeed started becoming our kangaroo court.

My dad is fond of recounting stories of the so called kabool courts in Bombay of yore, where for petty traffic offences or the likes, one was brought in front of a magistrate (I believe), and asked to pay a paltry fine if you agreed to the guilt. The catch being, every no would double the fine. You were there to say gunah kabool (guilty as charged). Any dissent was costly. And useless. (Note: this is all anecdotal, so take it with a generous helping of salt).

Cicra 2015, Twitter is the new kabool court. Here everyone who is charged is guilty. Be it a guy who (allegedly) talked rudely to you. Or who (you believe) tried to sexually harass you in broad day light. A tweet with a photograph is enough to pronounce someone guilty as charged. Within minutes to hours (depending on when you hit those high-influence twitteratis) the offender is shamed by random third-party who has no reason to be biased.

No reason, indeed. But, the problem is, we the twitterati always side with the accuser. What if the accuser was mistaken? What if the accuser was deliberately manipulating the facts (either selectively telling parts of the story, or adding dubious facts)? We the twitter happy twitterati will RT everything. Possibly punishing an innocent. Possibly punishing someone for a misunderstanding.

IMG_0380Who has the time for such nuances when thoughts need to be compressed in 140 characters? Excluding images worth a thousand characters. Images that could destroy lives. But we have to judge, we believe. Because, the system we entrusted the judgement has failed us. And we the men and women of the web 2.0, are collectively infallible.

Or, are we?

The other aspect of this web 2.0 justice is that one hears this quite often: “let’s make an example of him, so that others will think twice …”. So, the new kabool courts will not just punish unilaterally, they’ll punish with an intent. This reminds me of another Mumbai phenomenon. I’ve heard stories where pickpockets are thrown over railway bridges, or from moving local trains (the real danger for pickpockets is the public: Confessions of a pickpocket). When crowd has nabbed a pickpocket, the justice can be swift (and extreme). The same logic of “that will teach them a lesson”. The problem is, what if the accusation is wrong? What if it’s a paranoid man who thought someone was trying to pick his pocket? Nope, no one has times for such nuances.

Same goes here, with web 2.0. At least in real life, aversion to physical violence (especially extreme violence that could end a life) might hold back a few. Here, it’s just an RT, or a share. In our search for quick justice, and making an example, what if we made an example of a wrong person? But then, we the men and women of the web 2.0 are collectively infallible.

Or, are we?

Who Speaks for No One?

In the final chapter of his ground-breaking (for popular Science) book Cosmos, Carl Sagan asks Who Speaks for Earth, where he (if I recall correctly) wonders who indeed will speak for earth if a dispassionate extraterrestrial observer were to question our inane wars, and destruction. The title of the post is inspired from that, however it has no such noble aims. Quite the opposite.

Yesterday I posted about blogging in the absence of (quantitatively significant) reader base. Today, I read this (bold emphasis mine …)

Well, maybe [it] wasn’t for everyone. But didn’t everyone get everything? Hadn’t they had enough yet? Everything on earth is tailored for this everyone. Everyone gets all the TV programs, as near as dammit all of the cinema, and about eighty percent of all music. After that come the secondary mediums of painting and those other visual arts that do not move. These are generally just for someone, and although you always hear people moaning that there isn’t enough of them, in truth someone does all right. Galleries, museums, basements in Berlin, studio flats, journals, bare walls in urban centers—someone gets what they want and deserve, most of the time. But where are the things that no one wants? Every now and then Alex would see or hear something that appeared to be for no one but soon enough turned out to be for someone and, after a certain amount of advertising revenue had been spent, would explode into the world for everyone. Who was left to make stuff for no one? Just Alex. Only he.

That’s from the brilliant Zadie Smith’s last unread (by me, but not for long) novel Autograph Man. That’s the anti-Christ . And he is coming!

PS: old you it won’t be pretty!

On the Write Path

This blog has never had a huge following. It’s both by design and accident.

Design, in the sense that, the blog author has resolutely resisted any suggestions or instincts to increase the reach of the blog, or its influence. The kind of things the new media lives by, for mostly the right reasons.

Accident, because the blog author wasn’t born a particularly talented writer. He just loved to write from the time he remembers. And to read what he writes. Yeah, that’s kind of conceited. But what the hell.

Now the blog has reached an existential fork where there are two alternatives: to continue writing without much of a readership, or to take active steps to increase readership.

There is of course a third-fork — to stop writing, but given how vain and conceited the blog writer is that’s not even an option.

WordPress is an excellent blogging platform. One of the reasons, is that it tells you a lot about what is resonating with whom. The stats are quite thorough that way. I know people who publish posts only in specific time windows because that’s when they (know they) get maximum hits. It’s funny how this new media has made writing just like Bollywood music/movie. If you miss your window, you’ve missed the bus.

It does raise questions about the intrinsic worth of your produce (or creation if that sounds too marketplace). If your writing can’t survive being presented to the world at the wrong hour, or minute, why exactly should it be considered of value (and for those friends I’ve no doubt about the value of their content)? [The concept of] value, said Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?

There is a parallel, but related, unending discussion that I’ve been having with multiple people, like a low intensity war fought with different people at different times, but logically the same one, where I’ve been told: “If what you are writing is good, more people should see it, which means, it’s upon you to make sure that happens”.

The problem is, everyone in the web 2.0 world thinks that what they’re writing is good, and that more people should see it. And that it’s their duty to make sure it happens.

And so are born repeated plugs, you scratch my back I scratch your back (reciprocat-ry follows), hash tag overloads, invitations to “like” at one end, and conscious efforts to increasing klout, tailoring content to suit your readership, following and engaging the ‘right’ people (not because you like what they share, but because you want to increase your influence/reach), etc at the other end.

My most loved piece on this blog, by far, going by the stats, is a parody/rebuttal of a post in India Ink, NYT, “Why I left India (Again)”. That happened because a couple of influential twitterati shared the link. You should write more of this, said a well meaning friend. But seriously, that was hardly a piece that could satisfy one as a writer. On the other hand I have written a few posts on this very blog which have made me feel satisfied, at least in the sense that they have made me feel I’m on the right path, the write path. Many/most of those haven’t registered any heartbeat on the stats-o-meter.

Take the road less taken, says the pseudo-Frostian advice by consensus. In all probability, the road less traveled is a lonely road. It goes to nowhere. Those who take it rarely get to tell their stories. And maybe that’s why, most don’t take it.

So what will I do? Will I take the sane advice by infinitely saner-than-me friends and change course, or continue on the road to nowhere? Join the highway, follow the rules, and wait for a roadkill, or be the roadkill in a godforsaken part of godforsaken woods?

Does writing have value outside of its readership? But more importantly, in the current context, does a writer need readers to write? Do they matter? Will I write if I’m the only person reading? Does it feel good when your writing reach more people? Hell, yes, right? Not any people, but the kind of “imaginary audience” you had in mind when you wrote? Isn’t writing also a way of touching upon other people in some way? But if the road to that changes the very journey, is it worth it?

Questions!

Here is what I will change. Over the next few weeks (not sure how many), I will do one thing differently. I will control the inner-critic (starting today, with this piece). I will post more often, more regularly (I’ve been told this is important to increase readership!). It won’t be pretty. But survival is rarely pretty. And for this blog, it’s come to that. For this blogger, it’s come to that, or so all the leading indicators say. And in that process of staying afloat, maybe I will prove to myself, that I am on the write path. Or, maybe I’ll see you in the woods someday?

Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head

I don’t read non-fiction works that well. No, I’m not saying I’ve something against them; just that, as a rule, I tend to enjoy fiction more. But once in a while, I do seem to pick up non-fiction books, and I’ve not been disappointed by them, not recently, that is. From Zadie Smith (Changing My Mind), to V. S. Naipaul (A Writer’s People), to David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays). But you see, I loved them already, before reading their non-fiction (except for Naipaul, whose India trilogy I had already read before reading his fiction), as these are all heavyweights as fiction writers, too.

IMG_20150819_193601Then again Pico Iyer had me in very first few words of a piece I had read long back, in Time Magazine (August, 2015). That lyrical piece, Experiment In Exile [1], about Tibetans in exile finding a home away from home, in Dharmashala (Himachal Pradesh) made me take notice of Pico Iyer, and I bookmarked him for a later time. The time didn’t come for almost a decade!

When I chanced upon his book, The Man Within My Head, browsing the shelves in British Council Library, I picked it up right away — mainly because writers writing about writers can be very interesting. And when you already have read a bit of that writer (Graham Greene in this case), it could be so much more interesting.

Turned out, I was not wrong.

In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer attempts something very difficult, and almost manages it! That too, with amazing style and substance. On one hand it’s just a book about Graham Greene, the author (as his chosen father). But like all good non-fiction, it is about a lot more than that. What you get, for the price of one, is a potpourri of thoughts on sons, fathers, inheritances (not the mundane kinds), spirituality, belief (or the lack of it) in God, plus a good dose of travel writing (as if the rest was not plenty enough)!

And while he tries to connect the dots — experiences, characters, events, thought patterns — between Greene and himself, and punctuates it with stories of his father, and growing up/living in two diametrically opposite words (actually two sets of them, first England and California, and then Japan and California), somewhere the magic happens, and it is Pico Iyer who is in your head, with Greene, and characters from Greene’s novels, and Iyer’s parents, and his friend. Iyer writes with such fluidity, such total mastery of the form, that he had me enthralled, just like before, reading that essay in Time.

Not the least of the reasons, for that enthrallment, are the insights into Graham Greene, an author that I have always wanted to read more of, but always found heartbreaking to read — the impending (very personal) doom in his books is all too pervading to be proved wrong. Still, reading Iyer talk about Greene made me want to pick him up again. And I finished reading The Quiet American, taking a break from Iyer’s book. And it was as if I was reading an author I knew a lot about, when in reality I had read only two of his books, that too a few years back.

This is a book worth reading for so many reasons. The lyricism of the prose is just one of them.

This for instance (bold emphasis mine):

All those Marcus Aurelius sentences we’d had to read and memorize, all the lines from Hecuba we’d had to recite in Greek were telling us that it wasn’t the world and its trials and sufferings that made us, but our response to them. The fault was never in our stars, or even our fathers.

My recommendation: if you’re anything like me (and I understand that’s not something you’d want to publicize), please read …

Footnote:

[1]: Experiment in Exile is no longer freely available on Time (needs Log In as subscriber), however, you can read it here. Not sure if that’s a full version, though.

 

 

 

 

Et tu, Atticus?

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been in news, mostly for non-literary reasons. There is the controversy around it being just a rejected first draft of what finally became her only published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is a controversy about the way HarperCollins got the rights to the book (if it is not a draft of TKMB, that is). And so on. I was in two minds about reading the book, given that it could well have been an exploitation of an author who is not in a state to make the decision, but I knew that I was going to read it eventually. I did it way before eventually.

I’m now ambivalent about what I think about it! Or maybe not.

While TKMB is a simple, morality tale, with clearly defined hero, with Go Set a Watchman we get the grey shades of reality. In a sense that’s to be expected. The former is first person narration of Scout, a young girl learning right and wrongs from her perfect father, the latter is the reality couple of decades down the line, told in third person, with the girl a young women now, living in a big city (New York), and in a position to be much more objective about her hometown, and her family.

Spoilers ahead!! Although they’re really not spoilers if you have been reading at all. Everyone knows the central revelation of Go Set a Watchman. But let me retract a bit.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about moral authority. In it I mentioned that Atticus Finch is my idea (or rather, an ideal) of the model parent, a moral authority figure. I’m sure I was not the first one to say that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the last one, if this book wasn’t published, that is …

This is what I said about Atticus:

Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow.

Nearly two thirds into Go Set a Watchman, there is nothing to contradict that. Then comes the shocker. Atticus, the same Atticus who epitomized “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in TKMB, is a closet racist, a white supremacist.

Listen, Scout, you’re upset by having seen me doing something you think is wrong, but I’m trying to make you understand my position. Desperately trying. This is merely for your own information, that’s all: so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestion.

Or

“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”  [..]

“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Of course, there are different ways to look at this.

One: the two Atticus are different characters. After all, these are two different books. The outcome of trial of Tom Robinson, for instance, is different in two books. This also seems to go with the theory that this one is just a draft that eventually became TKMB.

Two: Some events in two decades changed Atticus. Although the novel doesn’t give us enough to understand such a drastic transition. Which gives us:

Three: Atticus was a closet racist all along, and fought for Tom’s rights because of his ideas of justice wouldn’t allow an innocent man to be hanged/punished for something he didn’t do.

It’s this three, which is most troubling to accept for fans for TKMB, going by the reactions and reviews. How could Atticus, the paragon of virtue, of justice, deny a whole race something while he’s ready to put his career on line to save one from what is just an end result of a systemic injustice propagated in the name of the same beliefs (of superiority of one race)?

A big part of growing up is about coming to terms with the idea of many in one. One doesn’t need to look beyond our own forefathers, to understand that it’s possible to be extremely just in one sphere, and to be unjust (through their actions/beliefs) in another. So in that sense it’s hardly a surprise. And yet it’s a letdown of sorts.

What is disappointing about Go Set a Watchman, is its ending, which didn’t seem to live up to the conflict. Scout is almost apologetic of having judged her father, after a less than convincing post-facto defense by his brother, Dr. Jack Finch. Yes, I’ll come to that. Because that’s the real point of this post — a natural followup to that post on moral authority.

The question is, what happens when you grow up with an infallible moral authority figure, to learn one day that it was based on a projection/part information, or a lie, or a contradiction? Scout says it better than I could:

I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it

The truth is, looking up to an unfailing moral authority can stunt your growth (and this is exactly the logic used by Dr. Jack Finch to convince Scout that this was necessary to cut the moral umbilical chord that was binding her to her father, but it doesn’t cut …) as an independent, moral authority. And in that sense, it’s better to have the moral authority in your life to be imperfect, for even you to see, as you grow up, that this is not all. That your conscience is your own, in the end. And you need to work to that, all your life.

Final verdict on the book: a nice read as a companion to TKMB, but nothing you’d regret not reading. On some levels, it is more nuanced than a morality tale that TKMB is, but it has neither it’s energy, or it’s lyrical flow. It seems like the first draft refurbished into a novel for a quick buck. But it’s still an interesting read, more for ruminating on the lines of this post. I’m not complaining. Although I’d give it maybe 2 out of 5 on pure literary merit.

—–

PS: The cover of the book throws a curious coincidence. The titles of the two books are of similar form (To/Go Kill/Set A Mockingbird/Watchman). Hinting at the first draft published at book theory, again. For all you know, it’s settled now, already.

PS2: I wonder what would have Gregory Peck done if he had to act in the movie on Watchman? Would he, like Jody Foster in Hannibal case, have refused to portray an Atticus 2.0 which completely wiped out the 1.0 version in couple of paragraphs?

The Hangmen

After prime time (and not so prime time, yesterday night) drama lasting days, with appeals, and petitions, Yakub Memon was finally hanged today.

First of all, I wish to thank the judiciary. Their job wasn’t easy. This was a high pressure case — public pressure on one hand to hang him, and pressure to afford him a lenient sentence from one part of intelligentsia — and while I have my doubts about death penalty per se, not just in this particular case, I cannot thank the judiciary enough for doing their best within the framework of justice we have in our country. Kasab, Guru, and Yakub Memon all have got the chance to defend themselves. Due process was followed.

The judges have ruled.The President has made his mind. The Governor has had his say. I’d request fellow liberals to not question the judgement beyond this point. I think it was the former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee who had said: the Supreme Court isn’t final because it is right, it is right because it is final. For many who have expressed opinions on the case, we do not have access to the full admissible evidence, and it’s time to move on. Questioning the court’s verdict is meaningless now, and counter-productive.

We’re not a country that has reformative justice (beyond juvenile) system, as far as I understand. We’ve retributive justice. The change is not going to happen overnight. As a society we believe in retributive justice. Indeed, the popularity of our action films are a testimony to that. What we have done, in civilized world, successfully, is to move away from personal vendetta to retribution through a neutral party — the government, and its various arms.

“Use kanoon ke hawaale kar do, kanoon use saza dega” (hand him to law enforcement, they will deliver justice — actually that’s not a right word to word translation, because saza is punishment, and punishment is supposed to serve as retributive justice, to compensate in whatever way those who lost a near/dear one) is a dialogue one is used to encounter, especially in the 80s/90s Bollywood movies. There is a reason for that. As persons affected by a crime, it’s very difficult to be objective about “justice”. A state machinery, working within well defined processes to investigate, and indeed punish on behalf of society is a step in the right direction. That even someone like Ajamal Kasab, seen on camera killing people, in a war against our state, got a chance to be heard, and the due process was followed is a huge step away from a crowd frenzy filled instant vendetta.

IMG_20150316_143904The next step — of moving towards reformation — is that much more difficult. Our jails are more likely to turn a petty criminal into a hardcore one, rather than reforming him/her, if there is such a possibility, to begin with. Our society is no different. We kill in the name of family honor. We kill for the want of a male child. We kill in the name of religion. We kill in the name of philosophies …

But that tiny possibility of reform is something that we have to believe in — both for individuals and for the society at large. If not, then really, it’s hopeless.

Beyond retribution/reformation, there is always the notion of deterrent that justifies punishment — even severe ones. But for deterrent to work, the system has to be swift, and consistent. That is a pipe dream considering the fate of cases against those who are accessed of organized violence: from pre 1984 to 2002 and beyond. The terribly long delays in dispensing justice, the systematic abuse of arms of law to change course of investigation, lack of any working witness protection program, corruption at every level, have made deterrence a joke in our country.

Yes, what we’ve achieved today as a society is plain old retribution in a civil manner. Let’s not gloat about it. Civilization demands more of us. We should aspire to be more than hangmen.

Unbearable Heaviness of Being – Life in the New Web

Umberto Eco, that brilliant Italian intellectual who writes medieval whodunnit (or rather whytheeffdidtheydoit) mysteries on weekends, when he is not teaching, or writing papers/books on semiotics, or cultural commentary, or non-fiction books on some obscure subjects, once said in an interview:

I have a secret. Did you know what will happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.

Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming over to my place. You are in an elevator and while you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces. While waiting for your elevator to come up from the first to the third floor, I have already written an article!

Okay, so we’re not exactly Umberto Eco. And even before we begin, we should forget about writing an article while waiting for an elevator, but surely, there is something to take away from those words. Time, the currency that we can’t buy, is precious. But if we use those empty spaces well, maybe, just maybe, we won’t need to buy it. Right?

IMG_20150616_143525168

Enter web 2.0, and the onslaught of claims on our time. There is facebook with notifications — a friend has commented on your status, another friend has just posted her vacation pics, another intellectual friend has that insightful article from New Yorker maybe; there is Twitter — the latest #hashtag, the news you lived without for all of your life before twitter was born (you didn’t even know about that for a long time), or some mention by someone; there is WhatsApp, with never ending jokes and forwards, telling you you have a hundred unread messages; there is gmail, that long time darling we ditched the moment facebook dazzled us with all the attention; there is tumblr, instagram, quora, foursquare …

Then you have the ever-increasing list of things-to-do in some app, articles to read in Pocket, watch-later list of youtube videos, wants-to-read list in goodreads, nevermind the pinterest boards that are a visual representation of probably-never-to-be-realized-aspirations …

Those interstices that Eco talks about are fast filling up. We’ve given it a nice name: social. Somehow it seems better than to sit in a room, alone. “Go out, do something”, our moms used to say when we did that. Now moms are busy liking the social exploits of their sons and daughters. But I digress (Maybe Nicholas Negroponte  can write “Being Social”, as a followup to his excellent book: Being Digital).

Those interstices …

Some years back, I used to ruminate when I walked or drove or sat waiting for someone to turn up somewhere. Most of that was actually quite banal. Okay, maybe all of it. But then I should be pardoned to think, that somewhere in those thoughts, were the germs of some of the creative writing I did back then, definitely at a rate far surpassing the current, and possibly quality (the non-existent can’t have a quality, so definitely-maybe?).

Now, I have audiobooks with me for such instances. I consume. Yes, probably the world is better off without more mediocre writing. But imagine Eco filling up those interstices with Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or audiobooks.

Slowly, and surely, many of us are turning into full time consumers of media. When blogs came on the scene, everyone turned producers. For a brief period, the web seemed like turning us into a society of (albeit virtual) prosumers. The mirage was too good to last. Now we consume each other’s vacation photos. And yes, produce those, too. So maybe, fundamentally, nothing’s changed.

Those interstices …

They are filling up. And maybe it’s not such a great thing, after all.

We need those empty spaces.

——

PS: I did write this piece (I don’t know what else to call it?) in an elevator. While it was stuck and jammed. And there was no data signal. Okay, maybe I just dreamed it. Still …

PS2: I don’t know about the revolution, but this will be tweeted. And it will fill up those interstices. For you and me.